The Day the Lights Went Off

How To Lose Your Power Without Losing Your Mind

All of us who live along the East coast were warned: Hurricane Irene was on the way, and she wouldn’t be pretty. We were advised to prepare an emergency kit (batteries, flashlights, candles, band-aids, etc.) and stock up on bottled water. Some of us were ordered to evacuate our homes. Nowhere, however, was there a modicum of advice on the psychological implications of dealing with an extended power outage.

The worst of the storm had been projected to strike our area late Saturday-early Sunday morning. We had dinner plans for Saturday evening; our friends decided that venturing out with the threat of an impending hurricane was too risky. After weighing our options (which included a baby-sitter we had commissioned to watch our two grandchildren) my husband and I decided that we could probably “beat the storm” if we were home by 10:30.

Fortunately, we were correct. When we left our home at 7:00, there was just a bit of rain coming down. When we returned at our Cinderella Hour of 10:30, however, the storm was beginning to throw out danger signals. We checked on the kids (who would be with us for nine days while their parents were in California) and went to bed around midnight with the background music of steady rain and increasing wind.

The Storm Strikes

At approximately 4:00 A.M., we were awakened with a jolt by a high-pitched shriek coming from our grandson’s bedroom. We found ourselves in total...and I mean total... darkness. My husband managed to stumble over to our grandson’s bedroom, where he remained until the first light of day. Our granddaughter climbed into bed with me and our two bed-hog dachshunds, one of whom had disappeared briefly. A short time later, we learned where the cute little dog had been, when our granddaughter stepped in a pile of dog poop on her way to the bathroom. As far as all of us were concerned, that “first light of day” couldn’t come soon enough.

Looking back, this seems to be one of those puzzling truisms one learns only through experience: the first few hours of a power outage aren’t too much more than a challenging nuisance, especially during daylight hours. Everyone scampers to locate candles, candle holders, matches, flashlights, etc. and simply waits for the power to come on. After all, this is 2011. “We won’t have to live like this for long,” we reassure ourselves.

Wrong. As the hands of our battery-operated kitchen clock moved towards 10:00 A.M., it occurred to me that our refrigerator had been off for 6 hours. By that time, my husband had called the power company and had been informed via a recorded message that our power probably would be restored by that evening. I proceeded to pack up (for delivery to my sister’s back-up fridge) the refrigerated and frozen items that still appeared to be salvageable. Unsalvageable items filled two large garbage bags. During the short car ride to my sister’s home, I learned the reason for the power outage: several blocks away, an enormous tree had been uprooted in toto, falling across an intersection and onto the power lines. There was no sign of anyone working to remove the tree. (Later, we learned from neighbors that the electric company had neglected inform the city that there was a fallen tree which needed to be removed.)

A Candlelit Evening Out... The Continuing Saga

At that point, the grandchildren were content to play, courtesy of the bright sunlight shining into the room, with their assortment of toys in our den. (By that time, we had opened all blinds, shades, draperies, etc. in the entire house.) At 5:45, still without electricity, we piled in the car and headed to church for a surprise retirement dinner for our pastor. We arrived to find the church basement aglow with candlelight and the buffet area lined with sterno-heated serving dishes filled with a bounty of food. Yes, the church, which is about a mile from our house, was also without electricity. The congregation refused to allow this small glitch to interfere with Pastor’s party, however, and the event went off without a hitch.... albeit without electricity.

We were not happy to return to a house that was becoming increasingly dark. We placed the seven large, battery-operated candles we had managed to locate and/or borrow at strategic locations in the house (one each in the bedrooms, the bathroom, the hallway and two in the living room.) My husband volunteered to sleep downstairs on the sofa with the pups for two reasons: 1) our 13-year-old granddog is not able to handle the stairs, and we didn’t think it would be a good idea for either of us to try and carry him up a dark staircase and 2) so that the grandkids, less than thrilled with the thought of another pitch-dark night, could bed down with me. The older one (age seven) was not happy with the idea of having to sleep in the same room with her little brother, who, so she claimed, “talks to his stuffed animals and keeps me awake.” It took some convincing (and an extra battery-operated candle in the room), but we all managed to sleep through another dark night and, again, to wake to bright sunlight but no electricity.

By this time, my husband had escalated his calls to the electric company to no avail: he still had not spoken with a “live human being.” His calls continued to be answered by the dreaded automated message, which now assured us that our power “should” be back on by 11 A.M. Thursday... three days hence. How had we managed to slip so far down the priority list? Suffice it to say that we were less than pleased. The grandkids, of course, picked up on our rather testy auras and joined the chorus of pleas for the return of electricity. My husband suggested that our granddaughter pretend this was a Girl Scout project, to which she sadly shook her head and replied, “We never did anything like this in Girl Scouts.” We proceeded to dine out for breakfast and later had lunch at my sister’s house. Back home in the afternoon, the kids and I took a stroll to check out the progress- if any- of restoring our electricity. We were pleased to see that the city was in the process of removing the downed tree and assumed that it was just a matter of time before the power returned. Wrong again.

Another Evening Out....Strike Two

That evening, we left our darkening home and the dogs, who seemed to be competing in a nap marathon, for a much-anticipated visit to a minor league baseball game. The brightly-lit stadium and upbeat fans lightened our moods considerably. That all changed after the game. We turned onto our block and noticed not only that our house was still dark, but also that the houses on the other side of our street shined brightly. After another call to the electric company (we’d lost count at about 21), the automated messenger informed us yet again that we could expect power to return about 11A.M Thursday. Now we were unabashedly angry. We had driven by the site of the fallen tree and noted that the area had been entirely cleared. All that remained was for the electric company to check the site and turn on the electricity. So why didn’t we have lights?!

Our grandchildren were borderline-frantic at the thought of spending another night in a pitch-dark house. Both my husband’s and my nerves were stretched so tightly that we were ready to ask Judge Judy to grant us the world’s fastest divorce. True, the pioneers managed to survive without electricity. Of course, it’s relatively easy to live without something you’ve never had. Remember, too, that retiring to bed as the sun set and rising as soon as it reappeared was a fact of life back then. It’s not that we missed the TV , although that was a major issue for the kids. My husband and I both are voracious readers, and, despite Abe Lincoln’s assurance that it can be done successfully, our eyes don’t adjust too readily to reading by the light of a candle. So.... my husband spent another night on the living room sofa in the company of dachshunds, and I slept with the kids. (I started out stretched across the foot of the bed, which was precarious at best, and ended up on a narrow strip of mattress next to the kids. The dogs must have given them the word that they needed to be firm and unyielding when claiming their space.)

Day Three.... But Who's Counting?

Tuesday morning finally appeared... another bright, sunny day, thank heavens. Still no power. Another call to the electric company yielded yet another revised, canned message: now our power wasn’t scheduled to be restored until Friday morning! We were furious, and the kids weren’t far behind. We had made reservations at an indoor water park- lodge starting the next day; we couldn’t expect our dog sitter (my former student) to spend a few days in a dark house (although, responsible as she is, she volunteered to do just that). I was particularly upset because the device that monitors my husband’s heart defibrillator, which had been installed only a few weeks ago, is powered by electricity.

We headed with heavy hearts for still another “restaurant breakfast.” While at the restaurant, we bumped into the mother of one of our state representatives. She suggested that we turn to her son for help, so as soon as we finished breakfast, we headed downtown to his office. Barely able to hold back tears that had been building for about 54 dark hours, I poured out our story to one of his aides. She was sympathetic to our plight and assured us that she’d see what she could do.

We returned home. The kids played. We fumed. As we left the house to head to McDonald’s for lunch several hours later, we learned that some of our neighbors were as angry as we were. One of them, frustrated with the electric company’s refusal to answer calls, had just shot off a pointed e-mail. We traded stories of anger, loss, frustration, etc. , then got in the car. At the end of our block, we were amazed to see four (4) trucks from the electric company. They began to move, and we decided to follow them. We were thrilled to discover that their destination was the site of the downed tree that had been cleared. We parked the car, got out, and asked what their intentions were. The “boss” assured us that they wouldn’t be going anywhere until the problem had been resolved and the power restored.

Frustration Compounded

On our way back from lunch, we drove by the site. All the trucks were gone, so we stopped the car and asked a neighbor what had ensued. The trucks had been called to a fire, she said, and nothing had been done to restore our electricity. Of course, this sounded a bit shaky (four electric company trucks sent to a fire?!) and only added to our frustration with the electric company. It seemed that, from the onset, our neighborhood had been labeled “low priority,” probably because only a few streets had been impacted. Yet it seemed like such a relatively simply task to free the affected wire(s) and turn the power back on.

We could not face another night without power. Around 5:30, we headed for a local fair, after which we planned to take the kids to my sister’s house to sleep. My husband would spend yet another night with the dogs. (Two dachshunds in the same house with two golden retrievers was a scenario too scary to attempt.) As we rounded the corner of our street at 9:30 to retrieve the kids’ sleeping gear, we finally saw the oasis in the desert of darkness: our porch light was burning brightly! We scrambled out of the car, led by our 5-year-old grandson, who was singing an, “Oh yeah, electricity,” victory song accompanied by appropriate dance moves.

"I see the light...."

Later, the neighbors told us that there had been cheering throughout the neighborhood when the power was restored at 7:45. We also heard a rumor that a group of irate neighbors had marched into City Hall that afternoon. Who knows what finally “inspired” the electric company to take action: was it political pressure, or was it just about the only thing left to do at that point? Whatever the reason, I guarantee that from now on I’ll have a new respect for those who are “powerless” and a skeptical view of the electric companies that do, indeed, hold all the power.


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