Keep your head down
Driving to Houston yesterday, I was still sixty miles out from the city,
when I first saw it. Is that lightning I saw out of the corner of my eye or
just the strobe lights on that antenna tower? The sky is awfully dark over
there and, well, it's evening and hot and humid, just the perfect growth
medium for a summer thunderstorm. There it is again, that time definitely
A few more miles and I can make out a distinct thunderstorm on the left, to
the north. I start seeing distinct lightning in the distance east of
Brenham, near Chappell Hill. We really get into it at the aptly named
Prairie View, by Waller, where the hill country of Austin melts into the
coastal plain, flat as a pool table from here to the Gulf of Mexico.
Suddenly this is seriously dangerous looking lightning. There are strikes
every two seconds on the average, only a mile or less to the north. Huge,
thick, repeated strokes, too, not just singles. I lower the window a little
to listen to the thunder so I can judge the distance. Very low sky, dark
puffy clouds. I can still see sunlight through the thin spots, though.
It's after eight o'clock now, but it's daylight time and almost the
solstice, so the sunset is very late. Above the cloud layer, the sky should
still be bright.
I outrun the storm going seventy, until it starts to rain then down to
55-60, still a lot faster than it is. I get to see it from back to front,
coming up behind it and then ending up ahead of it. I call my brother from
Kickapoo Road, no kidding, warning him that he is going to get the snot beat
out of him in about ten minutes. He says the storm is already visible and
coming his way. Should I be on that cell phone in this storm? Nah, no
problem, the phone isn't the problem. The problem is the car that is the
highest spot on the landscape, the lightning rod, especially when going over
one of those humps in the road,
On this road, an overpass is probably forty feet above the surroundings,
which makes it the highest point in this terrain, except for the rare spot
where there happens to be a very large tree or a light pole nearby. And the
roof of the car driving on the overpass is just a couple feet higher, all
the better target. Lightning is striking right there only a few hundred
yards away, flash flash! Geez, do I want to drive over that overpass in
front of me that makes me taller than the trees and the utility poles in
this area? Crack crack! Feels much better down here looking up at that
exposed hump. At least at sixty I'll be on top of it exposed at risk for
only a couple seconds.
I never do see lightning strike the roadway, nor me, obviously. Once I get
off the highway into the safety of the underpasses, the puddles are deep. I
can't tell how deep, so I carefully watch the car in front of me, follow his
track if he doesn't get stuck.
Down toward Houston I notice that all the lights on the service road blink
red. And most of the neighborhoods are dark. This area must have lost
power at least for a short time. Something killed the control systems for
the traffic lights and they've all gone into their safe mode, which is stop
signs for everyone. The next day the report on CNN says that 100,000 people
lost power from Houston to the Louisiana border in a massive outage caused
by the storms that evening. I'm not surprised.