Sunday, November 6, 2011

Turn Off Your Breaker For A Week

Some thoughts on being off the power grid for seven days:

There are folks here who have been without electricity for more than a week and who may not have their power restored until Wednesday.  It is difficult to convey the degree to which being depraved of electricity effects one's life.  So much time and effort is consumed substituting available resources for those that are suddenly unavailable.

Hundreds of thousands of people experienced extended "survival mode", perhaps for the first time in their lives.

The priorities came down to
1. Staying warm (during an unusually cold late October and early November nighttime temperatures in the 20's)
2. Having drinking water (if one depends on electric powered well pump for water)
3. Having water to flush toilets (if there is no running water)
4. Obtaining food when many grocery stores were closed for many days
5. Obtaining medications when many pharmacies were also closed
6. Preserving perishable food without refrigeration (plenty of snow was available)
7. Cooking, for those wholly dependent on electricity
8. Obtaining gasoline for generators and transportation with so many gas stations closed
9. Buying and selling goods and carrying on civic and business activities
10. Communication through telephone and electronic devices - TV, internet, etc.

Depending on their level of preparedness and common sense, some people are/were better off than others.  I find it difficult to believe that there were people who would not take advantage of the snow and outdoor temperatures to keep food cold or use melted snow to flush toilets.  There were others who had access to a generator and used it to run a sump pump in the basement but didn't consider plugging in an electric heater.  Others who may have had a wood stove, but failed to buy, gather or ask for fire wood.  Persons with a whole house generator who had failed to have a newly installed furnace connected.

Then there were the tragic few, actually quite a few, who died needlessly from carbon monoxide from gas or charcoal grills in  the house or from generators in a basement or too near the house.  If this had been December or January or February, many surely would have died of hypothermia.

As I have mentioned before, Leon and I were fairly well prepared - at least for a short-term inconvenience.  Our portable generator could handle powering up the fridge, but even at that, we put leftover hot foods outdoors to pre-cool before putting them in the fridge.

Our propane kitchen stove was kept busy boiling water, baking biscotti and making roasts or shepherd pie or chicken.  A small vent-free propane heater in our basement kept the house at 58 degrees or more.  We had put up sixty gallons of water for washing and flushing and maybe 15 gallons for drinking and cooking but juggling hot water for washing self and dishes, washing and rinsing was a challenge.

We had flashlights and lanterns and a battery radio; we even plugged in our TV and satellite receiver and the bed warmer for a few hours before turning off the generator at bedtime.

Even with all the preparations we had made and the fact that we were not shivering or hungry, by the end of day five we were feeling the stress, the 19 inches of wet heavy snow to clear the first day notwithstanding.  The sheer physical effort involved was unanticipated.

I don't consider myself too compulsive but I do like to wash dishes and rinse them thoroughly in hot water.  In the fifties we took a bath once a week; now I feel gross if I don't shower at least once a day.  Sweeping the kitchen floor didn't do a thing for the unvacuumed carpet and I was thinking of transporting the pile of laundry down to the river and beating my jeans on a rock.  Hauling 5-gallon buckets of water up from the basement got tiring fast as did refilling the generator.  We probably went through 12 or more gallons of gasoline and a 100 pound tank of propane.

After the power was restored on Saturday I put in a load of laundry and as I turned on the machine I held my breath lest it might not come on. As water filled the washer I thought to myself, "I will never take this for granted again."   It took us all evening Saturday and most of Sunday to get everything "back to normal".  It took a thousand or more line crews, most from out of state, seven days to get the power lines "back to normal" in this small corner of the country - and they are not done yet.  Imagine a similar but more widespread catastrophe.

What we consider "normal" requires vast resources and massive infrastructure.  Most of us could not survive without the conveniences powered by electricity, without water and toilets and stoves and furnaces and gasoline and propane and gas and oil.  But all of this upon which we depend daily is, of course, part of the problem.

As we burn up our fossil fuels to create and operate nearly every aspect of our lives we also create the conditions that make the extreme weather events that bring us to our knees.  We create economic conditions that cause unbelievable wealth as well as suffering and hardships.  We create health problems that will make us sick while curing all kinds of illnesses.

Yet we couldn't survive a world without our appetite for and consumption of power, i.e. electricity.

If you think we are making progress in our attempts to restore the balance of the globe's ecology, try turning off your breaker for a week.


Anonymous said...

Come to think of it I really haven't had to rough it like that in more than 30 years.

But you guys made it through. We humans are very adaptable.

Bob said...

Having gone through several hurricanes while in Miami, I can attest to being ready for anything.

We were always prepared--for most things--but were also continually surprised by people who didn't, and then scram,bled in the powerless days after the storm, looking for ice, food, water, or gas.

It just makes sense to be at the ready.

Stan said...

I can't imagine being without power for so long. The most I've gone without power is an hour or two in the summertime when we get hit with those violent thunderstorms here in urban New Jersey. You guys are tough!

Russ Manley said...

Looking at all your recent posts, all I can say is . . . damn. Glad you guys were smart enough to be prepared, hope this is the worst it gets this winter up there.

But you're right, we are all totally dependent on the electrical system now, and God forbid the lights go out. Our grandparents who grew up with wood stoves, kerosene lamps, and outhouses, could have taken it all in stride. But we don't have such things to fall back on now, and many people wouldn't know how to use them if they had them.

Cubby said...

I think you, and those similarly situated, did remarkably well surviving this monster storm.


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