12 July, 2007


The roar of chainsaws cutting through hardwood has been constant the past few days, with a break coming only at night. Workers have been struggling to clear roads and driveways and to restore power to many districts of Kazan and the surrounding regions.

The cause was a line of unusually strong thunderstorms that passed through the area late Sunday evening. Dark clouds began to roll in, the wind picked up, thunder boomed in the distance, and rain began to fall. We were still at my wife's aunt's house in Old Kazan when the cell phone rang; my sister-in-law had called to warn my wife that Dyerbishky had just endured an awful storm that knocked down trees, and it was probably coming our way. An awesome storm pounded through Old Kazan a short while later. It was the sort of storm that you don't mind watching when you're safely inside a strong building, and you pray that no one has been caught outside in its fury. There aren't many trees in Old Kazan to knock down, but the ones that are there had a hard time staying up.

When we rode back to Dyerbishky the next morning, broken traffic lights meant clogged traffic. The choice of words is important here; the traffic lights weren't "malfunctioning". They were often broken, ripped from the ground or smashed by fallen trees. Many buses abandoned the roads to travel along the paved median, which is ordinarily reserved for the trams (small electric trains). The buses stopped, loaded, and unloaded passengers in what is literally the middle of the road. What's more, the tram rails in that area are under renovation: the cement and asphalt roads have been dug up, leaving only large gravel rocks and the metal rails. I've written before that most Russian buses look, sound, smell, and feel as if they're falling apart; Monday they were bouncing along in a manner that looked comical to an observer like me, but must have made for an uncomfortable rider. I still can't believe that I didn't spot any vehicle parts lying between the rails.

Ordinary traffic wasn't moving much, and traffic police were nowhere to be seen, if they even exist. So I suppose the bus riders who had to weave across a congested road to catch the buses that drove in the median weren't in much danger.

That was in the city, where things weren't too bad. Once the car left the urban areas and began to pass through the woods, things went from ugly to appalling. The traffic flowed smoothly, but the storm had knocked down large swaths of birch trees from their roots. Many of the fields and woods looked more like swamps that grew from a large, shallow lake. In one spot, a blue and yellow bulldozer had sunk halfway into the water.

The driver pointed out a grove that had been smashed. Not a few of the trees had been snapped in half. Imagine the wreckage left by a giant bulldozer driving through a forest, and you have a good image of what we saw. If all the trees had been knocked down from their roots, I'd have thought it was nothing more than the immense water saturation, but with so many trees snapped in half well above the roots, I wondered if a tornado had swept through that area, or at the very least some unusually strong straight-line winds.

The damage to buildings was mercifully minor. I wrote earlier about how the birch trees give Dyerbishky a pleasant feel; many have been knocked down. In our neighborhood, all of them looked as though they had been thriving up until the storm; none seemed old and rotted. My wife and I walked through the neighborhood early Wednesday evening, and on one tree that workers had sawed we counted at least forty rings. (Dark & light rings combined.)

One tree fell onto someone's balcony and ripped it off the building. There are some places we can't walk because trees still block the sidewalk and the road. I realized in retrospect that it was not very wise to have walked under one tree; the only thing I remember holding it off the ground is a wire, perhaps a power line. The wire clings tenously to a building. This tree is at a thirty-degree angle with the ground or so, so either I didn't see the true support, or that wire is due to snap at any moment. Children were playing in that area.

My wife's area is quite fortunate to have lost power only for a few moments. Kazan was the same: the lights went out only two or three times, then returned quickly. My wife's father works with a man who lives a little farther out of the city. They don't know when their power will return. Other parts of Dyerbishky are also still in the dark.

One of the curious features of Russia is that water is often not heated in homes, but in centers that pump hot water to surrounding buildings. For some reason, these pipes are not always buried underground, but run over it. Imagine a gas or oil pipeline wrapped in insulation, and you have the picture. Sometimes the insulation shows signs of falling apart, and on the train I've passed through rural areas where tattered insulation hangs limply from such pipes. Why anyone would consider this a solution for supplying hot water to another building is beyond me; at least bury the pipes below the ground! My wife suggests that during the winter it might be too difficult to dig down through the frozen ground to gain access to a broken pipe. Okay, but in the meantime the pipes have to be routed around pedestrian and automotive traffic. That means that a pipe will turn up and over a road or sidewalk, then back down again to resume its route, all at right angles. It's an odd sight. I wondered today if falling trees broke any such pipelines, or if the things are constructed of an exceptionally strong material. The nearest such pipes are a healthy walk from here, so I doubt I'll learn the answer any time soon.

The television reported that the storm killed six people, one by lightning. Several people died in car accidents; computer animations showed how the drivers lost control when the cars hydroplaned and flew off the roads. Seatbelts exist in Russia, but aren't used much. It isn't clear to me whether those automotive fatalities counted among the storm's six.

My wife informs me that storms like this happen from time to time; she last remembers one five years ago. Her mother says that it wasn't so bad in this area, though; the real damage was elsewhere. The Russians call such rare storms "Uragan" (Cyrillic: Ураган). It sounds like the Italian word for "hurricane" (uragano), and is not entirely inappropriate. The wreckage reminds me a great deal of what I've seen in southern Mississippi after hurricane Katrina, in Newport News after a hurricane came in off the Atlantic a few years back, and in Williamsburg after a tornado. The storm wasn't nearly as long-lasting as a hurricane, dying down after an hour or so.

Except for the wreckage and the roaring of chainsaws, things returned quickly to life as it was before. Perhaps I overestimate the power of the storm. I wish I could upload photos, but I left the cable to connect the digital camera in the right-hand drawer of the computer table...

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