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Weathering the storm

  - By Henry Petroski     

A nice storm early last December knocked out electric power, telephone, and cable-television service for much of the southeast. Along with those of our neighbors on the power grid, our house in Durham, N.C., was plunged into darkness, quietness, and coldness for almost a full week. Nature had triumphed over technology.

The first night we slept uneasily, listening as the straining trunks and limbs of ice-laden pine trees snapped with a report like rifle fire and then, fell to the ground with a heavy thud. The lucky ones among us did not hear the trees falling on roofs, puncturing them and making an already disastrous situation even worse. Regardless, pine trees continued to fall—on lawns, roofs, cars, other pines, and especially on power lines—bringing poles down with the tenacious wires.

Throughout subsequent pitch black subfreezing nights, my wife and I awoke frequently, worrying about our water pipes freezing. We had lived through other ice storms, but this one seemed extreme in its violence, with the extensiveness of the power outages reaching in wide swaths across several states not used to winter weather so early in December.

With such extensive damage, homeowners naturally think of insurance, and when they finally get through to their agent, whose office was most likely also hit by the storm, they discover what is and what is not covered. We were covered for the structures on our property and the driveway that was defaced when an uprooted pine took a bite out of its side, but not for trees that fell in the middle of our yard.

The storm itself had made no distinction between manufactured and natural structures. The rain had frozen indiscriminately on pine needles and transmission wires. Gravity had pulled according to its universal law on all the swollen masses. Everyone lamented the damage that had been done to trees and structures alike.

In fact, were it not for the settlement of people in this region, the pre-winter storm would have gone unnoticed. The ice-laden trees falling in an unpopulated forest would have done so without report. Nature would have acted—naturally. We who have settled in the Piedmont and elsewhere act as if nature is part of us rather than we being part of nature—as we really are. Extensive stands of pines, themselves artifacts of the clear-cutting of hardwood forests done generations ago to make way for the settlement and cultivation of the land, are looked upon as landscape architecture.

Trees are now viewed as part of the tableau of a house in the woods. They are cut down to fit a home among them. They are trimmed back to let in more sun. They are thinned out according to an aesthetic program. In spite of what insurance policies state, trees on improved land come to be seen as improvements themselves.

As bad as the damage was from the ice storm, almost all traces of it will be erased in time. The roofs will be patched, the driveways repaired, the cars undented, the downed trees removed, and the gouged lawns restored.

That is the way it was after Hurricane Fran, which only six years earlier had devastated these same neighborhoods. It has been estimated that nearby Raleigh lost 5 percent of her trees to that wind storm. By contrast, only 2 percent of the remaining trees were believed to have fallen to the ice storm.

As destructive as the forces of nature can be, the resolve of human beings to recover, restore, and rebuild is more powerful. Wind might be said to have brought down the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, but the span was rebuilt with more understanding of and respect for the wind. The Quebec Bridge might be said to have been brought down by sheer gravity, but the redesigned structure now stands as a symbol of Canadian determination. The Kobe Earthquake moved the towers of the then incomplete Akashi Kaikyo Bridge a meter further apart, but Japanese engineers accommodated that adjustment in the foundations to complete what is now the world's longest suspension bridge. And the city of Galveston, submerged by a 1900 hurricane, literally raised itself behind an innovative sea wall.

While it may be the nature of nature to always threaten and sometimes even destroy our built environment, the nature of human beings is to recover and rebuild.


Henry Petroski is Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of civil engineering
and a professor of history at Duke University.
His memoir, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer,
has just been published in paperback.