Friday, November 8, 2013

Twelve Days Dark

Right about this time last year, I had some unplanned downtime, not the least of which was Hurricane Sandy. We just had a small "disaster reunion" gathering, and it reminded me, I'd been meaning to write a post about the event.

It's been about a year since the storm (and since my last post, apparently)...time certainly has a way of slipping out of the room when you're not looking.

I hadn't really been paying attention to the news. Certainly wasn't focused on the weather. I'd been recovering from an injury, spending most of my time watching Breaking Bad, meticulously experimenting with different OTC NSAIDs (Aleve won), learning Morse Code, and wishing I could navigate the stairs with less pain. My first extended venture downstairs in almost a month was only two days before the blackout.

Friday, October 26, I shuffled out to the garage in my then-ubiquitous sweatpants. Four more stairs. Shuffled over to my gas-powered portable generator. I hadn't started the little guy in over a year...The fuel was bound to be stale. The pull-start was a unique torture, made all the more unpleasant with the persistent lack of sustained combustion. Added some fuel stabilizer. Collapsed weakly into a nearby camp chair. Fiddled with the valves & hoses, ultimately draining off some of the stale fuel into a drywall bucket. Topped off the tank with fresh fuel and rested again. Second pull, and it sputtered back to life. I shut it down, and rolled it back into the corner, confident I wouldn't be needing it again...after all, I'd confirmed it worked. Murphy's Law virtually guaranteed we'd be in the clear.

As luck would have it, I'd had the house wired for a generator panel over the summer. No reason other than general preparedness. But I was glad it was already in place...At under a thousand dollars for the bypass circuit and breaker panel, I'll prep every future house the same way.

We didn't do much shopping in advance; I grew up in the woods, so I'm always prepared for a little stretch of post-apocalyptic conditions. I keep drinking water on hand; we have plenty of canned or dried food, I keep an extra five gallons of fuel, just in case. Nevertheless, the wife did go to the grocery store on the 27th to pick up a few extra supplies, just in case.

Photo: Empty shelves....water completely sold out due to storm prep
Water Aisle two days ahead of Sandy
You can see the water aisle over on the right...

We filled the tubs with fresh water later on that night.

Early evening on Monday, Oct 29th, the winds were picking up. The power cut out around 6:30PM, and as the wind got more aggressive, tearing shingles & flashing from the roof. I moved the family (and some Hoboken evacuees) to the basement. The fiercest winds died down quickly; we were up from the basement after only a few hours. Trees at the edge of our property were uprooted, but nothing was close enough to land on the house.

At 11PM, the rain let up enough that I could wheel the generator out of the garage. It started right up, that lawnmower-engine sound that would be reverberating in the background for the next 12 days.

The first night, the generator ran for 8 hours, 15 minutes.  It died at 7:15AM. Eight hours on five gallons of fuel. I filled it from the Jerry can, and it ran from 10AM to 8PM on the next tank. We went to refill the tank, and this was the line...

I went into engineering mode, tuning power consumption on the circuits. Ordered a low-wattage microwave from Amazon (amazingly, it was delivered the next day). Ordered some LED lanterns and a spare Jerry can. Swapped out the high-wattage incandescent bulbs on the remaining circuits with CFLs. My next 5-gallon tank ran the generator for 14 hours, 20 minutes; by the end, I'd be averaging about 2:43/gallon at peak efficiency.

The governor announced that Halloween would be delayed.

The gas lines would only get worse. We'd hear reports of fights and arrests after only a couple of days. I'd leave one day at 4:30AM, thinking I'd get the drop on the crowds, only to wait for hours in a line of cars 2 miles long. And there's always that one asshole...You know the type...they come in at a different angle & try to cut the line. "I can't wait, I'll be late for work." Since clearly everyone else in the crowd is just there for the early-morning company.

The generator keeps the fridge running; more importantly, it keeps the well pumping water. I always thought it'd be better to be on city water in a situation like this, but news stories from around the area suggest that intermediary city pumps aren't working without power, and primary sources are getting contaminated from the flood waters. Guess the well is better, as long as you can get it out of the ground.

Tankless electric water heaters are more efficient, and I'd previously considered switching to one. Fortunately, I didn't want to spend the money for the upgrade...An electric heater would be rough to power from the generator. With a gas water heater, we were able to take hot showers throughout the whole ordeal. One more lesson learned...and fortunately not the hard way.  We're on gas heat, too, and the furnace only takes a little power to ignite & run the fans...the generator barely kicks when the furnace kicks on, and with two zones, I can easily heat the downstairs during the day, and the upstairs at night.

The governor announced that Halloween was cancelled.

We're pooling resources with our neighbors now...Huge pot-luck meals built on whatever had thawed the most that day, plenty of wine & beer...Neighbors come over in the day to shower, and send their kids over at night to sleep in the warm guest room.

By Nov 3 (day 5), I've received a number of Jerry cans, but NJ has implemented gas rationing. Even numbered plates can fill up on one day, odd numbered plates on the other. I have odd numbered plates on both cars, and the neighbors have two cars with even plates. We pool's an Odd day, so we load up all of the empty cans in our SUV & head back to the only gas station in the area with power to their pumps.

Their tanks are dry.

The next gas station with power is 15 miles away, so we give it a shot.  Wait our time in the line.  Unload eight five-gallon Jerry, and we're told it's limited to 10 gallons per customer.  Fill our two tanks, back in the car, head to the next station.  They'll fill our other cans, but they're only taking cash.  Good enough; we head back home with an SUV packed with 40 gallons of loose petroleum sloshing around in cheap red plastic containers.

I am the pinnacle of safety.

Perhaps most surprising is the connectivity.  The wife and I are on separate mobile providers. It costs a little more, not having the family plan, but in a case like this, there's a better chance that one of us has a working connection. Her data capability is offline for a little while at the beginning; mine held strong throughout.  So here we are, a week off the grid, but we can sit on the couch and post Facebook updates and Instagram photos describing our experiences, wirelessly communicating with people around the world. I'm keeping my generator logs on Google Docs, updating from a 2-pound tablet that remains stubbornly connected to the Internet, delivering our news updates & power company predictions, while the TV sits brooding and powerless in the armoire.

It is surreal; how can this be the same world into which I was born?

Somewhere around the first week, we hear stories of generators getting hauled off in the night. My favorite story -- unsubstantiated, but repeated with a variety of subtle variations -- is of a police officer in NYC waking to find that someone stole his generator in the night, and left a running lawn mower in its place, so he wouldn't hear the sound cut out.

I go to Home Depot & buy heavy chain. Old guy working the chain station there, comments he's sold more chain in the past few days than in the last year. "News of all these thefts has folks in a panic, I guess. But y'know what's funny," he comments..."We ain't sold even a single bolt cutter."

I tapped out one of my favorite posts on Instagram on Day 9...

Day 9 without power. Sponge seems to be keeping his spirits up, but I know inside, he's as worn out as I am. Still, he's my only companion in this uncharted, deserted house. Unless you count my family and the occasional neighbor families who stop in to warm up by the generator and ask why I'm digging out twitter updates in 20-foot burning letters in the lawn. I know there must be wild FedExes in this cul de sac, I see their tell-tale square droppings around my garage. Today I've devised a trap to catch one.

On Day 10 we were hearing that our lights might not be back on until Thanksgiving. This was not good news. We were in a good rhythm, but maintaining a gasoline-powered generator for another three weeks didn't sound particularly exciting. The neighbors have scavenged generators of their own by now, so the cul-de-sac is quite cacophonous. Fortunately, shops in the area were mostly up and running...gasoline & groceries were stocked and accessible. The wait for fuel was nearly back to normal. Schools were open, and most people were back at work.

On the plus side, by this time, I'd all but forgotten about my injury.

At 5PM on November 10, the power came back on. Twelve days.  It would be another day or two before I'd remember I didn't need to carry a flashlight everywhere. During the outage, I ran my generator for 245 hours...Three oil changes and nearly 90 gallons of gas.

Lessons learned?

It turns out I'm happy to have well water, and the dual-zone gas heat has benefits beyond the obvious.

Lamps are important. Low-wattage plug-in appliances are a plus. Energy efficiency makes a crazy difference, if I can see double the run time on a generator, and it makes me think we should focus more on efficiency in the day-to-day. We were able to run the wash machine, but not the dryer, which normally wouldn't be a problem...unless you happen to have a newborn. Disposable dishes can sometimes be a necessary evil.

I'm happy we have good neighbors. I'm glad we know them well; in our last place, we lived there for many years and were only moderately confident that one of them might have been named Frank something-or-other...

And while we were relatively well prepared, I hadn't thought through all the variables. I'd failed to plan for fuel rationing. It was only by luck I'd properly wired the house in time, and hadn't upgraded the gas appliances to something I wouldn't be able to sustain on a gas generator. I didn't have enough D batteries, and I was surprised to learn my gas oven won't run on the unstable oscillation of a generator without an inverter. I was able to correct for some of these misses because Amazon was still delivering, and FedEx could still make the last mile.

We could have survived without any of those things, of course. Our house had no structural damage. We never had to drink from the bathtubs. We didn't have to huddle for warmth. Hell, we never even had to touch the box with the real emergency supplies. And I hope it never comes to that....Because I can't help but think, what if it was bigger than a few minor inconveniences...what would happen if the gas supply didn't come back, or the grocery stores weren't restocked...

But I don't really worry about what I would do. That's why I have that other box.

I think about the people buying water at the last minute, the people starting fights in the gas line, the ones who fuel the stories about the stolen generators...And nothing good can come from opening that box.

I do not like dried eggs and spam.