Storms, infrastructure and survival

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl 

Heading “up north” to Ashland, Wisconsin during late winter has become an annual trek. On the way, we talk about the topic for our next column. This year, we discussed the potential of creating a variation of Edward Way Teale’s delightful book, North with the Spring, following the transition to spring as illustrated by plants blooming and birds returning as weather conditions supported them.

But nature intervened as a tornado struck near our home south of Oregon, diverting our attention. Friends from distant places called and emailed concern about our well-being. We suffered no damage and had both electrical and phone service. The home and farm building owned by a neighbor couple whose wife had worked with us at NIU were damaged by the storm. We tried to call them to express our concern but could not reach them since they had discontinued land line service.

The tornado is consistent with scientists’ warnings that we can expect storms of greater intensity as climate change accelerates. Sections of Daysville Road and others were quickly cleared by crews wielding chain saws, front end loaders and muscle to clear the debris.

Our trip north occurred in strong winds which momentarily pushed cars and semis out of their lanes. The winds accompanied our entire trip and when we finally arrived at our destination we had difficulty opening doors on one side of the car and closing them on the other.

Our usual hikes through woodland areas in the north country were cancelled out of concern for falling trees and limbs and trails blocked by debris. What did attract our attention was the damage from floods that had devastated the area. Obvious scars marked stream and river valleys as downed trees were piled up by rushing waters and silt and sand were spread across the landscape.

The storm pushed some residents back to more primitive levels of existence providing vivid examples of what the future could be like if visions attached to climate change scenarios become real. While local officials have considered the extensive flooding as merely a one in a hundred year event, citizens impacted by the storm had to survive on a mixture of individual actions and the assistance from friends, neighbors and public oriented citizens.

Some families were totally isolated by washouts. One had a backup generator but no fuel, so a neighbor tied ropes to both ends of his boat to cross a raging stream to deliver food and gasoline to them. Another person  had to be carried out to where a helicopter could land to take him for medical attention. Roads and bridges were wiped out by the ravaging waters forcing trucks bringing food and water to the area to go up to 200 miles to find routes into Ashland.

With the extensive damage to the infrastructure some roads remain closed, as the area’s tax base is unable to support repairs at this time. If storms continue to increase in frequency and intensity more communities will be pushed beyond their economic capacity to fund infrastructure restoration and living standards will continue to deteriorate.

Traveling “north with the spring” has taken on new meaning.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are the President and Vice President of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association.

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