Tempestuous weather is not uncommon in Minnesota in the late Spring and early Summer. And further south, well into ‘Tornado Alley’ severe storms occur on a regular basis as cold air from the north collides with warm, humid air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico. Just the ingredients for some lively weather.
Fortunately, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St Paul), where our daughter Hannah and her family live, are only occasionally hit by tornadoes. In fact, last year (or was it the year before) during one of our visits, the sky began to take on a rather ominous tinge late one afternoon, and soon the tornado sirens were sounding. A tornado did touch down just a couple of miles away, and caused damage in one residential street.
On the other hand, severe thunderstorms seem to be two a penny. But there’s severe and then there’s SEVERE. And we experienced a couple of those last weekend, just as we were preparing to return to the UK after a great vacation in Minnesota, with a side trip to Oregon and northern California.
Early on Friday morning I woken up by the sound of thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. On a walk later that day we saw some branches had been torn off a number of trees, but nothing untoward. That evening, Hannah, Michael, Steph and I went out for a meal in downtown St Paul. Hannah had arranged a baby-sitter for Callum and Zoë. Even so, we left the house early, as we had a table reservation for 18:15 (it always amazes me just how early Americans tend to eat out).
About 19:30 the sky began to darken and within minutes there was a deluge. I’ve only seen it rain harder in the Philippines during a typhoon. When we left the restaurant (around 20:00), the rain had eased a little – enough to scramble into the car. Even so, the volume of water was lifting manhole covers in the street. Hannah had also by then received an SMS from the baby-sitter that the power had gone off.
On the way home we saw more damage to the trees (and St Paul must be one of the ‘leafiest’ cities in the USA – flying into MSP International all you see are trees, trees, trees), but were completely gob-smacked when we turned into Cretin Avenue South (pronounced Cree – tin). There were trees down everywhere, and across the road from Hannah and Michael’s house trees had been felled onto two houses. Further down the avenue, trees had come down across the road, on to vehicles, and demolished one garage. Everywhere, huge trees had been uprooted as if they were matchsticks. And on Mississippi Boulevard (a couple of blocks or so from Cretin Avenue South, several very large trees had been felled. Most damage was caused it seems to the many ash trees planted along the sides of the road. They appeared to have rather shallow root systems, and maybe the long period of wet weather in the Spring also contributed to their downfall. But even some majestic oaks were not spared. Fortunately Hannah and Michael’s house was not affected at all.
The power did not come back on until 14:00 on Saturday. We were lucky. Some parts of the Twin Cities were affected on Thursday evening, and some had not had their power restored when we left on Monday afternoon. The power company, Xcel, reported that this was among the most serious power outages ever experienced. Teams of linesmen worked long hours to restore power, but the downing of power lines by fallen trees certainly caused considerable chaos. Unlike the situation is most UK cities, where power lines are underground, most in St Paul (and many other cities in the US) are above ground, and whenever there’s a storm, there’s always the chance of damage to the power supply.
It’s only when it goes off that you realize just how dependent we are on electricity for everything. Yes, it was an unusual experience for Twin Cities residents – at least being without power for so long. For Steph and me with our Philippines experiences (where brownouts are rather common) and typhoons and tropical depressions occur with expected regularity, being without power was an inconvenience but not something novel.
With severe storms expected to become rather more frequent as a result of climate change, it’s time for St Paulites and Minnesotans to assess the continuing risks and plan accordingly.