Are you prepared for something big?

commentBy JULIA O'MALLEYSeptember 6, 2012 

Mateaki Piu climbs a ladder to start cutting down a tree leaning against an east Anchorage home on Thursday, September 6, 2012, after a strong windstorm moved through Anchorage.

BOB HALLINEN / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

Sometimes it's quiet, not noise, that wakes you up. Early Tuesday my house ceased all its usual respirations. The buzzing cable box. The humming fridge. All of it. Silent. Then came the whoosh of wind.

I got up and stumbled into the living room around 4 a.m. In the moonlight, I saw the plastic chairs on my deck had been pushed into a strange formation. The trees in the park across the street bowed and swayed. The house felt a little too cool.

I found a flashlight in the back of the silverware drawer. It didn't work. I dug up some batteries. I put them in. It still didn't work. My phone was dead. I tried the land line, which runs through the cable box. Dead. Sara, my partner, lit a half-burned Christmas candle. She tried to make a call on her iPhone. It wouldn't go through.

The iPad had some juice. Facebook friends were up already, talking about damage and darkness and wind. Looked like a long work day ahead. I needed coffee. But how? The camp stove!

I went outside to the shed. The sky was a blanket of stars. I'd never seen anything like it. The power outage must be big, I guessed, to knock out the city's glow. Halfway back to the kitchen with the stove, I realized all I had was whole coffee beans and no way to grind then. About then, the lights snapped on. Outage over. No big deal. Time for coffee.

I started making my way toward work along 15th Avenue a couple hours later. Leaves and branches littered the streets. The traffic lights were out and intersections verged on anarchy. A pillar of smoke rose over Fairview. I turned down Karluk Street, where firefighters were dousing flames from a fallen wire. Be careful, one of them told me, there were lines all over. I kept driving until I ran into a wall of leaves from downed cottonwoods. When I got out to look at it, a transformer exploded somewhere nearby. It sounded like a gunshot.

Further down 15th, I detoured through Airport Heights, where I came across man standing in the street, staring at a mammoth spruce that had fallen on his truck. He couldn't believe his luck, he said. He'd just gotten insurance a week before. I continued on to the office. When I got there, 20 sizeable trees lay leveled outside. The outage had stopped the printing presses. I couldn't remember if that had ever happened before.

The holes in the lawn from the fallen trees made me think of pictures I'd seen of the 1964 earthquake. I didn't live through it, but it's vivid because its story has been told and retold in my family. Mom was at a hair appointment. Dad was dyeing Easter eggs. A rumbling started like a fleet of trucks coming down the road. The ground moved in waves. Mom watched J.C. Penney collapse. Afterward, there was no electricity. Water was out. People scrambled to find each other. They relied on their neighbors.

The lessons: be prepared; we can underestimate the power of nature; the systems we've organized around us are more fragile than we realize. How had I forgotten all of that? How was it that I didn't even have a working flashlight?

I kept traveling east. The damage got worse. Trees on cars. Darkened businesses. Darkened street lights. Neighbors with chain saws, clearing deep piles of brush. I pulled into the East Anchorage neighborhood where I grew up. The sign for my old street had been mangled by a tree that also took out someone's deck. I saw one of the neighbors I knew, trying to persuade a guy in a tree service truck to put her on the schedule. She smiled at me. Come down to my house, she said, see what the wind did.

I could hear generators going on her end of the street. No one had power, but the neighbors were longtime Alaskans. They were prepared. She unloaded two cans of gas from her car along with a case of water. She took me to a fallen willow, the trunk in pieces and bird feeder dumped. She'd miss it, she said. I followed her into the woods behind Cheney Lake. We got down to the bike path. It was impassable. Maybe 50 trees lay across it. Some were 2 feet in diameter. Others listed perilously. Wind combed though. We heard them creak.

This kind of storm happened once before in the early '80s, she said. Afterward, people bought generators. You never know what's going to happen, she said. She was grateful for hers.

I wished her luck and drove on. Along Northern Lights, the fences had holes like missing teeth. I pulled into Nunaka Valley, where my grandparents lived when they were alive. The houses are old there, and the trees are tall. Fallen cottonwoods had splintered decks and sliced into parked cars. I rounded a corner to see my grandparents' house. One of the 50-year-old spruces in the yard, easily four stories high and wide as a school bus, had bitten into the roof. The circle of turf torn out by its roots was taller than I am.

I was lucky to have my life return so quickly to normal Tuesday. On Thursday, two days after the storm, many people were still without power, going on their third night without heat. A few, relying on electric pumps, had no water. It looks like some will wait days to get back to normal. All of that is an inconvenience. But what if it had been worse? What if this had been winter? What if it had been a big earthquake? Are you prepared for that? I'm not.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.

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