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Too Much Rain, a Hot Dry Spell, Then Irene

September 3, 2011

Christina writes: In mid-June, after submitting The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien to HarperCollins, we drove to St. Louis to attend a private gathering of Tolkien enthusiasts. Why drive rather than fly? Because we find it less stressful than dealing with airport security, poor service, crowds, delays, and cancellations. Even allowing for the cost of hotels, driving also can be less expensive, and if we want to (and we usually do), we can acquire a lot of books, CDs, and DVDs without worrying about baggage weight. Of course, driving takes longer, but we don’t aim to cover the maximum distance every day, nor do we necessarily travel every day. This time, we broke our journey in Buffalo, New York, in Columbus, Ohio, where we visited Wayne’s aunts and uncles, and in Cleveland, Ohio, where Wayne was born, among other places on the way.

That said, 2,300 miles to St. Louis and back is perhaps the limit for this mode of travel, even with a car with comfortable seats. And though we’ve made several trips at this time of year to various parts of the Midwest, never have we had so much rain. On several occasions during this trip, Wayne had to drive long stretches (I do not drive) in heavy rain – on our final travel day, returning home from Buffalo, our windshield wipers were in constant use. We sometimes have thunderstorms in Williamstown, but those in St. Louis have to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Missouri Botanical GardenOn our first morning in St. Louis, we visited the Missouri Botanical Garden with friends. It was the first time we have visited a botanical garden since becoming deeply involved with landscaping our own property, and we were surprised at how many plants we could now recognize. We noted one or two we liked which are not in our garden, but later found that they need a warmer climate than north-west Massachusetts can offer, and even in St. Louis would have been planted only for the season. We spent a long time in the Climatron, a building which houses a tropical rain forest on several levels and with a spiral path. When we emerged, we noticed the sky looking ominously dark, and made our way quickly to the Visitors Center, hastening up the steps as the first few drops of rain started to fall.

Since it was still a little while before the time we were to meet our friends for lunch – we had split up on arrival at the Garden, to follow different interests – I went into the shop and was in the process of buying two pairs of earrings when all visitors were ordered into the auditorium in the basement because there was the possibility of a tornado. The officials were particularly worried because the Visitors Center is mainly glass, and not long before, a tornado had shattered glass at the city’s main airport. I managed to complete my purchase before making my way below. There we found some members of our group and were able to establish by cell phone that others had reached safe refuges. About two hundred people sat in the auditorium for about fifteen minutes before the all-clear was given. We waited until the rest of our group arrived and then decided that there was no hope of eating in the cafeteria with people returning to abandoned meals. Our gracious St. Louis hosts – Gary and Sylvia Hunnewell – suggested that we meet instead at a St. Louis Bread Company restaurant (elsewhere Panera Bread). It was raining lightly as Wayne and I set out, but within a few minutes we were driving on a quite elevated road through a heavy thunderstorm with frequent lightning flashes, with the idea of tornadoes still on our mind. And when we reached our destination, we had to make a dash for cover, our umbrellas not very effective against the downpour. We enjoyed our lunch so much, however, that we chose to eat at another restaurant in the same chain in Ohio on our way home.

When we finally got back to Williamstown, we were pleased to find that there had been some rain in our absence, enough to keep our garden in good shape, but not the heavy storms we had experienced on our trip. Almost immediately, though, a period of very hot, humid weather with temperatures in the 90s (over 35 degrees Celsius) set in, with very little rain, at least not in our area. Again and again, rain was forecast but passed just south or north of us. We could hear thunder in the vicinity, but not a drop fell here. This meant that we had to spend a lot of time watering the garden. Much of our garden is surrounded by neighbours’ trees, whose big roots take up a lot of moisture, sometimes blocking access for our bushes and flowers. To overcome this, we have begun to use soaker hoses in some places, in addition to sprinklers, and indeed, within about a month, several bushes showed considerable new and greener growth. All of this watering coincided with the peak period for dead-heading daylilies, another time-consuming job, over a hundred and fifty flowers a day at its peak.

fawn in our gardenOne morning Wayne went out before breakfast to put some of the sprinklers on and found that a female deer had settled her fawn among our azaleas and rhododendrons. We and neighbours took photographs and oohed and aahed over ‘Bambi’, but once it left we sprayed the area with deer repellent and were careful about working there for a while. We’re hearing of more and more cases of Lyme Disease, which can be carried by deer ticks.

Then as mid-August approached, a partial watering ban was imposed locally because the Green River, which authorities in Boston (at the other end of the state) wrongly use as the gauge of water availability for Williamstown, had sunk to a low level. Sprinklers and car-washing were banned, and hand-held hoses could be used in gardens only before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. So every few days, Wayne and I had to go out around 8 a.m. and use hoses or watering cans on bushes and flowers, leaving the grass to fare as best it could. About the second week of August, the temperatures came down into the 80s, and by mid-August almost every day the weather forecast predicted that in two days it would be down into the high 70s. (When drafting this post, I wrote that with one or two exceptions, only now has that cooler weather arrived. But the temperatures are back in the 80s, and humidity has also returned.)

We eventually had enough rain for the watering ban to be lifted, just as Hurricane Irene approached. Everyone expected coastal areas to be badly hit, and some were, but by the time Irene reached Massachusetts it had become ‘only’ a tropical storm and moved further west than anticipated. We always have emergency supplies such as lamps, batteries, food, and water, but we shopped early and laid in even more bottled water. Wayne charged the cell phone and laptop and filled up the gas tank of the car. We moved into the garage any object from the garden, even hoses, which might be picked up by high winds. There was nothing we could do about the possibility of winds felling trees on the house or on power lines, or about flooding, but we did what we could to deal with possible power cuts by having more ice in the freezer to help keep it cold, and by filling the baths with water to be able to flush toilets in case a power shortage should affect the main supply. Then we waited and, at intervals, watched the Weather Channel.

The rain started late Saturday afternoon and went on continuously until early Monday morning. We had about 5 inches in total here in Williamstown. The strongest winds came on Sunday evening after the eye of the storm had passed, but they did not seem much worse than we get with the occasional bad thunderstorm. We cooked at lunchtime on Sunday rather than in the evening, while our electric cooker was working. We were, of course, worried as to how the systems we had installed to keep our basement dry would withstand heavy and continuous rain. Would the sump pumps work properly? Luckily, I was in the basement putting a book away when I heard one of the water alarms go off. Wayne did not hear it as he was listening to a CD and thought the siren was part of a modern composition! On inspection, we discovered that the main sump pump was working all right, but a little water was seeping in under the washer and dryer. This was nothing to worry about, however, as the floor slopes to the sump. The real test came at about 6:15 p.m. when we lost power and the use of the main pump.

When we renovated in 2007, our contractor thought it odd that we wanted two sump pumps in the same space, a main pump and an auxiliary unit powered by a marine battery in the absence of mains power. Wayne tests this manually once a week, but this was its first trial under actual power-loss conditions. Happily, it worked well, and probably would have kept going for a couple of days, though we would have worried about burn-out as there was so much water in the ground and therefore coming into the sump from our perimeter drains.

The power cut also set a carbon monoxide alarm beeping, and Wayne had to replace a battery. We had our evening meal with a battery-powered lamp on the table. Power was restored in just under two hours. On Monday morning we found that a few branches had broken off our locust trees, one landing right in the middle of the perennial bed, and many smaller twigs and leaves were scattered across beds and lawns, which we still need to pick up. Also, our one viburnum was practically flattened by the high winds, and part of it broke off.

We were very lucky. As you may have seen on television, many places not far north us in Vermont and north-west of us in upstate New York, which received 11 inches of rain or more, were badly flooded, with buildings, roads, and bridges destroyed. Some communities are still cut off from normal access as I write. Several million homes up the East coast have suffered power cuts, and some may not get power back for days or even weeks. Even in Williamstown, some people living in mobile homes in a flood plain near a river were evacuated, the last few finally agreeing to go when the water rose enough that they had to be evacuated by boat.

Images: Reflecting pool and Climatron at the Missouri Botanical Garden (the sky was already starting to darken; it had been sunny when we arrived); ‘Bambi’ in our garden.

One Comment
  1. David Doerr permalink
    September 3, 2011 10:45 am

    The younger brother of a former sister-in-law, named Chuck Hooker, used to be in charge of the Asian plants section of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. On Good Friday of this year, while the windows were being blown-out of the airport in St. Louis, the steeple got blown off of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, during 7 p.m. Mass. When I inquired of my relatives in St. Louis whether this might be an act of God or not, they didn’t know. A similar thing happened a few summers ago in Minneapolis, when the Evangelical Lutherans were convening, and the steeple of the Lutheran church, that sits next to the convention center,
    was knocked off of the building and deposited in the parking lot. Catholics and Lutherans believe that Christ’s body is the real temple – not the building. I suppose that you met with St. Louis’ own great Tolkien scholar, Professor Tom Shippey! When I recently purchased one of your books, I ordered another of his, too. Very interesting book, I might add.

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