What to do in a Power Outage: Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is
Practicing what I preach
The storm came and the storm went.
In between all of that was utter confusion and chaos. If you were anything like me you were wearing brown pants to keep your family members calmer – because I was scared sh@*%tless. When the high winds of Hurricane Sandy came during the last week of October 2012, I had already written several contingency articles about what to do during a Zombie Apocalypse, a summer blackout, and how to prepare for a hurricane. Now that I was one of the potential victims of the storm, it was time to test everything that I’d advised.
It was put up or shut up time.
Just to let you know, I did not have a generator. I still don’t.
I know that doing that properly will involve the investment of an electrician and a generator that will handle the power in your house. If you are smart, you will only run the things that really need to be run: your refrigerator, your oil burner, and microwave when you need it. If you have an electric stove, you’ll need to power that as well. Your television, your PC, your internet connection and your router are luxuries. Those should be powered down.
Here’s what I had: A well-stocked wood pile, a fireplace, canned goods, a charcoal grill (with leftover briquettes), candles, running water, and blankets.
Oh, and a roof over my head – I was lucky to have that.
Preparing and Determining what was important
I’ve been writing a few articles about contingency plans.
One of the first rules regarding those plans is exactly what the Boy Scout motto is: BE PREPARED. Now, those of you who have been reading some of my other articles know that New Jersey, specifically Freehold, has been plagued by really intense violent storms. Within the last few years we’ve had hurricanes, super cells, tornadoes, blizzards, and nor’easters. My wife and I thought about this and realized that almost every year we’ve been in our new house some kind of power outage has happened and we’ve been without power for days.
We are no strangers to crappy weather that has taken our power down.
We also had plenty of warning that a bad and destructive storm was coming. I went out a few days before everything hit and tried to find a battery powered lantern, spare D batteries, canned food, bottled water and gas for my car.
I would have done all of this shopping earlier, but I had a few personal issues that I had to take are of – which I won’t go into. That time cost me the lantern and any hope of getting extra D batteries for our flashlights. As it turned out we already had extras from the last crisis.
When I went to look for batteries, I went to the Toys R Us. I figured that some toys needed D batteries and not everyone would think “toy store” with “potential disaster”. I didn’t find any. What I did find was a bunch of kids “mini lanterns”. Laugh if you will, but they were powered by AAA batteries (which were plentiful) and they emitted enough light for me to get around in the darkness – especially the bathroom.
I filled my car up with gas in case I needed to move my wife and pets into a safe area during the storm. I was also able to get two cases of bottled water at the Exxon.
Whenever I think of buying extra food, I always remember the Captain Kirk line from The Wrath of Kahn. When Kirk’s son, David, asks him how he can think of food when they’ve been marooned on the Genesis Asteroid.
“It’s the first order of business: survival.”
If your power goes out, any and all of your perishables will go with it. That means all of your meat, burgers, chicken, eggs, and milk. As my wife is a vegan, saving the food was not a priority, but I had plans if the power did go down and what to do with it.
On Sunday (the day before the storm started), I did a once over in my backyard. I took all the chairs that could be stacked upon each other and put them into the garage. I went to our picnic table and turned it over so that the flat surface was on the ground and flipped over the chairs as well. This would keep them from blowing away.
I rolled my charcoal grill away from our above ground pool and away from the trees to be next to the garage. The cooler that had also been by the pool, I moved into the garage, and put all loose pool equipment away for the winter.
The two things that I could not control were whether or not the three gigantic white pines that are between my house and garage would stand through the storm (and potentially crash through either of the roofs) and the above ground electrical wires that connected the house to the garage. What I could do was make a plan to gather all pets and animals if the worst happened and know exactly what cut off switches I needed to shut down in the event the wires were taken down.
Because Irene was last year, my neighbor and I cut away the worst most dangerous branches away from our homes.
The firewood supply for our fireplace was full of dry wood. While I thought this was a good thing, I wasn’t sure of what the temperature would be during this last week of October. The weather in New Jersey has been a little strange. We’ve had weather in the sixties and seventies up to this week and I only had to turn the oil on for one particularly cold night. Our AC/heat pump has been taking the edge off any chill in our house and electric prices are more stable than oil prices.
In any event, I really didn’t think about heating problems too much.
I parked my car outside in the backyard where there were the least amount of trees. My wife parked her car in the garage. We were hedging our bets. If a tree hit the garage, we’d have one car. If it hit my car outside, we’d have the other.
I was as ready as I’d ever be for the storm.
The Actual Storm
The storm that hit the Garden State was like nothing that hit it in the last one hundred years. It is hard to exaggerate the damage done to New York and New Jersey, specifically to the Jersey Shore coast towns, Staten Island, and Manhattan.
When the storm hit on Sunday night, rain pounded the ground, loosening trees. When the high winds came Monday afternoon, those trees began to topple over. While the tide that came in destroyed homes along the beaches and shore towns, towns inland had to worry about uprooted trees, power outages, and downed power lines.
I mentioned before that it was a frightening experience as we all heard high winds whistle against our homes and the occasional “boom” of a tree landing nearby. When this happens and you’ve done everything you can to avoid disaster, all you can do is sit back, expect the worst, and pray for the best.
At 5:PM, Governor Chris Christie gave everyone the assessment of what had gone on. He was glad that the anticipated path of the storm had shifted slightly, which meant that the storm would not be as bad as it was originally projected. However, it was still going to be bad over the next six hours.
We lost power several times in the afternoon but on Monday at 6:30 PM it went down for good.
After the Storm
I mentioned earlier that I did not have a generator.
When the power went down for good, my wife and I began to light candles. Ideally, I didn’t panic yet. We’ve lost power before. The longest amount of time we’d lost power had been about sixty hours – two and a half days.
I did a few spot checks during the storm. We lost a few tree sized branches. A tree had broken in half and had fallen into the driveway. “Widow makers” that had hung from the trees for months had fallen to the ground. Broken branches had fallen in the yard (away from my car).
With the knowledge that was the damage to that point, I went back inside the house, said “good night” to my wife, and went to sleep. This was not a conscious decision as I was up the previous night worrying about the preliminary storm. My body had just shut down. If there were a fire, my wife would wake me.
The temperature had dropped that night. It fell to the low forties. The power had not come back.
The thing to keep in mind is that most oil burners and hot water heaters work off of electricity. While they did not produce new hot water, the hot water that is still in the tank is still relatively warm. For any of you gentlemen out there, this is the time for you to “man up”. Give your wife the hot water for her shower. Tell her to make it quick, though. If there is anything left, men can take a quick shower. (Yes, this is a male sexist thing to say. I understand this. However, I’m an old fashioned man who believes that chivalry is not quite dead.)
Overnight, a large dead tree that had threatened the welfare of my pool had decided to follow through with its threat. It fell and destroyed part of the pool deck. The good news is that if I had not moved my grill and cooler, it would have destroyed them, too. Score – Storm: 1, Me: 1.
Nothing happened to the car outside or the car in the garage. No tree fell onto any of the roofs and the houses were intact. With the exception of the power being out, the damage was marginal.
Living under your own contingency plans
No power. No internet. No cell service. No heat. That was the situation.
The storm had apparently taken out an AT&T cell tower. Verizon had service. My 3G service on AT&T was hosed. The only way I could get service was to drive my car out to another zone. I had no way to contact work. I could not email out or text. On the upside, I had made some amount of contingency plans while I was working from home on Monday. The news about the storm damage to the coast was well publicized internationally – even my offshore co-workers in India were aware of the damage.
Still, being a professional, I felt a responsibility to make myself heard and had attempted several times to get a message out unsuccessfully. Still, I knew where my priorities lie.
Family first. Business second.
My house had no power, but my car did. I went to my car and started to charge my phone through its phone adapter. In the meantime, I had the radio running and heard the weather reports for that evening. The temperature was supposed to drop radically that evening to the high thirties. The daytime temperature was in the low sixties.
The priority was heat.
The well-stocked candle supply we had in the house would give us light that evening. I went to our firewood pile and piled a large amount of wood in the wheel barrel.
After I brought enough wood to the house, I decided to make lemonade from lemons. The meat was going to spoil. The good news is that most of the stuff in your fridge will be okay for a few hours, provided that you didn’t open the door too many times. My wife took the precaution of freezing several bottles of water and sticking them in the freezer next to much of the food.
Here’s a little appliance history. Way back in the day before electrically run refrigerators, there were “ice boxes”. It was a cabinet that had a compartment for a block of ice which would keep your food cold. The ice was frozen in the winter time and kept cold and then cut away and brought to homes by very large, strong men who’d bring the ice to your house. They were called “ice men”. People would replace their ice every few days.
The principle still holds true today. If you put ice near your food, it will keep it cool.
I, however, did not want to take that chance with any of my meat. I took the defrosting meat, rolled my grill away from the house again, fired it up with charcoal briquettes and had a mini barbeque. It kept me busy and allowed me to have a moment of bliss in otherwise bleak circumstances. My wife made vegetables on our propane stove.
Note: Starters on most stoves are electrical. In the event you lose electricity, you will need a stove lighter (it’s very much a like a regular cigarette lighter except you can light it by squeezing a trigger and it has a long “snout” where the flame comes out). Doing this has some risk. Many people light the gas first and then the match or light. That is a wrong and dangerous way. Light the match or lighter first and then turn on the gas.
I took the cooked food into the house and then started a fire in our fireplace. We were able to keep the room temperature near the fireplace around seventy degrees in the evening. The only mistake we made Tuesday evening was to sleep away from the fireplace.
It is also a good idea to have your fireplace inspected annually. A blocked chimney is prone to carbon monoxide poisoning in the house. If you fall asleep near that kind of fire (without a CO detector), you may not wake up. Maintaining your fireplace has a marginal cost to it, but in the end it’s better than the alternative.
If you rarely use your fireplace, it’s still a good idea to have it checked every so often – especially if you have a heatilator or wood oven. Heatilators were very popular in the 1970’s. They are these devices that have slats on the sides that throw out massive amounts of heat from the wood burning in it. They work very much like fireplaces but more efficiently. They are prone to rusting, though. The last thing you need is to find out that your heatilator has rusted through and has become a fire hazard. So, have someone check it periodically.
Staying warm and entertained
By Thursday, we were sleeping by the fireplace and keeping it fed with wood.
The thing we really had to do was keep ourselves occupied. My wife and I have a large collection of books (read and unread). Now was the time for us to catch up on our reading and get some quality time with each other.
Remember, PC’s, routers, and modems all run on electricity – so do video games, VCR’s, DVD players, cable boxes, cable modems, and televisions. You have a few minor choices: read, sleep, sex, work, eat, and talk.
And sex is “iffy” because without sufficient heat in your bedroom, it will involve taking your clothes off. Nothing spoils the mood more than cold on certain naughty bits.
Speaking of which, by Thursday, the heat in the hot water tank was gone. If you ever want a family member to hear you shriek, take an ice cold shower. This technique involves wetting down, soaping up, rinsing off, and getting out as quickly as possible. It is, next to doing your own dental surgery, one of the more unpleasant experiences you can have.
My wife described my screams perfectly. She said, “Remember that scene in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo was being tortured and you heard him scream off camera? It was like that.”
On the upside, a cold shower is quite invigorating. You think I’m telling you this as some kind of prank. I’m serious, though. I had more energy and felt more like a human being after I’d cleaned up a bit and settled back into clothes. The cold water, while terrible, has a tendency to wake you up and get the blood going.
Of course, I went to the fire as soon as I got dressed.
Hard work outside (getting firewood, clearing debris, raking leaves, etc…) is good exercise and will kill time until the power and heat are restored in your home. Plus, anything seems warmer when you come inside. When you work outside and do the work that our forefathers had done back in the day, it’s better than working out in a gym. This combined with the fact that I needed to cook my own meals instead of junk food was the best thing for me. At the end of the day, I was able to sleep comfortably – this time near the fire.
Were you prepared for Hurricane Sandy?
Jean Paul Sartre has said, “Hell is other people.” This is 50% true.
Hell is actually “stupid people”. You know who I’m talking about. These are the people who yell at the bus driver during a traffic jam – like it’s his fault. These are the people who like to complain about not having cable when they have light, heat, and power in their homes.
I will limit this to only three cases at the moment. If I don’t, this will just go on.
Case #1: Police blocked off a road due to downed wires. This did not stop many SUV drivers from attempting to go through them. One case in Newark involved a sanitation truck going through a site that was still under repair, catching on the wires and undoing the repairs already made – depriving hundreds of people from restored power.
The cones are there for a reason.
Case #2: A woman in one of the few unaffected areas of New Jersey wrote online that she was disappointed in the governor for postponing Halloween because her five and eight year olds were deprived of the Halloween celebration. Hand to God, this is true. I believe (in addition to my own commentary) she’s still getting flack from it as of this writing.
Case #3: This happened when I was able to get to one of the few food stores that opened with partial electricity. People were able to get into a food store so they could stock up.
Aside from the assorted reports of people having fist fights while on line to get to the register, I saw an older gentlemen (older than me – which means old enough to know better) literally pass through an entire aisle of bread, canned goods, soups, powdered goods, and fresh fruits and vegetables and say aloud, “There’s nothing here.”
I tell you that if the zombie apocalypse comes, he’ll be one of the first to turn.
Outside of these cases are the people who waited on the long gas lines to power their electrical generators and made it necessary for state troopers to have a presence there in order to stop fist fights. There’s something to be said on what it will take to bring people back to barbaric times. Tempers are high and people need to calm down.
Now, let me tell you about the other 50%.
These are the people who once they got power in their homes offered a place for people to hole up. This is to the people I know who are massage therapists and singers that went to the Red Cross shelters to offer their services and entertain the people who have lost everything. They are the change that they want to see in this world. I’m happy to say that this is the hope for humanity.
These are people who have little and are giving what they have to people who have nothing who are facing a future where everything they once had is now gone.
When you put this in perspective, it makes “not having cable” seem kind of trite.
Where I was
Hurricane Sandy took the Jersey Shore. This is where I was in relation to the impact.
We got our power back 10:AM Friday morning.
I was out foraging for more food and charging my phone. We were one of the lucky ones that got power back and had no major damage to our home. Everyone was alive and not hurt.
That makes the score – Hurricane Sandy: 1, Me: 1,000,000.
When you consider the damage done by this storm and what Mother Nature’s wrath has done to displace thousands of people, when you come out with everything you started with, you’re ahead of the game. What got me through this mess was an ability to prioritize and see things in proper perspective. That and having a coffee press with already ground coffee – that saved the lives of many people and helped me keep my ever dwindling patience.
I could go into the other stories of how I was able to find my favorite pizzeria open and how because I had a good woman at my side that this trying time was made easier. Or even the annoyances of parking my car in a lot on Friday to get candles I wouldn’t need only to have it hit by a runaway shopping cart that dented my car door. But I won’t because you have better things to do with your time than hear of my extraordinary good fortune as well as my whining about things that really don’t matter.
As of this writing, there are still thousands of people who still don’t have power in their homes. There are also thousands of people who’ve lost everything, including pets, children, and loved ones. What I urge you, my reading audience to do is give what you can to help these people.
Whether it’s money, a warm bed, a hot meal, or a shoulder to cry on, what you do to help these people will mean the world to some and save them from utter despair.