On Tuesday afternoon (5/4/2010), while I was engaged in my weekly biology class with a group of homeschoolers, the wind suddenly kicked up out of nowhere with a single strong gust. Looking out the window, all eight of us were struck by what looked like a yellow cloud lifting up over the nearest ridge about a mile away.
It wasn’t a yellow cloud; it was soil, lifted violently from the fields in the valley below, its color highlighted by the dark clouds above. Suddenly, the tree tops on the ridge to our west all bent over in unison, as if brushed by a giant invisible hand. There was a pause, and then we got hit with a blast of gritty air, probably in the vicinity of 50 mph, that toppled trees in our yard and turned out the lights. Boom. Just like that. We had about 2 minutes to react and prepare, from start to finish.
The Tree That Ate My Electricity
We got hit by a squall line, which would have been a “white squall” if we’d been on the water; the kind of storm that routinely flips sailboats because it catches them in an awkward position with too much canvas on the mast.
And it wasn’t just us; towns up and down the CT river got hit just as bad or even worse, and power crews had to contend with thousands of outages, including at the area hospital. By Wednesday morning, it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to be getting our power back for a while. Reports were drifting in of widespread damage and serious outages, and rumors surfaced that it might be a couple of days until we got our power back. Information was sketchy and hard to come by.
At first I was thinking, “No big deal; we’re pretty well covered.” But I soon discovered that we had some pretty big holes in our preparations and thereby learned a number of important lessons.
To my great chagrin, I discovered that the propane tank that feeds our gas stove was only 1% full, and we soon depleted it. Oops. It’s my job to keep track of it and call the propane company when it gets to 30%, and I’d somehow let that slip by. And just to really rub it in, our outdoor grill was also nearly out of gas, making cooking and heating water more of a chore than it needed to be.
Worse, we hadn’t yet gotten around to having any rain barrels set up, so we were very soon scrambling to obtain water to use to flush toilets and wash dishes. Luckily, we have plenty of water containers. Unfortunately none of them were full at the time, so off we trundled to places where we could get water.
Our flashlights operate on rechargeable batteries, and only a few were sufficiently charged. So we turned to hurricane lanterns (the kind with wicks that burn oil), which were great to have and reminded all of us of our summers in Maine, where these devices supply most of our lighting needs. But it would have been nice to have at least one flashlight per family member (plus one for the guest staying with us at the time).
Of course, I lost contact with the Internet and this site, as my computers and Internet access are all tied to the power grid. Fortunately, I have a backup plan for accessing the Internet and maintaining contact with this site, but in this case it did not work very well. In the past, such as when on vacation or traveling, I’ve maintained contact by using my Blackberry as an antenna and tethering it to my laptop. While all of that worked, and I had electricity from the solar array to run everything, the problem was that my cell reception was degraded to the point that I could not manage to post comments. I could read everything fine, but I couldn’t post anything.
I think the explanation for this is that the cell towers were overloaded with other people who were relying on their cell phones, and so mine could not operate above the critical threshold required to handle posting. So as a result, I am now developing back-up plans for my back-up plans.
The good news was that our solar PV system did its job perfectly, and also supplied our freezer with electricity, preventing a pretty expensive melt-down that would have cost us hundreds of dollars.
Finally, at 11:00 last night, our power was returned, 30 hours after it had gone off. Water once again came out of the taps like magic, the refrigerator busily hummed away, and all our electronics beeped back to life.
Keep things topped off. I thought I had already learned this lesson some years back. Apparently such lessons wear off. This week I will be installing rain barrels (or even buckets), filling all the propane tanks, and making sure all my batteries are charged and ready.
Sometimes things happen with almost no warning. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always assumed that I’d have warning for nearly any event. Weather usually comes with a fair bit of warning. This event did not. Okay. Lesson learned. And I don’t mean just about weather related phenomenon. Perhaps there’s a “white squall” lurking out there in the economic sphere as well.
The essentials. Being without refrigeration and water is just not fun, so I am going to focus on getting the rest of our solar panels installed and hooked to a larger battery array as a next matter of business. With our solar hot water going in, we’ll be living large in almost any situation as long as we can run our well pump. Solving the energy pig that is our refrigerator is a different matter, and I am still not sure how to handle that one, but we’ll work something out.
Without electricity, life changes radically. I know this, but knowing and experiencing are two different things. One thing I had not purposely done in the past was to cut off our power for a period of time to see how we’d do. That’s the only way to really know. Now I plan to apply these learned lessons and then cut our power for a longer duration just to find out where the kinks are.
I am thankful for this mini dress-rehearsal that nature delivered to our doorstep. By having our power cut off for more than a day, many weaknesses were exposed. We got to know a few neighbors a little better. All in all, it was a very good thing.
Being cut off from this site was a challenge, especially since so many enormously important market events are happening right now. It’s extremely important to me that I be able to remain connected with this community during such exciting times.
For anyone wondering where I went during these past few exciting days, I was reduced to lurker status, but now I’m back.