Seven to Ten Days

This post is not about surviving a disaster. It is about living with the inconveniences that a disaster deals you. When the electricity goes out and you don’t know when it will come back on, things are different. It’s not like a camping trip or an adventure you choose. It’s daily life with different chores.

A power outage will disrupt your life and cause discomfort, but it is not devastating. For me, not being able to use a computer meant that things I wanted to get done would have to wait. For others, light and heat are more important.

But if that’s all you have to deal with, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you see a neighborhood where every yard is full of things that were on the first floor when the water came in and are now waiting to be thrown into a garbage truck, when you realize that there are seniors living twenty stories up in buildings with only enough power from generators for hallway lights (forget about elevators or heat), when you think of the shore towns that were devastated and remember they were full of homes and businesses that people had built their lives in.

After finding out that Sandy was on it’s way, I spent a little time preparing and encouraged family to prepare. I made sure I had water for 3 days for everyone (at 3 liters per person per day) and got extra food. As it turned out, we’d be visiting relatives on the day Sandy was to hit. They were farther inland and had plenty of space, so we packed extra stuff.

Once we settled down and waited for the storm, the days begin to blur. It was an eerie feeling before the storm: with an irregular overcast and a light rain, it almost felt like this would be all we would get, but the knowledge that this would almost certainly be the best weather for a while only heightened the anticipation. We had plenty of food, water, batteries, and other supplies, and it was time to watch the weather.

Monday, October 29 was a day of anticipation as I read weather reports and watched the wind get more intense. By afternoon, trees were swaying wildly and the power flickered off and on. The night sky was lit up with the bright green flashes of exploding electrical transformers. Looking outside it also appeared that there was some thunder high in the clouds but I don’t know enough about weather to say for sure. Sometime around 8 our power was out for good.

The first thing was uncertainty: who did the storm hit the worst, when will power come back on? I had enough cell coverage to determine that my family was okay, as were my friends in the hurricane’s projected path. But figuring out when power would come back was not so easy. Power companies were giving the estimate of 7-10 days. We wondered what that meant. Would it actually be 7-10 days? Would it be more? A radio host speculated that they were overestimating to cover themselves and it would be sooner for most people. I figured that they meant 7-10 days for most people. It would be 6 days where we were staying.

We soon found out that the building our apartment was in was surrounded by floodwater – and in urban areas, floodwater means sewage diluted with whatever the water picks up – much of which was oil from ruined cars. Looked like we would be staying a while. I did visit my apartment after seven days. There was no power, and the ground floor lobby and stairs was coated with oily residue. The fumes were awful. Fortunately our apartment was completely fine except the food in the refrigerator. Our power came back on after about ten days, but since we weren’t ready to return before the nor’easter struck (and again knocked out the power where we were staying) we didn’t come to stay until November 8.

I like to think that I’m generally well prepared – for adventures chosen and disasters unchosen – but I certainly wouldn’t think experiencing a hurricane wouldn’t teach me anything or at least give me a tough review. I noted some things of particular value.

Be social: There is no substitute for family and friends who are glad to offer you a place to stay (bonus if there’s internet and heat!) and there are probably things you can do to make their lives easier while you’re around. I was fortunate to be spending time with the right people when there was little to do besides hope nothing big hit the house.

Take your time: Since I wasn’t sure I’d be away during the storm I ended up packing quickly before leaving. This caused some moments of anxiety before I realized I did have what I needed – thanks in part to the stuff normally in my backpack and my car.

Take warnings seriously: As Sandy moved north, it became increasingly clear that this storm was likely to cause a lot of damage – time to make sure your supplies and plans are in order and prepare for flooding.

Communication breakdown: After the storm hit my cell service was only good enough to send text messages with about 50% success – forget about using the internet. But others with Verizon were able to access the internet on their phones. We also had a corded phone that got enough power from the telephone lines to function – though thinking back on it I’m surprised the landlines still worked. I could have brought my old battery/dynamo/solar radio but decided it wasn’t necessary, and it probably would have just been a toy to play with.

Light is your friend: It is not easy to start going to bed when the sun goes down – especially when it gets dark by 6pm and you are in a place you normally go to bed hours later. Candles and lanterns or large lights provide nice stationary lighting.

Head lamps are awesome: It’s like a flashlight that you don’t need to hold, but can if you want to. You can also hang it from light fixtures to shine down.

Clothing is valuable equipment: Be ready for harsh weather and no heat. Layer up right – materials matter and one good thermal shirt will do more than a pile of cotton. Pants that fit well are better for holding heat (something I seem to forget often).

Wood is good: I visited a family friend with an awesome woodstove. Outside it was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit and windy. In the living room it was almost 80. The stove did not heat the whole house but it was enough to get comfortable – and the chimney pipe provided heat to the bedroom above. This was with one log burning, no smoke smell, and a nice view of the flame through a window.

I did want to make a fire where we were staying, but there was no fireplace inside or outside and no good stones. Things certainly hadn’t got desperate enough to dig up the yard for a fire ring!

Gas is great: Yeah, I’m a little weirded out by the idea of an open flame on top of a massive supply of flammable gas in the house. But apart than that, natural gas is almost always on and can provide warm food, tea, and hot water. If you’re like John Robb, it can even power your house! Absent a stove that functions without electricity, a campstove and food that doesn’t need to be cooked are next best.

Prepare your fridge: It is annoying when food goes bad, but it can be an amusing game to decide what to eat next before it spoils. Three days after the storm I managed to get ice after a bit of searching and questioning. I have never been more amazed by walking through automatic doors into a building full of light and cold food. And seeing that pile of ice bags was like finding treasure. I managed to get even more ice from a relative whose power had just come back on. Score!

Water is life: Our tap water remained safe but it was not a waste to fill up beyond what was already in storage. Water is something we use anyway and containers take up space empty or full. Some people not far away did lose potable tap water. Of course you should have some water stored at all times in case of sudden problems.

Precious gasoline: A car is a means of exit, a big phone charger, a heater, and a radio – provided it is working and not stuck indoors. Gasoline was not easy to get after the storm. It was no Mad Max wasteland, but long lines formed at the stations that had both power and gas. A gas tank is available space that should be filled – gas cans too.

Batteries: Have them. I replaced 8 batteries during the outage. All of them had been used extensively before the storm.

LED is the way to be: Maybe you don’t like the bluish light they give off but the batteries last really long in these things. I didn’t remember the last time I had changed the batteries in my lights but it was well before the storm and I only needed to change them once.

Yes, you should have paracord: One of my bootlaces broke and I didn’t have an extra around. Paracord to the rescue! I did need to pinch the ends as they melted to fit them through the eyelets but my boot looked extra cool afterward.

Check your stuff: Shoes are important equipment and maybe I should have noticed that lace fraying earlier.

Inside shoes: The floor will be cold. You want to separate your body from it. There is probably debris outside that you don’t want to track inside.

Reach out: Find out how your immediate circles are doing then move to the larger community. If you need help, someone will be glad to provide it.

Generator: You might think you can get around this with a generator. Maybe, maybe not. Smaller generators will only provide partial power. Gasoline generators create noise and pollution. Gasoline can become difficult to acquire and storing it can be dangerous. A natural gas generator sounds like an ideal solution, since natural gas service is rarely disrupted.

Unfortunately, under current political conditions, as the demand for natural gas increases irresponsible extraction will proliferate. Holding industries responsible for the damage they cause is difficult in a system where the rules are bought. In the meantime, solar arrays and battery banks might be a more environmentally-friendly option.

Weather events have got more extreme in the past few years, and this is a global phenomenon. Expect more outages.

A power outage is annoying and can be dangerous for some (especially as temperatures drop). But if you’re prepared for it and stay away from downed wires it becomes another challenge that life is made of.

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