Our power went out while we slept Tuesday night. What that meant, more than anything, was that we had no heat. Our furnace is gas, but the the thermostat that controls it and the fans that push the warm air through the ducts are electric, so: no heat.
It was clear that the outage would last a long time. The ice storm coated 60,000 square miles with a half-inch of ice, knocking out tens of thousands of power lines and isolating more than a million people. The scale of this is not unfamiliar. In September, the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through almost exactly the same area, causing what had to that time been the biggest power outage in the state's history. (This one's bigger, if you're keeping track.) People who live in picket-fence suburbs found themselves without electricity for, in some cases, 10 days. That's a long time, even in the fall when temperatures are moderate. But consider an even larger outage during winter, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the teens and everything in the world covered with hard, heavy ice.
Not surprisingly, getting this fixed is going to take even longer. The optimists are talking about mid-February before the job is done, and government officials are suggesting that people in outlying areas might want to load up their cars and move south for a few weeks.
There were no hotel rooms available and no kennel space for our two dogs. So, the first day, we decided to tough it out at home. "Tough it out" is, of course, a relative thing. We built a fire in the fireplace and marveled at the cruel beauty of nature and, when we got hungry for dinner, went out for Chinese food. But that night I slept on the couch in front of the fireplace to keep the fire stoked, and when I woke up it was 47 degrees in my living room, even with the fire. I was as cold as I've ever been -- and I've climbed Pike's Peak in January.
When I was young I read a book about survivors of a nuclear war called Alas, Babylon. If you ever get the chance, read it. Anyway, in that book there are three kinds of people: those who died in the initial attack and its fallout, those who could not survive the ensuing subsistence economy, and those who toughed it out and survived. I used to wonder which of those I'd be. I think, tiny as this power outage was for us in the grand scheme of things, that I've got the answer to that question. I think I'd be a fourth type: someone who survives but is so whiny about it that the other survivors eventually kill him.
"This isn't going to work," I told my wife that morning. "We've got to figure something out."
That day we did better. My wife went to work, and when I went out to my car to go look for somewhere to buy firewood I was surprised to see that she had left the good ice scraper leaned up against the driver's side door. I don't think I've ever loved her as much as I loved her that moment, so impressed was I by her thoughtfulness.
My search for firewood turned up nothing. Even the big place on the edge of town that is usually surrounded by mountains of cut logs had been picked clean. I returned with lots of batteries, a can of propane for the lantern, and some canned food, but knew that we were on our own for wood.
My son and I spent the rest of the day out with the chainsaw, scavenging firewood from the tree that went down in our backyard and the massive limbs that dropped in our neighbors' front yards. (They, being sensible people, had all left.) We cut maybe a half-ton of wood, splitting the thick logs with an 8-pound maul and moving everything directly into the living room. The wood was all covered with ice, and I note here that it was so cold in our house that the ice didn't melt, even after two days.
I found an old set of camping pots in the storage closet under the stairs and the triumph we felt when we boiled water for tea and cocoa was disproportionate to the actual difficulty of the feat. My wife remembered a tiny, battery-powered TV she won in a raffle last year, and we found it down in the "someday we'll have a yard sale" pile. We loaded it with batteries and watched the four-inch black and white screen with a lot more joy than we watch our regular TV. For dinner, we had a soup and crackers buffet on the mantle, and at the end of the meal we felt like we'd regained some control over our lives.
I want to take a moment here to say something about the local media, which seemed even more isolated and idiotic than usual. Listening and watching as local anchors and talk show hosts attempted to cope with something as overwhelming as this ice storm, I was struck by the price we've all paid for the formulaic efficiency of media conglomeration. In a crisis that had absolutely nothing to do with traffic (the city did a magnificent job of clearing streets no one wanted to travel on anyway) we still got traffic reports every ten minutes. We got features on gardening and an every-few-minutes reminder not to touch fallen power lines.
Sometimes I wonder if media people ever take the time to listen to their own output to see if it accomplishes anything more than filling time. I'll give you one quick example: the local radio station that interviewed a plumbing expert about frozen pipes. The expert explained in simple and understandable terms how to shut off water at the point where it enters the house and how to open the lowest tap to drain the remaining water out of the pipes so they won't burst if they freeze. This good and valuable advice was "re-purposed" as a feature on the station's every-hour-on-the-hour newscast, which extracted as a sound bite the first part of the instructions ("turn the water off") while cutting out the second, critically important part of the instructions ("drain the pipes"). For the next two days they played that over and over, giving people the impression that if they turned the water off their pipes would be safe, when in fact they wouldn't.
This is a small thing, I know, but just one example of the literal thoughtlessness of the people who operate what remains of our media. The rest of the syndicated crap had no relevance whatsoever. You think Rush Limbaugh is bad on a normal day, try listening to him when you're in an almost literally life-threatening crisis. Good lord I wish he'd just shut up.
Oh, and another thing: if I hear one more radio announcer refer people with questions about a power outage to the radio station's website, I'm going to hunt that announcer down and beat him to death in front of an open microphone. I know it's ingrained in today's broadcast professionals that they should push the website at every opportunity, but -- and this is an important but -- people who don't have power don't have Internet access.
The second night, my wife gave up on our bedroom and claimed the living room couch, so I moved an old mattress up from the basement and put it in front of the fire. (Our son slept in his freezing cold bedroom, under ten inches of blankets.) I also brought one of the dogs to bed with me, and he was a nice 50-pound space heater down under the covers where my feet were turning blue.
The next day I went out to a business meeting at a coffee shop. The tables along the walls were all taken by people working on their laptops. I need to recharge my phone, so I asked a kind-looking woman if I could plug my phone in and leave it on her table. She smiled understandingly but didn't seem to think it funny when I asked her, if it rang, if she could answer it "Tom's office, can I help you?"
On the way home, I came up a half-dozen power trucks lingering on the outskirts of my neighborhood, and a couple of blocks later found eight trucks more, the crews out having a meeting in the street. I turned left and went a few more blocks and found another group of trucks. I got home and excitedly reported to wife and child that there were power trucks all around, looking like they were planning an assault, and sure enough within a few minutes big bucket trucks trundled down our narrow street. They stopped a few doors down, and I went out to talk with them. They were from South Carolina, just arrived in town to save the wretched likes of myself. For the rest of the day they were up and down poles, hacking away at cracked and craning tree limbs and pulling wires from pole to pole.
Even though we were confident electricity was within minutes of returning, we went out to cut another night's firewood. The easy stuff had all been cut, and we were down to hacking away at tangles of fallen branches that gave up precious little actual wood. We also lopped a couple of low-hanging limbs off the unharmed old magnolia out by the shed, just because they were easy. My son, listening to the shouts of linemen a couple of doors down, wanted to know why we were bothering. I explained to him the concept of jinxing the arrival of a good thing by assuming too early that the good thing was a sure thing, and as the sun went down we sat in the gloaming darkness of our freezing living room, trying to rebuild the fire with green wood covered with a half-inch of ice...and the lights went on.
My wife gasped and my son cheered and the dogs barked. The furnace clicked on and in a half-hour the temperature was already up four degrees. The fire died slowly but no one took the time to stoke it. We started the dishwasher, took all the wet socks down to the laundry room, and looked at the houses across the street that were still dark.
They're fixing this problem one block at a time. Hard-working linemen from all over the southeast are pouring into town to work 16-hour shifts in freezing cold.
We were lucky; we were only out a couple of days. But that, as far as I'm concerned, is enough.