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Just a little while ago, the utility gods smiled upon my house, renewing the electricity, telephone, and internet. Hurricane Irene provided many people an opportunity to examine our cultural commitment to the systems of technology we depend on. Clearly, some people got it worse than others.  We were without our modern amenities for about 48 hours, long enough to regain a healthy appreciation, but not in a way that was actually dangerous.

Thinking back upon my family’s little unplanned techno-vacation, it occurs to me that more things fell into the “Works Fine” category than the “Doesn’t Work” category. There’s also the “Works, but…” category of things that only require adjustments and workarounds. Having things stop functioning provides a great view into the systems that we depend on, how they work, how they fail, and what we can do to either prevent failure or deal with it when it comes our way.

While my wife is thrilled that the freezer full of food will not continue to go soft and squishy, I enjoyed the adventure of rigging the hot water heater to the 12 volt AC inverter in the car and making the shower run hot. I have also had a good time building the road-scored firewood pile that will heat the house on some cold days in the future. My daughter wasn’t so fazed by it, just concerned that her phone’s battery was getting charged each time we went off on some fools’ errand like getting ice to keep our drinks cold.

I’d love you hear how you fared through the storm and what you’ve discovered about your systems. Please post in the comments. Here’s a rundown of what worked and what didn’t in my neck of the woods. :

Worked fine:
The house – It didn’t blow over, get washed away, or otherwise vaporize. This may seem superficial, but there was a lot that worked within the house and its various systems. The design of the house easily withstood the wind and rain. We were safe inside, the windows kept the weather out, while letting light in during the day. We got plenty of ventilation through the various screens. We were able to lock the doors when we left, open them when we returned. The roof kept the water off, and the gutters and downspouts moved it away from the foundation.

The car – Before the storm, I filled the gas tank. It started each time, and the electrical system was extremely useful for charging electronics and powering other things. Good windshield wiper blades and tires were rather handy.

The stove and oven – This is a natural gas range with pilot lights. Its operation was 100 percent normal. It cooked food just like it was supposed to. Over at my parents’ house, they were lighting the burners by hand because the electric igniters had no juice. My neighbors have an electric range, so they were heating the coffee water on the grill.

Utilities that come to the house underground

Running water – We had fresh potable water from every faucet with plenty of pressure. The toilets worked, the shower ran, but was cold. If we wanted to, we could have watered the lawn, but there’s no sense encouraging the lawnmonster.

Natural gas – The stove and oven provided a batch of chocolate chip cookies, coffee, tea, toast, chicken parmesan and a toasted marshmallow or two. With some modifications, we even had hot showers.

Communications systems delivered over the air

Broadcast TV – It probably worked, but there didn’t seem much interest in bringing power to animate that box. The digital TV signal converter runs on 5 volts, so that would have been the easy part. We used to have a 12 volt TV, but that died a while ago. If we really wanted to watch some centrally programmed video, we could have.

Cellphones – Coverage was either pretty good or spotty, depending on what provider and level of service. Voice and SMS seemed to work well on the two carriers we use. Data worked fine on one service, but was completely out for my phone for about six hours in several parts of town that normally have data service. Eventually, it returned and I got to catch up on email.

Radio – FM radio worked throughout the storm both in the car and on portable radio. We didn’t try AM radio. There was one commercial radio announcer who said he was stranded at the station with no relief in sight and was expecting to be on the air for about 20 hours. It sounded like some of my college radio adventures.

The police and municipal radio systems appeared to be working properly each time I saw people depending on it.

Systems that depend on gravity, solar and other natural systems

Solar – The solar hot water heater is sitting in the yard warming up as I write.

Water – Municipal water systems get their pressure by having water stored at a high elevation, charging the system so it flows when we turn on the tap.

Things with batteries

LED flashlights and tea candles – There are a lot of things that run on LEDs these days. The older ones seem to need higher voltage than the newer ones.

Battery powered clocks – Does anybody plug clocks in anymore? Most of ours run on a single AA battery for each timepiece.

Hand cranked radio – We got a fair amount of use from a FreePlay radio that gets its’ electricity source from a crank that tensions a spring which turns a dc motor acting as a generator as the spring unwinds. It’s also got a solar panel, but that doesn’t provide a whole lot of juice. After a decade or so of use, the thing still works surprisingly well.

Solar powered flashlight- Ours sits in the kitchen window waiting for its turn during times like these.

Didn’t work:

Anything that plugs in to the wall outlets.

Anything that is hard wired to the house, especially utilities that run on poles down the street

We had lots of wind damage, and as the trees fell, they got all tangled up in the wires. The utility poles in my area carry electricity, telephone, cable TV and fiber optic lines. When you drop a big old tree across all these systems, they just don’t work the same. Many people are now getting their telephone bundled with their cable and fiber, so there are now three ways to break the phone system.

Telephone and internet – Both of these failed after the storm passed. During the storm, the phone had dial tone and we could call out over an old school phone we keep for power outages. Eventually that stopped functioning, possibly because of the exhaustion of the battery backup that came with the service. Since there was no dial tone and they both come in over fiber optic, I figured the internet was also done for.

Cellphone chargers generally don’t work if you can’t plug them into a live outlet, but several of ours share the same USB port type. One of them only has a plug in charger, which we eventually plugged into the AC inverter in the car.

Laundry machines – These need a combination of electricity, natural gas and heated water. Some of that was available, but not enough to get the clothes clean. There was no trouble drying the towels in the sun, though. We don’t generally do laundry every day anyway.

Worked…but:
Keep the fridge closed! Refrigerators and freezers are basically insulated boxes with some cooling systems that run on electricity. Ours doesn’t run on propane like some do, so we kept them closed. The shape of the appliance makes a difference. The fridge and freezer in the kitchen open on the front face. This allows the cold air inside to ‘fall out’ of the interior. While it’s more convenient to get at the things you need, the interior will warm up faster as the cold falls out. The chest freezer in the basement opens on the top, so more of the cold stays in while you hunt for the thing you need. None of this matters much if the walls are not well insulated, though.

The dishwasher turned out to be a pretty good drying rack for the hand washed dishes washed in stove heated water.

The laptops run, but only as long as the batteries work, and only if what you want is on the hard drive. Unfortunately, the one that had the music on it also had the least battery life. The external hard drive I transferred the tunes to is powered by the USB port, so it didn’t need to be plugged in to the wall.

While the shower ran just fine, cold showers are not exactly my cup of tea. There turned out to be two options for a hot shower. Proper planning and a sunny day is handy when using the solar shower. We’ve got one for camping, and it doesn’t see much off vacation use. A full bag of water is just a little awkward to handle, so it’s on a piece of plywood on the wheelbarrow. This lets you move it around to get the best sun. Hoisting it to the height you need for a stand up gravity fed shower requires either a bit of mechanical advantage like a block and tackle or a smooth approach to a retaining wall. The other option was much more entertaining, and required me to replace the AC inverter plug with a new one from the auto parts store. Those guys know how to survive a state of emergency, they even gave me cash back on my purchase.

Don’t drive too far, because the gas stations need electricity to run the pumps and credit card machines. Most of the gas stations were out during and for a day or so after the storm. While I was fully loaded during the storm, after a bit of adventuring, it was time to fill up. The first station that I found had a line, and when I got my turn, the underground storage ran out as I managed to pump 3 1/2 gallons, plenty for my purposes. The next day, I was able to choose between stations and filled up easily.

The most reliable phone charger turned out to be in the car, so we charged while driving.

If the data on my phone had been more consistent, I would definitely have written this on the laptop while getting network access through my tethered phone.

Is that all there is to a disaster?

All in all, the power outage of the past couple of days provided a bit of entertainment and some perspective on which systems we need, and those we use without considering their impact. Generally, we don’t get quite so many power outages as we seemed to have had when I was a kid. It was nice to see what worked and what didn’t. There are many people around the world who don’t have access to sparkling clean drinking water, safe and stable electricity, natural gas piped in, septic systems to take our waste and safe, secure structures to live in. It is also striking that a few dozen well placed falling trees managed to take out the electrical system for so many people in my town. There were a lot of things that could have stopped working that kept on going.

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


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Comments

  1. Hank says:

    Found this on the net pre-Irene and it jives nicely with what you said…

    Overarching ideas: If I were a single mother or had health problems or
    have infants or small children, I would be evacuating now. New York is
    going to have some problems that New Orleans had: A rather land-locked
    populace, many of whom rely on public transportation. The time for
    leaving is now. You have two days. Don’t dally. If it comes to
    nothing, you’ve had a nice long weekend away. If it comes to
    something, being stuck three or four floors up and helpless with not
    enough food, water, medicine? Misery. Ask for help NOW.

    So, here’s some things you’ll need if you decide to ride it out —
    something I most certainly DO NOT recommend considering what’s coming.
    But if you’re a stubborn mule and refuse to leave, at least be
    prepared.

    1. Bleach: You’ll use it to clean. Before the hurricane hit here last
    time, I became a whirling dervish. I cleaned EVERY piece of laundry.
    The house was spotless. The first thing that happens when the
    hurricane comes through — no electricity, no sanitation, no public
    works. Think about it. Think about not flushing your toilet. Yeah.
    2. Extra paper goods: Toilet paper, paper plates, plasticware, garbage
    bags, baby wipes (no showers), etc. You can’t have too much.
    3. Camp lamps: You know those propane camp lamps? Make sure you have
    fuel, too. But when you lose electricity, you’ll want to sit around in
    the sweltering heat and do something. Get cards, books (no iPad),
    board games.
    4. Landline for telephone and MAKE SURE you have an old-fashioned
    phone that doesn’t need batteries.
    5. Buy more perishable food than you think. Fruits, veggies. Dried
    goods get boring after a couple days.
    6. CASH IS KING. ATMs won’t work. Banks will be closed. You will need
    money to buy things from whomever is still open. Their credit card
    machines WON’T work.
    7. Fill up the car with gas. This could save your life. Your car
    engine is a generator. It can charge your phones. It can get you the
    hell out of Dodge. Fill it up.
    8. Buy a chainsaw now.  Laugh if you will, but we helped many people
    get out of their driveways and out of neighborhoods with our chainsaw.
    People were stuck. Don’t be one of them.
    9. Buy a handcrank NOAA radio. You will use this. When the reality of
    no electricity settles in, you’ll start panicking because you don’t
    have enough batteries. Hand cranks work no matter. Buy one here.
    10. Guns and ammo. Make sure and have it ready. There was no looting
    in Houston. Know why? Self protection. People get desperate. When we
    left and finally evacuated a week after the last hurricane, we stopped
    at a private gas station that our friends are part owner of — we
    needed to top off the tank after doing some running around. A very
    frantic dude came up (he was armed) who wanted gas. We all were armed
    (four men and me and the kids). It was a good thing we were.
    11. High calorie food and multi-vitamins. Chocolate. PB&J. Boxed
    foods. Get a variety. You’ll be sick of it all before it’s all over.
    12. Clear plastic covered containers and plastic bags. PUT ALL
    VALUABLES in clear plastic bags. Put plastic bags in the bin. Be ready
    to put them in the car and go. 12.5 Have a container with emergency
    items — hunting knife, rope, tarp, duct tape, etc.
    13. Gas stove works. Everything else won’t. You’ll need a grill and
    charcoal and matches or a lighter. Keep em dry.
    14. WHEN IN DOUBT EVACUATE.  What’s the worst that can happen? You’re
    wrong? Who cares? It’s better than being stuck in a flooded city, I
    can promise you.
    15. Get water. During the first hurricane, we had surprise guests.
    Friends and extended family lived in a mobile home. They couldn’t
    afford to leave but the hurricane was on a direct path. We had them
    come to our house. It was a good thing we had lots and lots of extra
    water. You want to be in the position of helping people–not needing
    help.
    16. You have a short window to make contact with family. The
    government will take over the cellular and landline network for
    emergency channels. This will piss you off. Don’t panic. Addendum:
    Make sue someone knows what your plans are. Give out back up phone
    numbers. People will be worrying about you.
    17. Extras: Duct tape (for windows and blowing and stuff) and LED
    flash lights. FIRST AID kit. Aspirin, antibiotics, butterfly bandages,
    etc
    18. Take pictures for insurance. Right NOW, get out your phone. Go
    around your house and take pictures of everything. Save the photos
    somewhere safe. Insurance. Someone mentioned emailing them to
    yourself. This is a good idea. Get it in the cloud in case you need to
    make claims.
    19. Last thing before all else fails: Fill the tub with water. And as
    @chrisofrights says, the water tank has extra.
    20. Plastic bags. You really can’t have too many between trash and
    clean up. RT @FineCalliCat: wipes..don’t forget wipes
    BONUS: Don’t forget an emergency kit. Fill up on your medicine, etc.

    Double BONUS: Manual can opener. Forgot that.

    You’re probably thinking this is melodramatic. Not so much. Things get

    primal awfully quickly. When it comes down to it, there will be a grim

    determination that sets in. You’ll start only seeing men at the

    grocery store. You’ll see panicked people pleaded with grocers for

    more water. You’ll wish you had prepared. You’ll feel foolish because

    you knew what you should do but you didn’t do it.

    Do it.

    Once the hurricane hits and once the electricity goes out, you’ll be

    thrown back in time. There will be no sanitation. There will be water

    everywhere. Trees and debris will be strewn. You’ll wonder when

    someone will clean up. No one is cleaning up. YOU are cleaning up.

    Civilization is a delicate thing. It goes out the window, and quickly,

    under trauma. Your best defense is preparing now. Communications will

    fail. You’ll wonder how the government does anything. And the answer

    is, they don’t do much, very well, on a good day. Under pressure, they

    go to where they’re most needed first and there’s many things they

    simply can’t do. Expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised when they

    come through.

  2. On Monday, the day after the storm, we got mail delivered to the house from US Postal Service, and the brown UPS trucks were out and about. Those are some pretty big chunks of infrastructure that kept on going.

    In one nearby town, people have placed all the branches they want to go away on the edge of the road with the cut end of the branches pointing to the street. It looks like there will be a municipal pickup of brush, the town workers will drive along the road and pick up all the properly stacked branches. This isn’t the case in my town, where people are taking it to the town transfer station in their own vehicles and trailers where it will be ground up into wood chips. Next year, people can use those wood chips in their yards.

  3. anne speck says:

    I once used a hammer to grind whole allspice for pumpkin pie one thanksgiving. It’s amazing how soon “smash” starts to look like “grind”.

  4. Eric Cherry says:

    I live here in Huntsville, AL and we were subjected to over 100 tornados in a 6 hour period back in April. Massive damage here and left us without power (and internet) for 7 days.

    I’ve always been a city boy and this was the longest I had been without power. I have never been camping, was never in the cub or boy scouts. So I was kinda screwed.

    But here’s what I found, that worked out:

    Flashlights and candles get sold out QUICK after a natural disaster. I wasn’t prepared for this, “What am I going to do?”. Since all the traditional forms of lighting were sold out, I decided to go to lawn and garden and bought a few of those solar powered landscaping lights. Only $3 each, left em outside all day, took them inside at night. Worked all night long and lit up the whole house.

    Showering, I’m a world class wuss when it comes to cold showers. I had strung my garden hose across the lawn so it’d get plenty of sunlight. Hose got pretty hot and then showered in the front lawn in my boxer shorts, much to my wife’s horror. 

    Food also gets scarfed up at the grocery store quickly after a disaster, so it was time to widen my food horizons. I found that replacing bread with flour tortillas is just as good as sandwich bread. Lasts longer too. You can eat anything from Chef Boy Ardee cold from a can.

    Our city had a massive problems with burglaries during the blackout. 89 stores were broken in DURING the tornados were still landing. Sickening to think that people take such advantage at such times, but they do. I’m not a big advocate of guns and do not own any, but even a plywood sign spray painted that says “owner inside with shotgun” does work. Especially in places like Alabama where there are more NRA stickers than people.

    Keep a good attitude and be safe!

  5. Eric Cherry says:

    I live here in Huntsville, AL and we were subjected to over 100 tornados in a 6 hour period back in April. Massive damage here and left us without power (and internet) for 7 days.

    I’ve always been a city boy and this was the longest I had been without power. I have never been camping, was never in the cub or boy scouts. So I was kinda screwed.

    But here’s what I found, that worked out:

    Flashlights and candles get sold out QUICK after a natural disaster. I wasn’t prepared for this, “What am I going to do?”. Since all the traditional forms of lighting were sold out, I decided to go to lawn and garden and bought a few of those solar powered landscaping lights. Only $3 each, left em outside all day, took them inside at night. Worked all night long and lit up the whole house.

    Showering, I’m a world class wuss when it comes to cold showers. I had strung my garden hose across the lawn so it’d get plenty of sunlight. Hose got pretty hot and then showered in the front lawn in my boxer shorts, much to my wife’s horror. 

    Food also gets scarfed up at the grocery store quickly after a disaster, so it was time to widen my food horizons. I found that replacing bread with flour tortillas is just as good as sandwich bread. Lasts longer too. You can eat anything from Chef Boy Ardee cold from a can.

    Our city had a massive problems with burglaries during the blackout. 89 stores were broken in DURING the tornados were still landing. Sickening to think that people take such advantage at such times, but they do. I’m not a big advocate of guns and do not own any, but even a plywood sign spray painted that says “owner inside with shotgun” does work. Especially in places like Alabama where there are more NRA stickers than people.

    Keep a good attitude and be safe!

  6. James B says:

    Good thing you weren’t on an electric well pump.  No water, like the two weeks after hurricane Fran, is some serious misery.

  7. stevepoling says:

    Camping gear can be deployed in times like this. This spring I bought a hot-water heater that burns propane to heat water from a garden hose to dispense a nice shower. I also bought a little cabana-like shower tent that worked quite nicely.

    Years back my part of Michigan lost power for a week due to some “straight-line winds” (whatever that is). In desperation, I boiled water on my gas barbecue grill and rigged the Mr. Coffee filter with duct tape. Add your backyard-kitchen gear to your list of things that’ll work.

    I also learned a sneaky trick to make sure the generator is working OK. I lent my generator to my church for an event. When it didn’t start immediately, I had a number of friends–including the guy who does all my small-engine repair–getting it working. (It seems obvious now, but you have to drain bad gas from both the tank and the carburetor.)