Power Outage, Day Four

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January 16, 2007

Power Outage, Day Four

It was 40 degrees in my bedroom this morning. That was 29 degrees warmer than outside and 25 degrees colder than in my basement, where we spent the night. Along with about 130,000 other people our power went out last Saturday evening just as I sat down to watch the Saints play the Eagles. Thinking it would be short lived we decided to stay and spend the night in our bedroom since there was still heat in the house. That worked fine for a night but with temperatures going lower, we moved to the den where we at least had a fireplace. With oil lamps and flashlights at the ready and having had a shower at the YMCA, we brought up what we thought was a reasonable amount of firewood and hunkered down for the day.

My fireplace will burn a large quantity of wood and it creates a pleasing ambience…..for awhile. You see, fireplaces in most modern homes are just for show. Since most of them use air from the inside for combustion, much of the warm air goes up the chimney while the fireplace coughs out a little warmth into the room, limited to about three feet in front of the hearth. The result is a battle in which the room eventually and reluctantly warms up at the expense of the rest of the house. With the power on, you merely replace this lost heat with heat from the furnace.

If you are relying on it to actually keep warm, it means continually feeding the beast at a rate of at least a couple of logs per hour. Now I have been on backpacking trips where my water bottle froze in my tent so I am not all that afraid of cold weather. However, camping out in the wilderness and camping out at home are two different things, especially if your spouse’s idea of roughing it is the Holiday Inn.

By late Sunday, it was time to go to a hotel. When I called, I did not particularly mind the clerks telling me that they were booked through Wednesday; it was their snickering that sort of bothered me. It sounded very similar to the guffaws of the clerks at the twelve stores I went to looking for lamp oil; so after sealing off the doorway to the den with plastic, we brought in more wood and settled in for a long evening of rather fitful sleep punctuated by waking to put logs on the fire. The problem with a fireplace as the only heat source is that it requires continual monitoring and for people who work, this is not a very good option.

After the University had its power back on I was able to borrow a generator to power a light, an electric heater in the basement, and the refrigerator, which had started leaking water from the melting ice. Generators will run about eight hours on five gallons of gas and after about two hours you don’t even notice the roar of the engine. In fact, you notice it if it stops!

Though I have not had any real epiphanies during this past few days (too busy putting logs on the fire), I do have a couple of thoughts.

First, I have a great appreciation for the men and women who are out in this weather trying to restore electricity. They deserve our deepest respect. It is often miserable and always dangerous work. While Ameren may indeed need to look closely at its policies and procedures on handling storm repairs and communications, any criticism needs to be directed there and not at the crews who are on the front lines of these repairs. I also can say without a doubt that one’s level of frustration with the local utility is in direct proportion to the number of days without service.

I also think everyone is well served by doing some emergency preparedness planning. If your strategy is to go to a hotel, then do it as soon as possible. If it is to stay put, then have the things necessary at hand like a source of heat in the winter or cooling in the summer, water, fuel, lamp oil, batteries, flashlights and the like. Knowing how long your refrigerator will hold food and other such information can also be helpful. My neighbor had a tree leaning perilously over his roof and he was able to get someone out to cut it down before more ice arrived. I plan to ask him how he did that.

During the last storms we did not lose our service and being on the other side reminds me of how cavalier the unaffected can be. Situations that disrupt the normal routine can be all consuming whether it is an emergency brought on by a storm or a family or other emergency. Though we cannot always make things better, just a little understanding goes a long way. I am going to try to remember that.