Summer Storms in DC

Greetings, loyal readers.  Hope you’ve all been well. I’m taking a few minutes to duck out of the heat to write a few words (and post a few pictures) about life in DC… from the comfort of a little coffee/cheesecake place in Takoma Park, Maryland. Although I wish I had time to tell you fully about everything going right now, this entry hopes to give you only give you only a tiny taste.

Extreme weather — intense heat, high humidity, and rainstorms with hurricane-force winds — is the common thread that has tied the last few days together. Although the storms have passed, the heat persists: open sun grills flesh… bright, white-hot light boomerangs into your eyes from curved chrome fenders or polished cars… blacktop surfaces are too hot to walk on — they sting and redden bare feet… and even in the shade, you are on the brink of breaking a sweat.  The shade offers protection from the sun, but not the ambient heat that sits around you like a hot, heavy, muggy blanket.

The heat sings through July’s cicadas while the usual chorus of birds bide their time in the cover of shrubs and trees until the heavy afternoon heat retreats. Some lucky birds thread their way down to shady little creeks where they splash, drink and frollick to keep cool. The butterflies seem to be the only thing moving about in the stagnant air. There’s no doubt about it — this is summer!

Just to give you some numbers: It’s 1:33PM on a Sunday afternoon in Silver Spring, Maryland; temperature currently 95.0°F  (but feels like 103 °F), which is 10 degrees hotter than average.  Yesterday was a bit hotter, at 97 °F. Friday was the hottest of all so far, peaking at 104 °F — which was actually a record high. It felt even hotter because of the humidity; I’m surprised power lines were not bursting into flames.

Friday was memorable for more than just the heat. Friday was also moving day. The summer housing situation that had been arranged for us in Annandale wasn’t work out, so (after some heavy-duty Craigslist browsing) secured another house for ourselves in Silver Spring, where we will live for the remainder of our field season. The process of moving in the middle of a field season was a real headache (literally so — packing up a van on a 104 degree day! That’s practically risking heat stroke…) but it’s over now, and I’m glad it’s done.  One storm passed.

Late afternoon Friday looked like it could offer some respite from the heat and headaches, and it was for the most part — except for the second (and very real) storm that would hit later that night. As the sun set, the heat let up  and all the little crepuscular animals began to stir as usual. Dusk darkened into what we thought would be a still summer night —  the conversation had gotten about as lazy and daydreamy as the fireflies that were floating about — when suddenly the wind picked up and the temperature dropped.  A wall of cool wind surged through the rustling leaves of the tulip poplars… a distant but advancing  roar meant that we were about to get drenched. Conversation  stopped short and we ran to take cover. From the porch, we watched the wind rush, rain fall, and a transformer blow — and every light … and air conditioning unit…  in the neighborhood flickered out.

– – –

The true impact of the storm wasn’t revealed until the next day in the amount of damage seen along the roadsides. Large trees crashed down across roads and even on cars; downed power lines; sticks, branches, limbs and other kind of debris littered everywhere.  Apparently, we had been in the direct line of a 100-mile line of severe windstorms passing through the region, and were hit with hurricane-force winds without warning.

It also wasn’t until the next day before I learned that almost 1 million homes lost power during this record-breaking heat wave — and that the mid-Atlantic states have declared a state of emergency.

We got to check out some of the damage late Saturday afternoon while out in the field tracking a cardinal.  One nice thing about this lab’s field work is that you’re out in different places every day, and you get to see a lot you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see — and we saw a lot yesterday. Below are some pictures of storm damage taken during our trek through one of the local neighborhoods.

Some of the damage was absolutely devastating (especially to family and friends of those who died). As we were driving along, I caught myself feeling bad about all of the damaged houses, uprooted trees, and people whose lives had been affected. My friend interjected lightheartedly that I shouldn’t feel bad because disturbance is, more often than not, an under-appreciated but critical part of many ecological cycles. Some things rely on disturbance to survive. Now I’m not sure if he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek with that, but… it got me thinking about certain major changes have the power to alter basic configurations of our own lives and enable us to engage the world in new and different ways than what we are used to. In the place that I was before coming here, I sometimes felt a little too comfortable with my routines and way of thinking.  I sought a challenge to exercise my psychic muscles. Coming to DC was a decision I made that I hoped would help break up the routine and develop myself as a person.  Did I get the change I felt like I needed? Yes — that and more, you might say… It’s been challenging, but not in ways that I expected. (You’ll have to wait until after I’ve digested everything myself before I can even begin to explain… Telling it to you now would be like picking a green fruit. Story in progress.)

The storm did  seem to bring people out of their homes and get them talking to neighbors. Some were working together to clear the tree limbs off of the road or big branches off of playground equipment. That was nice to see.  Hopefully the lack of power encourages people to check on each other  in this heat (especially elderly neighbors) and keep pets out of the sun.

Bonus: Tracking Cardinals

Since the power was out for two days — and neither my phone or laptop had any life left, so I couldn’t do any work — I went along with my friend to track down one of his translocated cardinals in Takoma Park.  Tracking a cardinal involves walking around with an old-school directional yagi antenna connected to a scanning receiver that beeps when you’re within 300m of the bird wearing your radio transmitter.  Everybody who stopped to talk to us assumed we were somehow tracking the storm or storm damage, but nope, we were tracking something much cooler! A cardinal — finding its way back to its territory, three kilometers away.

Ordinarily, people prickle when they see two government workers walking around their neighborhood with a directional antenna, receiver, binoculars and a camera. It’s even worse when you’re driving around with the antenna out of the window of a government car. (For real — this is one reason why I think our vehicles need some kind of magnet or decal that identifies us as researchers/technicians). Sorry, folks… you’re not that interesting to us! We’re interested in bird business, not your business.

Directional antenna and receiver basically tells you if you’re getting hotter or colder

A cardinal equipped with color bands and radio transmitter — radio transmitter not pictured, unfortunately! Ready to be tracked back to his territory…

Anyways — too tired to write more. Cheers to challenges, ups and downs, storms, ecological and personal disturbances, and trying to find our ways home through it all.


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