A ruling class deprived of its power

Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 2, 2012

Washington has learned to pronounce “derecho.”

But we may never figure out how to say, “que sera.”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

In some ways, it’s what defines this place.

Suddenly, the nation’s legislators, regulators, litigators and officiators are left helpless, sweating in their underpants, surrounded by their rotting food and blank-screened BlackBerrys.

“Someone must be held accountable for this!” they say.

But how can you drag a historic thunderstorm before a congressional subcommittee? Would it be possible to handcuff 70 mph winds? Indict a jet stream hovering above a hot air mass?

There is no Washington-style redress for the rare and devastating thunderstorm that whomped the region Friday night and has left a good chunk of its ruling class without electricity.

Pepco became an immediate and familiar target of their frustration. The much maligned utility — one of the nation’s worst when it comes to reliability, according to a 2010 Washington Post analysis — was struggling to restore power to more than 440,000 customers. By 11 a.m. Monday, they’d turned the lights back on for about half. Another 200,000 or so households were still waiting for crews from Dominion Virginia Power and Baltimore Gas and Electric, who always seem to get the power back on quicker.

Meanwhile, the sweaty multitudes couldn’t even tweet their misery. Their iPads and iPhones were dead.

Although plenty of ordinary people were affected by the power outages, the damage was most apparent when I drove through the toniest parts of Northwest Washington late Sunday, past darkened baroque-style embassies, seven-bedroom colonials and humongous Cape Cods with matching air-conditioned dog houses.

Just before midnight, I saw packs of grown-ups — not teens — hanging out at a Connecticut Avenue 7-Eleven. Men in the kind of clothes they’d usually save for St. Barth’s — linen shorts, Tommy Bahama shirts — were taking way too long to select Slurpee flavors, every cell of their pale, sweaty, hot skin sucking off that cold AC as long as possible.

In Chevy Chase, Post reporter Ian Shapira talked to neighbors who snaked cords across their manicured gardens into one another’s homes to snag some electricity — the haves and the have-nots redefined. The politics of asking, wanting, needing becoming a loathed tradition with each new weather catastrophe.

In fact, it’s almost as though there was some underclass justice being played out when you saw the way power outages and home prices were strangely intertwined. The mighty trees that shade those beautiful homes so well were devastating in the storms. While the chain-link-and-asphalt territory of the poor was less affected.

“We don’t lose power in da hood,” one of my friends in a less wealthy neighborhood bragged online.

And sure enough, our Capitol Hill rowhouse — not the “hood,” but definitely not the place of circular driveways and rolling lawns — didn’t lose power.

The full might of this incredible storm — known as a derecho in weather circles — is a rare thing that has humbled Washington. And its inhabitants are not a people who can be easily defeated.

These are people who sue mining companies for fatal working conditions, force Bank of America to back down from a service fee and lobby for safety legislation when a corporation wants to feed our kids pink slime. These are not the kind of folks who sit back and take things as they come, going with the flow.

“Que sera, sera? What will be, will be?” said nobody in Washington. Ever.

But not even the capital’s movers and shakers can change the weather. (At least not yet.) And what’s worse, some of them may not get their electricity back until Friday.

It is like Californians without sun. Or New Yorkers without fashion.

Washingtonians are powerless.


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