Monday, December 15, 2008

Powerless – Day 4: Dispatch from a disaster area

Thursday night around midnight, a big hunk of beech tree crashed down and took our power line with it. I felt the house shake. Trees kept snapping in half all night long. It was a scary noise, especially since I couldn’t see what was happening—is the next one going to hit the house? Is everything broken now? Are there any trees left to fall? The devastation all over town has been breathtaking. According to the news, 800,000 houses throughout the northeast lost power, about 350,000 in Massachusetts, 300,000 in New Hampshire; the governor declared a state of emergency, whatever that means.

We’re in an involuntary experiment in living mostly off-grid. I keep thinking of farm-witch, actually. My stove is gas-fuelled, so I can cook on the stovetop if I light the burner (can’t work the oven, though – damn fancy electronics). I have a generator; most of my neighbors aren’t so lucky.

My new morning routine goes like this: huddle in bed under covers avoiding this whole mess for as long as possible, then get up, shut down the generator board circuits, start up the generator (usually this involves the use of a hammer), switch the circuits on in sequence, light a fire in the fireplace, check the water level in the boiler, and make some coffee. Then wait for the house to get warm.

The generator powers our refrigerator, the ignition for the boiler (and thus heat), the septic system’s pump, hot water heater ignition (gas fired, yay), microwave, and a few lights and electrical outlets. Some power, and the tree across the phone line didn’t manage to rip it down, so we have phone, but internet access is gone. We’ve mostly scoped out where the outlets that work are, and charge up the cell phones and laptops. When the generator runs out of gas, we either call it quits for the day or I go get more (it’s petrol, which I get from the filling station).

Yesterday’s wonderfulness was that my landscaper guys came and cleared away some of the broken tree parts. My yard no longer looks quite as apocalyptic. Hurray. Bonus: the whole driveway is passable, without requiring me to drive through the backyard around the house anymore. Youngest and I went and got a Christmas tree, which was a different kind of wonderfulness but still important.

My generator is a little cranky, but it has an 800 number to call right there on the engine housing. After spending almost all the daylight hours of Friday clearing fallen branches and huddling in front of the fire, I hauled the (really very heavy) generator out and tried without success to get it started. When I called the number, I eventually got a live person who helped me. He walked me through what all the knobs were for and in what order they needed to be engaged, and suggested I remove the side panel and spray carburator cleaner into a little hole and then pull the engine’s starter cord immediately afterward—which did the trick! Day 1, success! Day 2, not so much: the starter cord wouldn’t engage when I pulled it. I called again. The suggestion was to “tap” the housing of the starter cord, which I did with a hammer, and success! Again! Yay!

So the generator and I have each other’s measure. My “starting up the generator” morning routine means I check the fuel level, disassemble the air filter, hit the starter with a hammer, spray stuff into the little access hole, pull the cord really fast, and all is then well. We have water to bathe and wash dishes, most of our food has survived, we can cook a little bit, and we’re warm. This is a damn sight better than most people.

Some of the local schools have been converted into shelters. People are evacuating to friends, relatives, the shelters, or trying to stick it out in their homes. An awful lot of people have pets that they don’t want to leave (we fall into that category), so it’s hard to decide what to do—you can’t bring four cats and a dog into a shelter, so we stayed home. A lot of my neighbors did, too. The weather today is quite warm, which means the people who’ve been freezing will be warmer, but the food that people have been storing outside in the cold will go bad.

Last night, we were supposed to have power back. Tonight, we’re supposed to have power back. It’s bullshit, of course. It’d be easier to figure out what to do if I had an honest assessment from the power company of how long this is going to go on. I do know that I haven’t seen a big truck with repair equipment anywhere near my neighborhood. I know I won’t have power back until the lines get put back onto the pole and back onto the side of my house, and there’s no sign of that happening, so I’m assuming we’ll be living like this for at least another couple of days.

The generator is loud.

I need to do laundry.

It was probably a little like this when Katrina hit: pet issues, power company bullshit, vexing decisions about whether to stay and take care of your house or get the hell out. We’re lucky, actually. I’m amazed that nothing landed on my car or my house, that the day after the storm was warm and without wind—it could have been so much worse.

I finally called the cable company this morning. Their line is wrapped around the power line that’s down. They don’t have an emergency number at all, and I was on hold for a while before talking to “Agnes” in probably Bangalore, who rather nicely credited my account for the days of lost service and then tried to set up a technician appointment. This seemed to me like a fairly stupid way to handle it, but okay, fine, whatever, send a technician in 24 to 48 hours. Dudes, I have a live wire across my driveway; the connection to the house is fine as far as I can tell. I’m sure they need to test equipment and stuff. Sigh.

I have schoolwork to do. There is a tree across the tennis court. I think I will try to buy a chainsaw today. Have a lovely day, all.


Blogger Lucia said...

Yeesh. I muttered under my breath about the kids' being out of school on Friday and our losing power for all of ten minutes (if that) on Friday morning.

We have all the mod cons, should you want to come visit and take nice long showers and maybe even sleep in a warm house. You could even bring the dog; cats might be a little more problematic (Callie is extremely territorial, and not in a good way).

If it's any consolation, we did see a phalanx of utility trucks on Boston Rd just on the other side of 110, um, Saturday night around 10, I believe it was. So they are working on it, if very slowly.

It's been my observation that utility-company employees usually don't know a whole lot more than customers do, but have been instructed to conceal that fact to the best of their ability.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Lucia said...

Oh, and Julie got her power back early this morning, so there is hope.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Mel said...

Ours came back yesterday evening after I'd left for work. This storm really pointed out how badly we need a) wood heat, and b) a gas stove. We could probably get by with just a), but I'm a bit reluctant to have anything that would get hot enough to burn the kitties. We already had a singeing incident when Sylvie sidled up too close to a propane heater we were using to warm the kitchen pipes (and yeah, we had very good ventilation).

Hope you get back on the grid soon.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Lynne said...

I drove by your house on Saturday heading to the studio (which had heat and electricity) and your place did look like a war zone - Thank the gods nothing landed on the house or cars!

We got our power back late Sat. afternoon. Groton has their own power company so we don't have to deal with the National Grid or Nstar :)

If you need anything just yell.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Ruth said...

Ye Gods. I hope you're back in service by now ... just in time for the next round.

Call if there's anything I can do ....

8:15 AM  

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