The Big Chicago Storm and Power Outage: Day One

Everyday Providence blogger, Jennifer, shares her experience and insight from last week's storm.

When we got in the car, it was a hazy, but sunny day.  We hadn’t had rain a week and the skies were just partly cloudy, but off to the west the horizon was dark.  I wondered if we’d have some showers. As we pulled onto the McDonald's near our house (maybe 7 minutes) the sky blackened. Suddenly, the restaurant's power went out, along with the rest of the shopping center, and I could see emergency lights pop on in every store.  Power flickered on momentarily, then it cut out again. As we headed toward the drive-through and a manager came out to tell us that they were closed.  Just after that, a wind so strong came through that I was looking all around for a tornado (or a dementer from Azkaban).  Trees were pushed sideways.  Rain was coming in the car.  The car was shaking, shuddering and rocking side to side.
 We pulled back onto the road, and the gusts were terrible.  The next town appeared to have power as we drove towards the crest of the hill, but the wind was fierce.  We turned the radio on to listen for warnings, but there weren’t any tornado reports or sightings so we traveled on.  When we got to the river bottom, there were trees downed near the road and just as we would reach each of the traffic signals, they went dark.  There weren’t even blinking lights.  I finally made it to work, but it was a mess – tree limbs in the road, sideways wind and rain.  My husband pulled up to the door and I jumped out.  I was soaking wet by the time I made it the 10 feet to the portico.  We must have ridden the front all the way from our house to work.

The security guard met me at the door to rush me inside because there WAS a tornado warning (stupid radio station).  Kudos to them, they were very organized.  I tried to call my husband without luck; he was out there in this!  My tornado shelter was in the bathroom.  Great!  But there we were.  The team leader got the emergency backpack out and found some snacks inside and passed them out.  Lo and behold, my husband walks in.  He said he knew something was up when the parking lot was packed full and no one was leaving the building.  He came in and waited too.    Finally about 8:30, we were given leave over the intercom to carry on, but each shelter was also physically dismissed by emergency personnel going room to room.

The rain had settled, and it was somewhat calm out, but as my husband drove on, he could see some pretty serious destruction.  A white fence to some fancy condos had been shredded in several places. The street was littered with branches, some quite large. I checked twitter to see what was going on, but there wasn't a lot listed.  I knew that many people were without power.  At this point, I was wondering if I should run home at lunch and make sure our house was ok.

By 9:30, three of my coworkers had gone home – two for flooded basements, and another because a tree had fallen on his house.  At work, I checked facebook and twitter often. ComEd, county and state organizations all had updates, and our neighbors (who were without power now) provided updates from their phones. At lunchtime I decided to go check our house.  There were lots of closed roads on the way.  I also took the opportunity to stop by my bank and get some cash (with small bills) just in case.  It took me over an hour to get home, and the devastation on the way there was beyond words.  Mostly trees, thankfully, but HUGE trees.  I didn’t see any houses with major damage.  But the cornfield on the east side of town was just flattened.  Bizarre.

There was some sort of cable down across our street, but it didn’t appear to be a live wire. I took the next street over anyway, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as I rounded the corner.  The park on our street had 5 or 6 giant, mature tress downed – 100 year old oaks just bent over.  I had this feeling in my stomach that our house had been demolished by our half-dead tree.  Nope.  Everything was fine.  In fact, last night I had emptied a plastic tub and set it by the house.  It had fallen over, but didn’t blow away.  The streets were already lined with branches for pickup – one neighbor had a fallen tree and had already chain sawed it and stacked it by the curb!  We were without power, so while I was home, I turned on the front porch light switch and turned off the air conditioner.  I also stopped by the neighbor’s house.  She wasn’t home, so I assumed that she had gone somewhere to escape the heat.  Since she normally checks in with another neighbor, I asked them about her later that evening.

A neighbor reported that the crews were predicting that power could be out for another 4-5 days.  Ugh! Our basement was dry and our house seemed just fine, so we didn’t have anything to complain about.  But I was trying to think about what we could do with our freezers and refrigerators.  I guessed we might be having a barbecue soon; we could just invite everyone over.  Block party!

I remembered we would have 24 hours with a partially full freezer and 48 hours with a full freezer.  Thank goodness for all those Hot Pockets!  Just kidding.  The deep freezer was full and had some gallon and 2-L containers of water for the very purpose of a power outage!  The upstairs refrigerator was full too, and by golly, I planned to eat that Trader Joe’s frozen Tikki Masala right away. The grocery store had power, but I expected that meant there would be a run on it.

I perused quickly online for hotel rooms.  Nothing was available here.  Hmmm...  At this point, though, I was grateful for all we did have. I’m feeling thankful that we did all our laundry this over the weekend.  Our basement stays pretty cool, so we still had a comfortable place to sleep.  If we needed to we could travel on until we found a hotel.  Stores and restaurants were open, and we weren’t stuck at home.  For us, this was not an emergency, it was an inconvenience, and I reminded myself of that constantly.  Many neighbors suffered damage to our homes, cars and trees. 

We eventually learned that we were part of the greater Chicagoland storms that took out power to almost one million customers.  "Customers" meaning homes and businesses, the number of people impacted was certainly 2-3 times that.   Power crews worked to restore electricity to critical areas – hospitals, emergency response centers, communication centers – before starting on our neighborhood. This was ok with us.  But it has given me pause to think about future preparations.  I returned to work and finished out the day.

On the way home, we went out for dinner, and so did everyone else.  The restaurant was packed and we had to be extremely patient for our food.  We ate and got out.  This was not the night to order three glasses of wine and dessert.  I noticed lots of children at the restaurant being entertained by iPods and iPads. I’m sure it was good for everyone to relax in a normal environment.  We arrived home around 7:30, avoiding the majority of traffic.  Gas stations were still packed, with lines of people waiting to fill up.  Luckily, we had filled up the day before.

When we got home, the power was still out.  We did not open the refrigerator.  Not even once.  After 12 hours without power we were pretty sure that we wouldn’t be able to salvage much, but we hoped it would help keep the upper freezer part cool. We drank water and bottled juice from the pantry.  The house was still cooler than outside, so we didn’t open windows.  It was a long, dark, hot night.

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The Big Chicago Storm and Power Outage: Day One
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