Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lessons from Sandy

Well, I guess that'll learn me not to try to outguess the weather service. SuperStorm Sandy, as they are now calling it, did in fact turn out to be a storm of unprecedented proportions, and we were very lucky here to escape the full brunt of it. We lost power for less than 48 hours: it went out on Monday evening, just as the Muppets on our DVD were singing, "It's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights!", and came back on Wednesday evening just after we were preparing to go visit a friend in a neighboring town who still had power. Everything else—our water, gas, and landline phone—continued to work normally. A lot of trees fell in our area, but none got anywhere near our house; the biggest thing to come down in our back yard was our neighbor's porch swing, which somehow managed to blow clean over the fence, and it didn't land on anything important. And while the wind did blow away one of our recycling bins and the lid from our trash can (even though it was tied down), we managed to retrieve them without incident.

So just how well did our preparations for the storm work out? Well, food-wise, we did pretty well. I was able to make my breakfast cocoa from powdered milk, and Brian toasted me some bread over the stove burner with tongs. Throughout the two-day period, he kept diving into the fridge to retrieve leftovers so we could eat them while they were still good, and he also transferred frozen items from the freezer to the fridge to keep it as cold in there as possible. The bit of ice cream we had in the freezer did melt after 24 hours, but it was still cold enough to eat (or, more accurately, drink). When the power came back on last night, nearly everything in the fridge was still cold. The only thing we actually had to discard was a pint of milk—and even that might have been okay, but we figured better safe than sorry. (In fact, we actually got some free food on account of the storm, because on Wednesday the cafĂ© near Brian's office started giving away all its ice cream rather than let it melt.)

Keeping warm also wasn't too big a problem. With the power out, our heating system didn't work, but as it was only October, the temperature in the house never fell much below 60. We wore lots of layers and piled on the blankets at night. We also made a brief trip out to Brian's workplace on Tuesday (just long enough to check our work and personal e-mails, deal with the urgent ones, and reassure friends and family that we were okay). The building was on backup power, but the heat was running, so we were able to warm ourselves up for a few minutes. (We considered prolonging the trip by stopping at a bookstore or a Starbucks, but none was open, though there were a few businesses in the area that had power and were running as usual.) On Wednesday, we went in to his office for the whole day, and since I was dressed for an unheated house, I actually came close to being too warm. But I do worry a little about how we'd fare if we had to deal with a storm of similar magnitude in the wintertime. An unheated house is manageable when the outside temperature never drops below freezing, but on a January day when it never gets above freezing, I'm not sure just how cold it might get in here.

The biggest problem, as it turned out, was keeping ourselves occupied. It was too cold for a walk to be enjoyable, and since all the local businesses were closed, we couldn't exactly walk to anyplace and warm up once we got there. I thought we'd be in good shape with so many books and board games, but  the problem is that all these diversions require light. And in the wake of a hurricane, there isn't much of that even during the day. We could still read and play games with the curtains wide open, but once it got dark, we discovered that candles—even five or six of them at a time—just don't throw off that much illumination. We were able to play cribbage by candlelight, but reading aloud proved too difficult because either my body or the book itself kept blocking the light. So the one thing we'd probably find most useful for getting ourselves through future storms (and we can probably assume that there will be more of them in future) is a battery-powered lantern.

Throughout the storm, I kept thinking that we really shouldn't have anything to complain about. After all, a hundred years ago, most people lived like this all the time—no Internet, no TV, perhaps even no electric lights or refrigeration—and they managed just fine. But at some point it occurred to me that a hundred years ago, there was an infrastructure in place to support life without electricity. Houses either had forced-water heating or stoves and fireplaces to keep them warm; ice was delivered right to your home to keep your food cold; rooms had gas or oil lamps in them to read by. Sure, it's still possible in the modern world to build a life around these old-fashioned conveniences, but it takes a special effort and, in most cases, a lot of expense. For most of us, modern equivalents—like battery-powered flashlights and chemical hand warmers—make more sense as emergency backups. (Actually, ever since we saw an SUV parked in a driveway with the engine running and an extension cord hooked up to it—presumably connected to a pump in the basement—Brian has been toying with the idea of buying an inverter that could be hooked up to our car battery as an emergency generator.)

It's easy to romanticize the olden days, when people lived more simply. But it's also easy to remember that people back then didn't live as long, and in many cases, didn't live as fully. If I could choose to live in any time period in history, I honestly don't think I'd be willing to live in any time other than the present day, because I'd just be giving up too much. A hundred years ago, I wouldn't have the right to vote; seventy-five years ago, I wouldn't be able to fight off an infection with antibiotics; a mere twenty-five years ago, during my own lifetime, I wouldn't have access to the most massive library the world has ever seen, all at the touch of a button. And I'd much rather have to plan ahead to figure out how to do without such modern luxuries in an emergency than live without them every single day.

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