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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Six Days without Power

And three days without a land line have shown us what we are made of, and we're much tougher and more capable than I thought. It also has pretty much conquered my remaining objections against my getting a cell phone, though I will still only give the number to the kids' school, Rich, our priest and the children so people can't just call and annoy me. We used Rich's work cell when he wasn't at work (yes, he still had to work with no electricity or phone at the airport), and charged it up in the car.

Anyway, we survived six days without electricity in our home. It was eased quite a bit by three families from our church letting us use their laundry facilities for about six loads, so we had enough warm clothes for the kids and blankets and sheets for bedding. We were also allowed to use the showers at two homes, and at our neighbor's hotel room (they left their powerless home for a hotel in town), so we were all bathed on Saturday and Rich and I got to take turns showering at the hotel Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thank you to the Williams, the Landons, the Ramos and the Lavines!

As for Rich and me, we came up with all sorts of ways to work with our powerless state. Aside from putting all the kids with us in the living room in front of the fire, which we had burning almost non-stop for those six days (it was out Saturday afternoon while we went to our various meetings and gatherings, Sunday morning while we went to church and Tuesday night while we went to Home Group), chopping wood each morning, afternoon and night, he did lots of the cooking on the grill, fashioning a kind of stove top on it and cooking everything from hashbrowns, to eggs to lemon-pepper chicken, to sausage and toast, he also heated our house Sunday morning with a propane torch he brought down from the shop, since we couldn't light the fire and still go to church, because we didn't want to leave the fire going, he then used that propane torch with a wire milk crate turned upside down to boil a big pot of water so we could wash in warm water that morning. The Landons brought a propane heater with them to church, and let us borrow it, so from Sunday on, we used it a few times a day, 10-20 minutes at a time, to heat the living room (which is a huge space, open to the dining room and the hall) and I made sure that every time it was on, we put a pot of water on and sometimes a pot with eggs in it to steam on top, so we could have hard boiled eggs and tea and water to wash with. I also wrapped potatoes at night and put them in the ash in the fireplace so we'd have hot baked potatoes to eat in the morning, I also cooked a squash this way, and between Rich and me, we rigged up a toaster/grill of sorts on the hearth with cinder blocks and metal trays, where we warmed plates of food, toasted bread, made grilled cheese sandwiches and even dried wet gloves. Each morning began with milky tea, so the kids had something warm for their hands and stomachs. We had a butane one burner stove but ran out of butane on Sunday, and there was no butane to be found in a 30 mile radius of our home, so it came in handy to have the propane heater where we could heat water after that.

Our phone came back on Monday night, which was a huge relief. There was something particularly frightening about there being no power and not being able to get a hold of anyone should we need help, especially since the phone first went out while Rich was at work, and whenever he was gone it was a little distressing for me. Monday night also brought another reprieve for us. We had set up our outdoor refrigerator, and if it weren't for wildlife, we could have just left everything out in the breezeway, it was colder than our fridge was, but we have a deep freeze and two fridge freezers that were full of food, mostly meat, that were just starting to thaw. We put the contents of all three into the deep freezer with two blocks of ice, but that wouldn't refreeze anything, just keep it from getting worse. Well, there is a construction company that has a hangar just up the hill from our house, and they have a portable generator that they were using during the day for light and tools and such on the job. They let us use it at night while they didn't need it so we were able to hook our freezer up to it and Rich plugged in an electric space heater in Dominic and Amira's room, and we set the four older kids up in there for the night with heat, which expanded our living area from four rooms (kitchen, dining, living and downstairs bathroom) to five rooms. He also plugged in a lamp in the bathroom and our alarm clock, since he had to return it by 6:00 a.m.

Although we literally had between 25 and 30 candles lit at any given time at night, that one light brightened up the room and hallway so much it made us realize what a miracle electric light must have seemed to the people who were alive when it became common. We just couldn't believe how bright it was.

Oh! but I haven't told you the story of Rich getting that generator set up. It was night time, as the construction company used it during the day, and it gets dark here at around 3:30 p.m. anyway, so after dinner, Rich goes to get it and set it up in our driveway to the garage, so it would be outside, but near the basement so he could run extension cords to the deep freezer down there, as well as up the stairs to the bathroom and the kids' heater. Well, he spent at least two hours trying to get it to start. Here we were hanging all our hopes on this machine, so that we wouldn't lose all that food, and it wouldn't start. Every time he came into the house, he was more and more frustrated, and I was worried for him and for the food and for the kids, who were already asleep in the room, waiting for the heat to go on. It just wouldn't go, and Rich ended up hurting some tendons in his arms and got blisters, until finally he thought it must be the machine and not him. He didn't want to mess with it too much, since it wasn't ours, but we needed it on, so he did some basic trouble shooting, and found that the spark plugs were disgustingly dirty. No amount of cleaning got them to work, so he went up to the shop, and got replacement plugs. That did the trick, and sure enough, he got everything hooked up and running. Less than three hours later, it ran out of gas. So, early in the morning, he had to get more gas into it. Two and a half hours later, he had to get up to return it to the construction hangar.

It did the trick, though, and our freezer was frozen, and the kids were warm all night. The next night, Tuesday night, the construction manager called Rich to see if he wanted to use it again, and he set it all up again. He said we could keep it longer in the morning, so I made two pots of coffee, as Rich had gotten us some preground coffee, and I made mochas for all of us throughout the morning, as our coffee maker has a thermal carafe, so it stayed warm longer. It was a good thing we had that coffee maker plugged into the generator, too, as there wasn't going to be tea in the morning since we ran out of propane in the heater that morning. We had another tank of our own, so Rich got it hooked up after he got more wood chopped, cooked up some sausage on the grill, talked to the power company again to get an estimate for power (our last estimate had been Wednesday morning, and that had come with no power), and did a few other things that needed to be done. So, a pot of eggs and a pot of water got put on the heater once it was up and running again, and we went about our, now normal, routine. Wednesday night, the power went back on and a cheer went up from all of us here. Even though we managed very well, it was wearing on us all.

You have to understand that this wasn't just a matter of too many people with power out that they were trying to service, although that was true (there were a million homes without power around Puget Sound on Friday). Just in our area of town, there were two or three power poles broken at the base and fallen (they have been working for years to get all electric lines underground, and all new ones are underground, but it is not a finished job), three telephone poles broken and down, trees down everywhere and about every 150-200 feet trees through the power lines bringing them down to the ground.

There are so many things we are thankful for after all of this, not the least being the friends who were willing to help us out, the crews from Eastern Washington who came to work on our power, our fireplace and the fact that we have been working on making sure we have enough for winter each year, the diesel generators that back up the pumps to the water towers on the airport (without which we wouldn't have had running water or flushing toilets), and Jay who lent us the generator.

Environmentalists may despise diesel and gasoline, but we are sure glad that they are available to us, because we couldn't have had water or saved our food without them. Also, I take back any bad things I have ever said about tea cosies. I'm going to make cosies for every dang thing in our house this year. I made a makeshift tea cosy out of a large hot pad and a kitchen towel to keep our water hot for as long as possible and it was a godsend.

One disappointment was learning how low on the priority list the airport was. Almost our whole town had power before we did. This isn't just a matter of convenience to us, or a privilege for general aviation and pilots, but a matter of safety. The runway lights, ILS, localizer, etc. were all out, which meant that nobody could fly in or out of here at night, even those with instruments on their planes. The tower has a generator, but they were running with one light bulb and no heat, so the generator would only be used for their radios and instruments. Since the restaurant was closed, the guys in the tower couldn't get food when they needed it, Rich brought them a plate on Friday, and made sure they ate. With all the lights and such out on the airport, it was dangerous to fly here, and we are the airport that does mediflights for our area - no medical supplies could be flown in, nobody who needed airlift could be flown out, we are part of the civil air patrol, and part of national security, and none of that was operational by sundown.

Several of our neighbors called government representatives and someone from the peninsula got a hold of our county representative to express their dismay that a municipality was so low on the totem pole for getting back up and running. It should have been just after the power company, hospitals, fire and police, and phone company for getting back online. Well, there is now some liason dealing with this to make sure that the next time something like this happens, we will be back in action sooner than six days out.

Overall, though, it wasn't that bad. The lack of hot water, and having to be on top of everything all the time were the hardest parts. Rich and I had to make sure the fire never went out, round the clock. At night, where normally we had the luxury of saying that something could wait until the morning, we had to get any work done that needed to be done, or there wouldn't be heat or food or whatever. There was also the safety worry, the normal rule not to run in the house all of a sudden was a huge deal, because a candle could be knocked over, or a child could run into the propane heater, or trip into the fire. We did get a little cabin fever staying in pretty much one room all the time. Normally, I can send the kids to the playroom or to one of their bedrooms to play when they are too rambunctious for me, but we had to stay where the heat was. It did wear on all of us. We tried to keep it fun for the kids, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, made up plays, the boys made a book, things like that, but it was hard on everyone. It felt like we had forgotten what it felt like to be warm, and we'd be just sitting in front of the fire, in sweaters and socks and bundled in blankets, lethargic and tired. It gave us a greater understanding of what we had read in the Little House books, and we didn't have it nearly as bad. Our home was well insulated, the temperatures were around 28-32 degrees at night, rather than the 20 to 40 below in the books, we had clean, running water, flushing toilets and better and more clothing and bedding.

There was one thing, though, that we learned to do, and that was to work with the normal daily rhythms. When there was light, I put the few dishes we used in the dishwasher, so when we did get power back, I'd have it ready to run and fewer dishes on the counter, for instance. Also, we used leftover paper plates, plastic utensils and cups from Thanksgiving for most of our dishes, and just used pots and pans, knives, cutting boards and serving utensils that needed to be washed. We read and I knit and we played games mostly during the day when there was light, though I did get good at reading by candlelight, we did the outside chores with the light, things like that. Nighttime was for essentials and for getting ready for bed. There is something profoundly good about daytime being for work and nighttime being for rest. We are not so good at that in our modern, electric life.

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Comments:
So glad to hear you came through the ordeal in such good spirits! We were so lucky - we were without power for only one day, which really surprised me. We are on Whidbey Island and I was sure we would be one of the last to get power back. We're on a pump so we lose running water when the power's out. That first hot shower sure felt good!
dswaite@mac.com
 
Glad you have power back!

I've done some looking at cheap cell phones, since I like having one sometimes but I don't use it chat. If you're like me, you'll probably want a prepaid plan. I use gobeyondwireless, but the good deal that I have isn't offered anymore. My father found a deal that was, if I recall correctly, about $100 for a year with some reasonable number of minutes. If you're interested, I'll ask him about those details.

And what sort of wacky environmentalists do you talk to who think you shouldn't use diesel and gasoline in situations like this??
 
I am very interested in the plan your father found. I know I wouldn't use it enough to justify the cost of even really good plans, and we need another monthly bill like we need another power outage. Do you still have my email address? I can't find yours.

As for the crazy environmentalists. Most environmentalists aren't that wacky, true, though I still have a problem with it as an idealogy. But remember where I grew up and went to college. We invented crazy environmentalists - you know the ones who grow up to become eco-terrorists ( was contacted a few times by press wanting to know the scoop on some former classmates of mine, I didn't know anything about them, nor did I like the idea of speaking to the press about them). Somehow the rhetoric was always about the intrinisic evils of such fuels, and never made mention of any good that came from them. Especially evil was having it readily available and relatively inexpensive. Both of those things saved a lot of people in our area in just the last week. And having the price artificially raised (there was a scoundrel or two in Seattle who sold gas for $15 a gallon or more) didn't affect how much it was used, it just robbed poor people of money they didn't have.

I should have qualified my statement, though.
 
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