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.