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"You got power?"

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"You got power?"

It was the question of the week, everywhere you went, in the wake of a sneak attack from what looked like a typical line of thunderstorms last Saturday night. With little warning, winds whipped suddenly to 80-miles-an-hour-plus, and the city erupted with the sounds of popping transformers, falling limbs, and wailing sirens. The wind took a healthy piece of Memphis' historic urban forest, knocking down more than 250 trees, most of them the great, top-heavy oaks that shade us from summer's blaze and provide a dense canopy over our streets and lawns.

It's little comfort to know that all of this is natural; that this is the way great trees often die, 100 years on. In a forest setting, trees are more constrained, forced to seek sunlight by growing upward. In Memphis, set on lawns with no arboreal competition, they spread their limbs far and wide, becoming the majestic behemoths we love. When they fall, the space above us they filled for decades opens to the sky.

And when they topple, they take cars and houses and memories and property values — and, of course, power lines aplenty. At the post-storm peak, Sunday morning, more than 188,000 Memphians were without power. MLGW called in 40 crews from out of town to help clear the streets and reconnect the grid. They told us it could take a week or more to hook everyone back up. That seems optimistic.

But we've been here before, haven't we? We even name these things. Hurricane Elvis. The Great Ice Storm. I heard Hurricane 901 tossed around as a moniker for this one, but I don't think anything has stuck yet.

And we know the post-storm drill: find ice; find a charger; find a cool, open bar; find a friend with that sweet, sweet electrical power. Neighborhoods have empty-the-freezer parties, sharing grills and cooking up their soon-to-be-thawed bounty. Some folks who have power run cords to their front sidewalk, inviting neighbors and passers-by to charge their devices. Local convenience stores give out free jumbo cups of ice. Eighteen-wheelers pull into parking lots and sell ice by the bag. We become a temporary third-world city.

Storm tourism abounds, as cyclists and strollers wander the neighborhoods, mouths agape at the great trees sprawled across the streets, the cars crushed like beer cans, the broken houses with rooms exposed. Social media sites are filled with pictures of the carnage. The long days resound with the growl of chainsaws and wood shredders. And soon, piles of limbs and brush line the streets, waiting for our over-worked sanitation and public works crews to haul it all away.

And then there's the moment of glory, of relief, of resounding joy and celebration — the magical moment when the power comes back and the television and the lights and all the appliances you had on when things went dark spring to life. Huzzah! Hosanna! Hooray! You post the news to Facebook; you text your friends the sweetest words you'll ever send ...

"I got power!"

Bruce VanWyngarden
brucev@memphisflyer.com

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