One week after the derecho’s destruction, roughly one-third of West Virginians do not have electric power. Yesterday afternoon (Thursday) a strong storm hit the Charleston area with wind gusts recorded up to 59 miles per hour. Another 20,000 electric customers were knocked off the grid (again?).
The lack of power has complicated communications (including credit/debit card verification), pumping of fuel, access to cash (ATMs out of service), availability of ice, safe storage of food and pharma, and a host of other daily needs. Given the extraordinary heat the lack of air conditioning has in several cases been life-threatening.
Above is the three day weather forecast for the state capital.
Last evening a West Virginia friend wrote, “As they usually do, people are showing amazing resiliency. However, the longer this goes it is clear there is considerable strain. The financial impact of replacing lost food and the money spent on fuel for generators is creating a significant group of people who were financially stable but now have moved into a situation where they need help.”
The uncommon, no-notice, hard-hitting June 29 derecho was — despite widespread use of the term — not a catastrophic event. No fundamental, irreversible shift in economic, political, or cultural behavior would unfold from this single experience of risks exposed.
But if a sequence of non-catastrophic events are experienced in a particular place over a compressed period of time, when does the sum of non-catastrophic outcomes become a catastrophe?
Strong storms did move through West Virginia on Sunday. Roughly 20,000 customers who had power, lost power. This brought the total number of homes and apartments off-the-grid to over 60,000. The number of people directly affected is estimated at about 120,000.
This was the second strong storm to hit West Virginia since the June 29 derecho.
In response to the struggles of the last week, there is some talk of West Virginia following Florida and Louisiana in requiring a portion of gasoline stations to have emergency generators to support pumping when the grid goes down.
Probably a final comment on the derecho: Tracking media coverage by the Washington Post, Columbus (OH) Dispatch, and the Charleston (WV) Daily Mail, the differences have been stunning. The Post has torn into the alleged incompetence (or worse) of the electric and telecommunications companies. Meanwhile the Daily Mail has highlighted how so many of the repair crews traveled great distances and are working long hours to restore service. The Dispatch has leaned toward Post-like criticism, but not quite as far. (About 47,000 Ohio customers are still without power.)
The Daily Mail — and West Virginia political leaders — have mostly focused on heroic stories of neighbors serving neighbors, the kindness of strangers, and individual resilience. The Post — and mid-Atlantic political leaders — have focused much more on situating blame. All have reported similar facts and statistics. But the context for the facts has reflected two very different worldviews.
Today’s Charleston Daily Mail has a front-page story that begins, “Kanawha County’s director of emergency management hopes the recent storm will persuade people they need to be better prepared when disaster strikes. “People need to be prepared to take care of themselves for at least 72 hours,” said Dale Petry, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management agency.”
I do not want to minimize issues of systemic vulnerability for which large providers should be held accountable. But I am struck by the role of media and political leadership in determining whether a population responds as victims or survivors. A victim can blame others. A survivor is focused on more productive tasks.