Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stormy Weather

Let's have a hurricane this weekend! It seemed like a novel thought. Hurricane Irene had been sitting in The Bahamas stalled like it was stuck in New York City traffic on a Friday night. It wasn't until the morning of Saturday, August 27, that it finally made land in North Carolina and Virginia.

The media hype was unprecedented. New York City television stations began non-stop coverage of the storm that lasted all weekend. Radio stations had dropped music programming and were simulcasting their all-news sister stations or television audio. Irene was not just a hurricane. It had become a major media event.

Here at home, we responded with a little more sanity. All the outdoor deck furniture came in along with all the plants and anything else that might go airborne. I made sure the gutters were cleaned out and all the windows were secured. Our seasonal in-window air conditioners were temporarily removed. We filled our largest bathtub with water along with other jugs and vessels. I gathered all the flashlights and brought out my cache of D batteries. Prepared and anxious, it was time to sit and wait.

Saturday afternoon, I called my boss at work and said I would not be in on Sunday. I was not about to leave my wife and kids alone at home just to log another day at work. The sky was remarkably clear. It was a beautiful day with sunshine and warmth. Later in the afternoon, the first signs became more and more obvious. The air became thick with humidity. It was going to be a bumpy night.

The rain began around 8 pm or so. From past experience, I knew the power would go out. It was just a matter of when. Living in the country, at the very end of a power leg, we lose power a couple of times a month as a rite of passage. No question. We were going to be sitting in the dark. My roof was also likely to donate a shingle or two to major storms. Que sera sera.

By ten o'clock, Irene had become a full-forced blustery rain storm. The wind howled outside sounding like a huge train going by that never ended. Short periods of calm would turn back to more powerful gusts. Exhausted, I fell asleep around 11 pm. The winds woke me up several times during the night. I noticed that some lights around the house were left on but I was too lazy to turn them off.

As the night progressed, I began to think we might escape a blackout. I stirred again around 2:55 am to see the lights flicker. Miraculously, they stayed on until about 3:05 am. With a bump, the big switch had opened somewhere. We were in black and would stay that way for a long time.

One thing I noticed, that I found very odd, was the brightness of the sky. All night it appeared to be lit in gray with the low light you would expect just before dawn. When dawn came, the storm was still flailing around at full force. I became annoyed wondering when it would cease. I was glad to see that no major branches or trees had fallen nearby and all the cars were safe. The elasticity of the tree branches amazed me. Trees really know how to swing and sway when they have to.

I had been listening to the radio all night. WCBS 880 was doing great coverage. WEPN 1050 was simulcasting the audio of the non-stop coverage from WABC-TV Channel 7. This was the first major storm that reminded me that we had transitioned into the digital age. I no longer had a way to watch TV with a battery operated set. All my portable equipment was analog.

Dawn came and the sky became a little brighter. The storm was relentless. In mid-morning, we experienced the eye of the hurricane passing over us. The radio stations commented that the eye was to pass right over Danbury, Connecticut and head north. The calm of the eye did arrive for about 20 minutes or so. The storm then returned, but only for a little while. By noon, it seemed like the worst of the storm was over. No power! We were still in the dark.

It was now about 3 pm on Sunday and I thought it might be time to venture out and see what had happened. I was thrilled that our house was completely dry and unscathed. The air was filled with a very strong scent of freshly broken branches. If you have ever trimmed a healthy maple tree, you know this smell. Amplify it about 100 times and you would understand what we experienced. The world smelled wet and woody. Our deck now had a carpet of small broken branches and leaves. Amazingly, not one of my antennas came down! We swept and scooped for awhile and then looked beyond our house.

The cause of the power outage was obvious. A large tree had fallen across our road pulling the utility wires nearly down to the ground. My daughters and I ventured into the car and went to explore. I was amazed how quickly the emergency crews were slicing up enormous trees and limbs to make roads passable. The electric crews were also scurrying to rebuild their entire infrastructure. Every power line looked like it had been grabbed and tossed by Godzilla.

Huge trees succumbed to severe twisting and snapped mid-trunk. There were so many power lines and other utility cables all over the ground. Many roads were impassable because of downed trees, flooding or work crew trucks. Our automobile movements were slow and cautious. The adventure had just begun.

Without power everything stops at my house. Life just isn't the same without it. The well pump requires power. No water means filling up toilets manually. We made many, many trips down to the swimming pool with water jugs! Fresh water was retained in our bath tub. This lasted for about three days. In contrast, the power came on quickly near where I work. The Connecticut food stores had plenty of water. I became a hero carrying large jugs of water back to our part of the world. All of our nearby stores were either blacked out and closed or had long been sold out of water.

No power also means no lights. D size batteries became an important item. I was amazed just how long our Coleman lanterns stayed on. We used them for four nights without a battery change. Our solar-powered garden and lawn lights became very handy helpers to our night vision.

I also had to get ready for work in the dark. I had lanterns and flashlights but I had no water. Armed with half a gallon of water, I could once again employ the techniques of bathing learned and developed while I was convalescing after I broke my leg. No problem! I even had neighbors come over with buckets and such to bring home my pool water for their bathroom needs. It was survival of the fittest: Everyone who could cleverly adapt!

Charging devices off-site became a daily routine. With plenty of power at work, I charged my computer (so we could watch DVD movies at night,) checked my e-mail, and made sure my phone and iPod was fully charged. Wi-Fi at work provided a way to sync up my iTunes with new content so I could watch the news at home. Public libraries also became asylums for the electrically challenged. People were eager to use library's free Wi-Fi and A/C power while they waited for their own lights to come on.

One of my friends had the right idea. A friend of his, from Rockland County, drove over to bring him a spare small generator. Since he was a DirecTV subscriber, as soon as he had a source of power for his satellite receiver and flat screen, he was back in business! The refrigerators and the TV was all he needed! Other friends with Cablevision had to wait until their A/C power was returned - and - their cable service was restored!

Every community seemed to be offering their constituents dry ice and pool water. Crowds would gather every time a notice or sign went up. 'Pool water free!' 'Ice today at 3 pm!' Ice was a precious commodity. Without electricity to run their refrigerators, residents were lining up to get dry ice and grew disappointed and/or annoyed when the ice did not arrive on time or there was not enough to meet everyone's needs. Pool water was just as important. People really started to appreciate what a wonderful thing fully-working indoor plumbing was!

I did not envy the telephone receptionists at our local power company NYSEG. They received a constant barrage of demanding calls as their repair crews worked night and day to rebuild their infrastructure. Trucks had arrived from dozens of states and provinces to help with the project. I saw crews from Michigan, New Brunswick, Maine and The Carolinas. The construction was impassioned and endless. I wonder when they slept. Every new repair completion brought more happy faces. These men need applause and recognition. They were our constant heroes for days and days.

Progress was being made but each passing hour felt longer and longer. On Tuesday afternoon (day three,) my wife and daughters traveled 90 minutes each way to a friend's mother's house in New Jersey just to take showers! What a treat! We also got into a routine of searching out restaurants that were open for dinner so we could have a 'real' meal once a day. We ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I was amazed how long the refrigerator stayed cold, but by Tuesday we had to dump its' entire contents into the trash.

Wednesday night (day four,) we anxiously waited for the power to come on. Other families in our neighborhood had been restored, but we are in the back woods and away from the main power lines so, for us, the blackout continued. My family went to a friend's house to enjoy their newly restored power. I was home alone and fell asleep in the dark. Around 10 pm, I felt a breeze on my legs and I opened my eyes. My fan was on and so were my lights. Whoo-hoo! The power was back on!

I immediately took a shower just because I could. In the days following, we continued our outdoor cleanup. We were so relieved that our adventure was over. Some of neighbors had to be doubly patient. There were homes in nearby North Salem that did not regain power service until a day or two past Labor Day. Hurricane Irene put even more punch into parts north. Vermont and Upstate New York were particularly rampaged with severe flooding. Quebec and parts of Maritime Canada also took a beating.

Now it is all over. It left us humble and thinking. How did our ancestors survive without all our modern necessities? We now appreciated three most cherished items: pool water, ice and D batteries. Propane for barbeque grills and generators also was high in demand. The only thing I'll miss is the amazing star-filled skies at night. Be glad for what you have and remember that every day is a gift!

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