Friday, November 04, 2011


Notes from an Emergency

We were lucky. We were only without power and heat for five days.

You'd be surprised just how quickly a house can lose heat. By the second day, we were in blankets from about five o'clock on. The fireplace rendered one room almost okay, but that meant that the four of us were stuck together in a dark and still-cold room every night with absolutely nothing to do. It was too dark to read, and all of the electronic gadgetry ran out of juice by the second day.

For the benefit of those who haven't been through something like that, and before I forget, a few notes to share.

-- For lack of other options, we got our information from local radio. On the second night, I remember noticing that the radio took on an apocalyptic tone. The patter was mostly about gas stations that actually had gas available – in a blackout, there's no electricity to work the pumps – and occasionally about ATM's that actually worked. Of course, with everyone getting the same tips at the same time, the effort was largely self-defeating. I drove past a gas line about 15 cars deep at one point. It felt like science fiction.

-- People with wells and septic systems were really in a tough spot. For them, no electricity means no water.

-- Even in a major blackout, there will be weird, isolated oases of power. In our town, the one oasis was a single block with one takeout pizza place. The guy who owned it said the phone never stopped ringing.

-- If you live in a town that does robo-calls for public emergencies, make sure they have your cell number. We get our phone service with our cable and internet, so when they went, it went. This rendered the robo-calls entirely useless.

-- The Girl was livid about not being able to go trick-or-treating. With lights out and wires down everywhere – some of which could be live – it just wasn't safe. But try explaining that to a seven-year-old with a cool costume and visions of fun size Snickers.

-- This weekend really made vivid the limits of the cloud, and of connectivity generally. It’s great, as long as you have electricity and a connection. Without those, you have nothing. Stores took only cash, since they couldn’t process credit card transactions. A family friend who has a rotary phone (!) was more connected than we were. If we’re serious about moving more systems online, we’d better make darn sure we have a reliable grid. Without some old technical holdovers, we would have been completely helpless.

-- The bright side, to the extent there was one, was plenty of sleep for the first couple of nights. But even that hit diminishing returns; after a couple of days of going to bed early, there just wasn’t much sleep to be had.

-- On campus, most of the talk upon returning was of who had power, and who didn’t yet. The sheer randomness of it was striking; you really couldn’t discern a pattern. Even within a given town, houses one street apart might be two days apart in the restoration of power. There’s something humbling in that -- you couldn’t buy your way out of chaos -- and also something democratic. But I prefer my democracy with indoor heat, thank you very much.

-- I usually think of online courses as immune to snow days, and they usually are. But when the power lines are down, so are the online courses. (Even when the servers come up, many of the instructors still lacked power or connectivity at home.) And I had to chuckle at the initiative of the student who called in to ask if he still had to do his homework for his online class when the campus was closed.

-- Make sure your phone trees are up-to-date, and have both home and cell numbers. When our phone finally got reconnected, we had 25 (!) voicemails, most of them relatively urgent and several days old. There was just no way of knowing.

We’re back, finally. No word yet on alternative trick-or-treating dates, but The Girl won’t let it slide. It’ll take more than a freakishly powerful storm to knock her down. She will have her Snickers, and that will be that.

As a young veteran of power outages, one of the most important things to have on hand is a supply of non-electric light. Whether it's a long-running battery-operated lamp (those are usually sold in the camping/sporting goods section), or oil/gas lamps, or candles-plus-matches/lighters, you need something. This lets you see to do things after dark, whether it's reading, playing card or board games, doing small crafts, whatever.

Another is one or more gadget-chargers for your car. (The cigarette lighter, which has more recently changed to an actual power source.) Even if you can only charge your cell phone(s) for several minutes' worth of time each day, it will still allow you to be able to check voicemail and contact other family members. (Assuming, of course, that the cell towers still work.)
Looking forward to a report Monday on how well your college's emergency plans worked. I forecast an ad hoc review committee in your near future.

0) Throw out everything in the freezer unless you could keep it below 40 deg outside.

Based on our experience:

1) A low-power AC inverter that plugs into your car's "cigarette lighter". This way you can use your car to charge any device rather than just the one you have an adapter for.

2) LED flashlights -- which run forever -- and the camping lamps mentioned by Seamyst.

3) Solar/windup radio, so you don't have to run your car to get radio updates.

4) There is a reason experienced people fill their gas tank and wallet when a storm is coming with a day or more warning. Ditto for the propane tank on the grill.

5) Cooking utensils that can be used on a gas grill to heat the "storm food" you keep on hand and/or empty out the melting freezer.

BINGO on a single communication network provider, phone tree updates, and web-based classes.
We keep one old style push button phone on our landline precisely because after the Loma Prieta quake in '88, the only people who had phone service were those with "old style" phones that ran off the juice in the phone line. We were without power for well over 5 days.

You should also check out the CDC disaster preparedness post on their blog - one of the cleverist marketing jobs for disaster planning that I've ever seen.
I envy you. We are still without power, as is much of CT. We have a wood stove, which helps, and a kerosene lamp to supplement the flashlights, but the well is out. The cell towers also failed, but they are now coming back online.

Lived here 25 years without experiencing anything like this. Our utility, CL&P, never bothered to pay the emergency crews after Hurricane Irene, and that has hampered their ability to hire outside crews now, obviously. CL&P management ought to be fired, jailed, or both.
Oh! Something else that's useful in case of power loss (especially if you might be away): take a clear bottle or glass, fill it with water (leave enough room for the ice to expand as it freezes), and stick it in the freezer. Wait until it's frozen, then place a penny on top and keep it in the freezer. If you look at it and the penny's at the bottom of the ice, that means power was out long enough to thaw everything in the freezer.
Now you know what it's like to be an adjunct.
More on being prepared....
Some towns near us officially rescheduled trick-or-treating for last night (Nov 3). I saw a bunch of kids out as I was commuting home. On Oct 31 itself we had a lot fewer visitors than last year, and that was in a neighborhood that (surprisingly) didn't lose power. Perhaps TG can still get her Snickers on another night? Hopefully the chocolate can come out in the wash...
All the above. And buy a generator big enough to power what you need. As one of those people with an electric well pump, I got one big enough to run the pump, the furnace, and most of house -- something like 7,000 watts output. Yes, it's as noisy as a Harley-Davidson at fast idle, but we get long power outages a couple of times a year here in the foothills, what with snowstorms and forest fires.
We lost power for two weeks in the great icestorm of '98--heat was no problem with the woodstove and we had a windup radio, plenty of candles and flashlights, but water was a big problem. No well pump and I had four horses I couldn't turn out because of the ice, all eating hay and thirsty. My neighbor was still milking then, so I was hauling five gallow Cornelius kegs up and down the road all day so I could use his generator and well.

Living in the country, the great outdoors took care of most of our bathroom needs, once we were able to get around on the ice.
BTW, we missed most of the first two weeks of spring semester due to ice and power outage. Somehow we pretended we could make it up within the time remaining without scheduling Saturday classes, cancelling vacation, etc
This is very informative notes to to deal with emergencies. in my country emergencies that often happens is the tsunami, volcanic eruption and earthquakes. Thank you for sharing experiences in an emergency.
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