Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Halloween Tale

To tell this story properly, we have to back up 70 days, to late August, 2011, as Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast.

People who know me even a little bit know that while not a full-fledged survivalist, I like to think of myself as prudently prepared. What passes for "prudent" is the difference between my version of sanity and what other people might call "crazed." I went to somewhat extended lengths in anticipation of the fizzle known as Y2K (I still have a small amount of rotted-out firewood left over from a half-cord I bought in late 1999), and I actually bought sheets of heavy plastic to seal my house during the anthrax scare of  the winter of 2001. I read stories of near-miss asteroids with special care and one of my favorite genres of movies are apocalyptic disaster films (I've even reviewed a few in years past on the blog). I'll take "The Walking Dead" over anything on TV Sunday night.

For Irene, I was in total freak-out mode. Sometime around 2010 I had taken a recommendation from Engadget and bought on eBay for $20 a so-called "zombie apocalypse" cell phone. Two days before Irene hit I was researching solar-powered handcranked radios (with flashlight and cell charger) and ordered overnight Amazon Prime a little Eton radio recommended by the Red Cross. I called it my zombie apocalypse radio. I froze water in bags to keep my lower fridge cooled. I bought water, lots of flavored Zero water at BJ's. I downloaded hurricane apps to my iPhone and iPad.

I never lost power, other than a slight flicker, though 700,000 of my fellow Connecticutians were knocked out, some for 7 days.

So now fast forward to October 28. By Friday, I vaguely became aware that forecasters were predicting a freakish snowstorm for Saturday night October 29. Now I am from Minnesota. I know how to survive snowstorms. Hell, we had a whopper of a winter here in Connecticut in 2011, one that equaled the kind of thing I was familiar with from my childhood. But in general I don't take Northeast snowstorms too seriously, and am of the general impression that Connecticutians are wimps when it comes to snow.

I knew I should make some preparations. Friday night came, and I decided to put off preparations until Saturday morning. Saturday morning I went to the grocery store, bought a gallon of water, some cookies, and a few other trivial foodstuffs (stupid me -- most required refrigeration), went to a liquor store to pick up a 6-pack and a bottle of single malt, and then headed home. No bags of ice for the fridge. No hoarding of batteries; already had done that 70 days earlier. Nothing to worry about. At worst, I figured I might be snowbound for a day or two. Great! I was all set for Sunday NFL on RedZone (little did I know I would end up missing 2 weekends of football). At 2 pm I torrented a movie and burned it to a DVD as I saw the first giant wet snowflakes melt on the driveway. At exactly 3 pm I popped the DVD into my home theater system, sat down with a sandwich, got 3 minutes into the movie, and then everything went dark.

The rest is -- as they say -- history. A firetruck pulled onto our street -- one of our street's electric poles had been shorted out and the pole was literally burning. This was the first meeting of our neighborhood gawkers. We would meet to commiserate on the sidewalks of our street many times more in the days to come. We were ready for a night without power. And then the immensity of the regional disaster set in. What happened on our street happened a thousand times over throughout the Northeast. Little did I know I was at the epicenter of the mess, and that I would be amongst the last 4% of people in my state (and some tiny decimal point for the multi-state region) to get power and heat back.

There is no point recounting a day-by-day litany of what essentially is nothing to report. The snowfall was maybe a grand total of 3 inches in my area. It seemed like nothing. I was fortunate in that I had gas water heat and stovetop, so I could shower and cook (that is until all my food spoiled). Sunday, after the storm had completely passed, I actually drove on perfectly passable freeways to Brooklyn to celebrate my daughter's birthday. On my drive back that afternoon, listening to the Hartford radio station WTIC I realized I was returning to a disaster zone. Hearing of monstrous scenes around working gas stations, I tanked up about 30 miles outside of Hartford. It was a bit crazy, but the whole episode of waiting in line and gassing up took a grand total of 15 minutes. At my home exit, a working gas station caused such a backup of cars on the street leading off the exit that I had to weave my way from the exit through a parking lot in order to find my way home. I returned to a dark and cold house. The next day I smartly had barbecue chicken on my gas grill as I tried to save to good purpose one last thing from my failing freezer.

Hartford was relatively unscathed; driving up one block from my house I encountered fully functioning shopping plazas, diners, and gas stations. My workplace, Trinity College, was untouched. Classes went on normally. Every day I recharged my phone (and then my toothbrush, and then my razor) in the office. There was heat. My students were oblivious to the mess just beyond our ivory tower.  It was frustrating to spend half the day in a disaster movie, and then half the day as a normal person. My students naturally and simply did not get that I was beginning to unravel.

But there was something about the need to protect the homestead. This was my house. I needed to be there. I'd rush home each afternoon to try and get a few hours of sunlight to clean the house and prepare for the interminable night. As soon as I entered my town there were trees and wires hanging as sudden obstacles. It was a full-fledged disaster zone.

Monday night, night 3, was supposed to be Halloween, postponed by the city fathers to Saturday, November 5 (when it was then completely canceled). I started going to sleep at 8 pm and rising at the crack of dawn. Sleep was impossible - I have sleep apnea and cannot get a restful sleep without a Constant Positive Air Pressure (CPAP) machine. I was becoming the zombie I was so worried about.

I realized by day 4 that all the wonders of a zombie apocalypse cell phone were of not much use when the cell towers began losing their standby power. The cell serving my home area was becoming progressively less and less reliable. Returning home each night with a fully charged iPhone, I could use an on-and-off 3G network to keep track of outage reports for my town. I tried to cut back on calls, and tried to rely more and more on texting. In the office I was fine and dandy. But it was at home when I needed the comfort of being connected to someone, anyone. I learned during the daylight hours how to point my little solar-powered radio to the sun so as to get the best charge. And it was important to get home during the daylight hours, to try to take advantage of the daylight temperature highs in order to raise the temperature in the house for the cascade that would occur each night.

I tried the fireplace. It was a wasted effort, but it kept me busy. The wood was next to useless, so I burned some books I was planning to throw out or donate. All the heat seemed to go up the smokestack, and the smoke sometimes backed into the living room, giving the entire house a hickory smell. Then the flue would be open, letting in more cold. No good.

By mid-week my workplace had slowly come around to the fact that its workstaff was struggling. Meals were offered, warm spaces to sleep. I took advantage of the food, but decided I wasn't going to sleep in the vicinity of students. TMI.

I was a wreck. There is some psychological need to finish the day and then go home to relax. But there was no relaxing at home. An elaborate wall of home theater relaxation was dead. I love my gadgets, but without power and without WiFi, I was a goner. One day at the office I examined gas powered generators on Amazon, which UPS would have delivered overnight, but 1200 watts would power nothing more than some lamps for 7 hours a gallon. What would be the point? I had, after all, plenty of shabbes and yahrzeit candles.

It became clear that my region of Connecticut would be the last to be re-energized. On Thursday night, night 6, the first lights in my neighborhood winked on. But not on my street. My town actually posted a map on its website (no longer available) that indicated my street was working! It infuriated me no end that we might be completely passed over because of that erroneous map. I was waking up at 3 am and taking long drives through darkened neighborhoods throughout my town to see for myself the extent of the blackout. There was a murder a block and a half from my house, something that rarely occurs in my placid suburb. Two days later there was an armed robbery at the Whole Foods. It seemed as if the very fabric of normalcy was unraveling.  On night 6 I got sick, but had a very game house guest who cheered me up with company and some excellent pharmaceutical advice for battling a cold (in fact I am still sick). She was happy to play "disaster" with me for an evening, and it made all the difference in getting to the end of Week 1.

I tweeted like crazy. I actually lost followers who became bored to tears with my endless accounts of my region's travail. It was hard to find the proper hashtag to make sure I was getting my message out. I eventually settled on #CTblackout, but very few people went along for the ride. As anger towards the utility Connecticut Light and Power increased, I also locked on to #CLP and then found a community of fellow tweeps.

CL&P is led by a seasoned engineer turned manager. For the first few days the Governor and the CEO would hold twice daily joint press conferences; by the end they were so estranged that the Governor would leave the room before the CEO came to the podium. I dropped everything I was doing to tune into these press conferences. The engineer set midnight Sunday (night 9) as a deadline for his company to have 99% restoration statewide -- a laudable target set by an engineer for a system spinning out of control. I really depended on that calm scientific prediction. On Saturday afternoon -- day 8 -- a wire crew actually was on our street. Said my brother in Minneapolis: "Well, you can't be far away now."

The deadline came and went. On the day of the deadline, a supervisory truck and a tree crew actually came down our street, doing a few cuts. But there was no line crew. I was now completely despondent. I swore I would stay each night in my house, and declined offers to sleep elsewhere. I finally gave up Sunday night and slept at friends in a nearby town. But by Monday morning, with a revised 99% deadline set for midnight that night (and one that looked just as unlikely), I swore to myself I was not going to sit by passively. Using my iPhone, I read up about neighborhood electrical lines -- triple-phase AC, dual-phase AC, step-down transformers, ground, the whole shebang -- and then drove down my street looking for line breaks. I spotted two. I called CL&P, pushed enough buttons to send me over to a live voice (and I must admit, the 2 times I felt I absolutely must talk to a human being I was connected almost immediately), and asked a few questions. My mantra was: "I am not mad, I understand that this is a question of science and engineering, but why is my street still out?" The CL&P human voice told me my neighborhood's circuit number, and the exact number of accounts associated with the circuit. I drove down my street again, counting houses -- an exact match of accounts to homes. I finally had a useful data point to work with. Armed with this information, I drove all around my town (charging the phone simultaneously), looking for the now more prevalent out-of-state line crews and in particular for the parked white CL&P car which carried the supervisor. I found a helpful supervisor about a half-mile from my house and armed with my newfound knowledge of circuits numbers and line voltages, I struck up a conversation. He actually called into dispatch to try and find for me the crew tasked with our circuit.

Within a half hour of talking to this very decent midlevel field supervisor, a CL&P car came down our street and inspected our wires; then an hour later a tree cutting crew from South Carolina came to cut away branches for 4 hours; then while I was at a late afternoon lecture on campus an unknown line crew came through. I’ll never know if my running around was actually helpful, but I was so frustrated with that missed Sunday night deadline that I simply was not going to sit in my cold house and wait for things to take care of themselves. At the same time all the running around and obsessive dedication did me in. I returned from campus at 5:45 completely exhausted. As I turned up my street I saw lights all down the block. The streetlights were at a low buzz (like when a CFL bulb first comes on), meaning I must have missed the re-energization by a matter of a minute. Inside the house, I could hear the oil-fed furnace had kicked on. Only when I saw the house temperature rise above 57 degrees (an 8-day record high) did I then venture to the grocery store in a fog of confusion; I then slept and woke up sicker than the day before. But at least the 36 customers of circuit 47N8 (my street as known to the engineers of CL&P) got their power back. In my mind, I’m an unsung hero.

Not for a second do I forget that there are still thousands of customers even now without power. As I finish this post, there are still 13,000 customers statewide without power, 1300 in my town. Today the high temperature was 70 degrees, so I hope it wasn't an awful day for them. 

It was a Halloween Tale  I and many hundreds of thousands will never forget.

Monday, November 07, 2011

First, but not last, post concerning the Halloween Blackout

I sent this to a friend in Israel:

After 218 hours – that is 9+ days – power was finally restored to circuit 47N8 and its 36 customers (that is how the utility thinks of my street). Working on my street over the last 3 days were crews from Kansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina. It was amazing. There are still 40,000 customers without power, down from 830,000, meaning I was in the final 4%.
I actually slept somewhere else last night for my first sleep with the CPAP machine in 8 nights. I am now doing laundry, and am headed to the grocery store to get the basics, at 8:45 pm. My classes are in ruin, I am exhausted, and I have a cold.