Powerless: My week off the grid

NEW HAMPSHIRE - People complain constantly about energy. It turns out however, that people will complain even more loudly about a lack of energy, as I found out last month during a record ice storm here in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire sees all sorts of vicious winter weather, but this was a remarkable storm even by local standards. For an entire day, a steady misting drizzle fell from warm air high above – straight into frigid air near ground level. Hour by hour, ice formed and accreted on every limb, wire, house, leaf and pine needle, eventually reaching nearly an inch in thickness on every exposed surface.

Long before that occurred, however, the trees and bushes began to bow under their burdens, the more limber ones bending completely over to rest their crowns in a downward droop. The more rigid, great old trees refused to bend – until they simply cracked in sharp explosions and came tumbling down, breaking others below.

Electric power was lost early on, as trees leaned and fell into wires all across the region, graying out power momentarily before blackness fell street by street. A weird lightning seemed to roll across the slow motion disaster for hours – electricity arcing from wire to tree over and over again for miles in every direction, accompanied by the artificial thunder of exploding transformers. No one slept that night, as all lay awake listening to the constant cracking gunshots of snapping and crashing trees and praying that the next one would not crash on their home or car.

Many prayers were answered, some were not. The damage was incredible.

When light finally came the next day – sunlight — several hundred thousand people looked out onto a glistening, crystalline and jumbled world of ice and debris. Roads were impassable. The only noise came from distant sirens and chainsaws. And it was obvious to all that electricity would not be restored for some time – perhaps even weeks.

At that point, the world was immediately divided into two groups: those with generators and those without. It is obvious that modern society is dependent on electricity, but it is sobering to see how dependent it is when it is taken away for a long period. Lights go out, furnace blowers and well pumps quit, gasoline pumps stop, most cooking, washing, and laundry stops. Schools close. Refrigerators and freezers fail – at the grocery stores too.

Computers and televisions shut down. Even the radio stations themselves were off the air for a while – an unbelievably eerie thing to experience as I scanned the dial the next morning and could hear nothing except for the distant signals from Boston to the south. Phones were down, as was cable and Internet.

The only decent sources of information and communication in this little frozen wasteland were cell phones – a story repeated in many other disasters in recent times. I’ve never been a fan of trying to view the internet on a 1.5- inch-high phone screen, but every day I did so for updates on weather and power restoration efforts.

By the second day, it became so cold in many homes that a huge portion of the population simply left – energy refugees heading towards relatives or hotels in regions still with power. Life without electricity was simply untenable for many. Those who could somehow heat their homes stayed and began cleaning up.

While out cleaning up and checking on things on the third day, I saw a vehicle come down our street. The first heading in, rather than out, in a while. It was a huge military Humvee. The National Guard had been deployed (to rescue trapped people, not put down looters — this is New Hampshire, not New Orleans, after all). The guardsmen, one still wearing his civilian coat, unzipped the driver’s side window and asked my 7-year old son and me if we were okay. We were, but the sight of the giant “army truck” beside our yard left the boy temporarily speechless.

Interestingly, it was not constant, abundant power that many missed most. After 4 or 5 days, it was the Internet and cable TV. Wearing unwashed long underwear in your 50-degree house while eating Chef Boyardee and soup every day is one thing. Not being able to check your email for a week is something else altogether.

At one point, two neighbors heard that the wireless signal at the Barnes and Noble in Manchester was working again, so they went skidding down debris-strewn roads with generator-charged laptops to re-enter the 21st century.

After the neighbors’ car broke down (luck is entertaining, isn’t it?), I detoured from a trip with my family to buy Chef Boyardee and batteries and picked them up – putting eight people in a minivan. To accommodate the car seats for the 5 kids involved, one adult had to ride in the tiny cargo area behind the third row. So I drove back home with a full-grown Internet addict in the trunk. The girl at the McDonald’s drive-through was a bit perplexed at the sight (we were all sick of soup and in a hurry). Afterwards, the cramped addict said it was all worth it, just to be able to connect for 2 hours.

Also interesting were the diverse reactions of people to the situation.

One camp got by and helped out. The other whined, complained, bitched, moaned, and threatened. It was outrageous that they were cold. It was outrageous that they were in the dark. Where was the government? Where was someone to work harder for them? It turned out to be the greatest ice storm and power outage in the history of the state.

Extra crews were brought in from as far away as Ohio and Canada to essentially rebuild an electricity infrastructure that was broken in thousands of places. And yet it was “outrageous” to some (usually those talking to a reporter) that power wasn’t up and running the very next day. That’s one approach to dealing with life, I suppose.

Another was that of my wife and her friend who took coffee and doughnuts to one of the Zombie line crews trying to restore power around the clock, day after day in freezing weather.

A once-in-a-lifetime event is no picnic for anybody – especially the people actually trying to fix things. In the end, the line crews worked power back to every home. In my case it took 7 days, but for others it took longer.

The week involved a lot of work, no TV, no phone, going to an unheated church one morning in dirty clothes and a winter coat and shivering my butt off through the whole service, and basically just performing chores and talking to pass time. I wore a hat constantly. I checked in on neighbors a lot, and they checked in on me.

One memory stands out in the whole experience, however. One morning, about 4:30 am, I woke up in the cold house and went downstairs to crank the generator. With no electric lights on in the house, or for miles around, I could see the night sky outside perfectly.

The sky was full of bright stars and I stood there looking at them for a while. Through the transom window above the darkened Christmas tree, a small low wisp of a cloud appeared over the trees. The cloud looked just like a cut out paper angel, and it glowed brilliantly in the full moonlight. Slowly, it glided through the night until the angel appeared to come to rest — directly above my Christmas tree. I was stunned. Then the cloud suddenly blew apart in the wind and disappeared. I never would have seen that if I’d had power.

“My God,” I thought, “I’m practically Amish.”



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