Sunday, October 28, 2012


Time Travel

Like about 70 million other people, we’re in the path of Hurricane Sandy.  As of this writing, we still have power, but after last year’s catastrophe, we’re expecting to lose it for a while.  (If this week’s blogging gets spotty, that’s why.)  Given some warning, we spent the weekend preparing.

It has been an exercise in time travel.

When TW and I were kids, the only reason that schools closed was snow.  A good blizzard, or maybe a stray ice storm, would do it; otherwise, we went.  The Boy and The Girl didn’t believe me when I told them that; bless their short time horizons, they think annual hurricanes are normal.  They don’t see anything odd in “frankenstorms” or “thundersnow” or the other weird weather hybrids that have been popping up with unnerving frequency.  They think annual extended blackouts are normal. The reliable power that I remember as a kid has become an historical artifact.

When the power goes out, most of the recent technological advances quickly become irrelevant.  Anything internet-based is inaccessible without electricity, and batteries drain pretty quick.  (Last year, even the local cell towers went dead, so I couldn’t even use tethering to compensate for dead wifi.)  The old copper land line went away years ago, replaced by the cable version that goes down when the electricity does.  Even television is out.

Last year, our lifeline was radio.  We had enough batteries to keep the radio going as needed; since then, we’ve picked up a hand-cranked one.  If you ever want to feel really old-fashioned, crank a radio.  It’s one step above churning butter.

Which brings me to refrigeration, or the lack thereof.  Last year we were caught off-guard, so just finding unspoiled food became a full-time focus.  This year, with warning, we were able to stockpile peanut butter, granola, bagels, cereal, and even the juice-box sized milk boxes that don’t require refrigeration.  Luckily we don’t have well water, so at least we don’t lose water.  

Without electricity, there’s nothing to power the blower that makes the furnace relevant, so the house gets cold fast.  The fireplace keeps one room relatively warm, but “high-maintenance” doesn’t begin to cover it.  The occasional ornamental fire is one thing; actually using the thing for heat is something else altogether.

Even light is an issue.  When it gets dark before dinner, and your battery supply is finite, and you don’t know how long it’ll be before the power comes back, you have to ration light.  

Last year, the power came back in a geographic patchwork, rather than all at once.  (That makes sense, given that the issue was downed lines.)  That meant a sort of foraging, as we looked for places with heat and, ideally, cooked food.  We were lucky before that we got gas the night before everything went dead, so we didn’t have to wait in the gas lines we saw.  This time, we made sure to get gas and cash.  There’s something vaguely Mad Max about it, but there it is.

On Sunday the projected path of Sandy showed it moving north through western New York, crossing Lake Ontario northward towards Toronto.  That may not mean much to many people, but to those of us who grew up along Lake Ontario, the idea of a storm moving north across the Lake is deeply weird.  They don’t do that.  They move either south or east.  I don’t remember ever seeing one move north.  It’s such a given that it never occurred to me that it was a given until I saw it violated.  Toronto will get lake effect rain from Rochester?  That.  Is.  Not.  Normal.

As folks who know me can attest, I like my gadgets.  I’m a fan of technological progress, and I have little patience for those who try to argue that, say, ditto machines were superior to photocopiers.  But as grid failures become more common -- whether through climate change, deregulation-driven neglect, increased demand, or some combination thereof -- I find myself relying more often on newspapers, radio, cash, and firewood.  

In a way, we’ve mastered backwards time travel technology.  We use it every time the grid goes down.  The kids think it has always been that way.  It’s up to TW and me, as ambassadors from the past, to explain that no, it wasn’t.  

On another website, I saw someone saying that they ran their laptop off their prius with an inverter during the last storm.
Hang in there! I figured you were within the 200 mile reach of this thing, and share your view of storms going north into Ontario!

It is probably too late to find any in a store, but we have added several different LED flashlights, with a range of size and power, to our collection. They run a long time.

One of the best strategies for "storm food" is to have a several week stockpile of things you normally eat (like peanut butter or tuna or baked beans) that can be eaten without needing to cook it. Use the one in front and replace it with one in the back.

Another thing, probably mentioned before, is to have a heavy-duty saucepan that can be used on a gas grill for cooking.

Thanks for reminding me why we keep a land line rather than putting all of our communications into one basket, but we also have the ability to charge our devices from the car as mentioned in the comment above.

PS - Will tomorrow's post be on helping faculty adjust their syllabus to the loss of several days from the semester? Mine is Prioritize!
I had a hurricane day off during my first week of school in first grade, but that was the last one. It tore up a tree in front of our apartment building in New York City, but power stayed on.

I'm not sure of why there are more blackouts these days than in the past. I'm guessing that more people live in newer suburbs and have overhead power lines rather than underground ones.
I also keep a landline. With three small kids and a medical condition which has required emergency help twice in the 28 years I've had the condition, I can't imagine not being able to reach 911 in an emergency.
There is precedent for hurricanes hitting Toronto - hurricane Hazel in 1954 hit the Carolinas and moved straight north and was still hurricane strength when it hit Toronto. Pretty crazy.
Also, "thundersnow" isn't a new phenomenon - I just don't remember us calling it anything in particular as a kid (growing up by Lake Erie). It does seem like these big storms are coming with more frequency, but I wonder whether that "seeming" doesn't have something to do with increased media/social media. When every storm gets a special! exciting! name! (Frankenstorm, Snowpocalypse, etc.) I feel like that might skew our perspectives about these weather events.

(This is not to dispute that climate change is happening: I'm just finding it hard to sift through the hype.)
Missed school plenty of times from hurricanes during the '50's (but this was only 40 miles from the Atlantic, in New England. But the storms did not affect such a wide geographical area. For heat, we stayed in bed. Not fun.
I'm on the Gulf Coast, so I feel your hurricane pain. The suggestion for inverter + car battery for serious power outages is a good one. For less serious preppers, those hippy dippy solar garden lights are handy - look nice in the yard when the weather is good, give a surprising amount of non-battery-dependent light when the power is out. Also good - camping supply stores (and Amazon) sell a solar/crank radio + cell phone charger + LED light that don't cost much to buy and are easy to store.
I remember preparing for yearly blackouts, usually warm-weather thunderstorms, growing up in upstate NY. We stocked up on candles and snacks (PB&J and bagels were always around), and if the blackout wasn't everywhere in town we might go out for pizza. It still feels exciting to me. No kids yet though, so less worries about safety.
My city (midsouth, mid-sized, hilly) gets regular ice storms as well as seasonal tornado visitation, so we're no strangers to immobilization and dealing with blackouts. My wife and I were lucky enough to have had some "back to the land" friends years ago who gave us "serious" kerosene lanterns which we use every year. You keep the glass clean and the wicks trim and--most important--don't forget where you stuck that gallon of kerosene!

Last year, I was treated to the improbable scene of my daughter, curled up with four dogs (two of them ours, two were foster "guests"), a vintage battery radio and my Kindle, reading E. Nesbit by kerosene lantern-light.

Good wishes to all who are in Sandy's path; may she pass your door with a minimum of damage.
i am a hurricane veteran.
we use a gas stove, and keep stock piles of grits, pasta and rice.
We get plenty bread too.. and other canned food. And SALT, LOTS OF SALT.
if the storm hits and there is a lot of meat in the freezer, we start off by cooking or baking as much as we can.
Then, well we salt the meat.
You need a manual can opener.
We also keep oil lamps, they are pretty and the oil lasts a long time. Flashlights too.
From my perspective, it seems like the power system is more reliable than it used to be. I think it's a regional thing.

As a kid in Portland, Oregon (1980s-1990s), we always had ham for Christmas Eve dinner because we could still eat it if the power went out and the oven stopped working, for example. I also remember the family gathering in the dining room post-storms because we'd set the nicest oil lamp on the dining table so the whole family could read or do homework. If you have a proper one with a mantle it's very even light and works well.

Before the we lived in Anchorage in the late 70s and early 80s, and they had problems with brownouts. This may be when the ham tradition started, but I'm not sure.

Aside from the year I lived in a small logging town and we lost BOTH power lines into town after a windstorm, I don't think I've had an extended power outage since the 90s. I'm not sure if it's due to increased reliability in the system or if it's just weather luck.

Of course, our weather doesn't seem to have gotten much wilder here than it's been in the past yet, either. (It helps that We've had family living in Oregon for generations, so our idea of "the past" for weather goes back to say, the Columbus Day Storm 50 years ago.) Warmer, but not much in the way of new and exciting weather effects that I've noticed.

Of course, we know so little about really long term weather patterns in this country since, particularly here out West, most records only go back 100 or 150 years.
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