Reflections on our experience can be found here.
My husband and I were avid backpackers and campers many moons ago. I’ve backpacked into Acadia National Park (the beginning of the Appalachian Trail) and drank out of the lake like the park rangers were doing. I’ve canoe-camped in the Saranac Lakes in upstate New York. I’ve backpacked completely alone in the canyons of Utah. I spent three months living out of a car and driving around the western United States to see what there was to see (I will likely write more about this at some point). In my day, I was fairly self-reliant. Likewise, my husband has hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and once spent an (unintentioned) night alone on a Moab, UT mesa with only a lighter and a windbreaker. Those days were a long time ago, BK (Before Kids).
Enter Irene, a hurricane turned tropical storm by the time it reached New England. Irene left us without electricity or running water for five days so far, anticipated at this point to be 11 days until power is restored. Although Irene’s bark turned out to be worse than her bite in our particular corner of the world (others were not so fortunate), there was no way of knowing what would transpire ahead of time and we tried to be as prepared as possible. It became clear long before the storm arrived that we would be without electricity. A simple drive around our town showed many electrical wires running through the middle of large trees. When the trees undoubtedly toppled, the electrical wires would fall with them.
The idea of being without electricity isn’t quite as foreign to us as it might be to others. After all, backpacking involves voluntarily going without electricity, sleeping on the ground and making provisions for one’s own water. Unlike camping, this wasn’t a voluntary but at least we had our comfy bed and all of our resources. During our time in the dark, we drew upon old camping tactics and developed new tactics for our situation. I thought that some of these tactics might be useful to others in the future. The below ideas are in addition to the common preparedness suggestions (flashlight, water, candles, batteries…). I’m not sure if they are particularly novel ideas but they were useful to us, and there’s always another storm, it seems… **
- GATHERING INFORMATION:
- Emergency alerts: We have a Red Cross weather band radio which can be powered either through a solar cell or through hand-cranking. The weather band radio picks up emergency weather alerts, and can be programmed to sound an alarm when particular types of dangers (floods, tornadoes, etc) are present in a designated geographical area. The radio has been invaluable the couple of times we’ve had to use it. A bonus feature is that the weather alerts are provided in a voice not unlike Stephen Hawking’s computer voice. I kept expecting to hear about parallel universes and String Theory between the alerts.
- Cell phone: a cell phone charger for the car is critical if one is to maintain any type of two-way communication with the outside world during a prolonged blackout. Some times no-frills landlines are functional when power is down, but any sort of electrical bells and whistles makes a landline useless in a blackout. Cell phone towers many times stay functional when electricity is down, so all that is needed to make a phone call, send an email or tweet is a charger for the car and a tank of gas.
- Computer: If you have a laptop, you’re in luck. The battery charge on a laptop is generally several hours, so the remaining goal is internet access. This, thankfully enough is available at many chain restaurants, and sometimes just parking in front of one of these establishments is enough to provide wifi internet access on a laptop. Many public libraries also have wifi access.
- FOOD AND WATER:
- KEEPING FOOD COLD: Generally one does not know when a blackout is coming far enough ahead of time to do anything about it. This particular storm was an exception. While some went out and bought ice, we realized that we had time to MAKE OUR OWN ICE. We filled up as many plastic containers with water (leaving about an inch of headspace) as we could and froze them. A day or so after we lost power, some of these ice blocks were transferred to the refrigerator. Given the length of the blackout, no one is keeping their food, but I do believe that we were able to keep our food edible for longer this way. And after the ice melts, the water is still potable!
- FOOD: Plenty of food doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking (avocados, fruit, cereal with soy milk, nuts, etc), and many other foods can be grilled on either a propane grill or standard charcoal grill. But what if there is a more prolonged food shortage? As a joke for Christmas last year, I gave my uber-independent, middle-of-nowhere-living father stocks of food that are touted to last up to 30 years. (www.shelfreliance.com). Army/Navy and camping stores generally also have similar dehydrated foods available. The more I thought of it, the more I realized that having a selection of long-lasting food isn’t such a bad idea. Regardless of whether we needed to delve into these stashes, their existence was comforting nonetheless. Rice, black beans, textured vegetable protein (taco style!), oatmeal, milk, eggs, an assortment of veggies and fruits, some of which is dehydrated for quick preparation. We opened the dehydrated pineapple, peas and strawberries which provided a nice treat. However, the greatest benefit of this food is peace of mind. I knew that if the power had been out for much longer that we could live on the emergency food.
- COOKING FOOD: Grill it, baby! We found that most things can be cooked on a grill, either directly, in an entirely heat-proof pot, or wrapped in aluminum foil. Frozen pizza, veggie corndogs, peas, roasted veggies… The grill becomes a stove plus oven combined into one. To our delight, we discovered that most things taste better grilled.
- WATER: Everyone thinks to go out and buy water before a big storm. The grocery store shelves are empty. Buying water makes sense but if the storm hasn’t arrived yet, bottle your own water! Jugs, large jars with lids, previously used seltzer bottles, etc, all can be washed and used to store water from your sink. We also have water treatment tablets, which are usually available at many outdoor goods stores and army/navy stores. Outdoor goods stores also sell water filtration units and every backpacker knows that (preferably clear, running) water can be purified by boiling for 15 minutes (presumably much sooner than this, but this is a common standard). A grill can be used for boiling water, just be sure that ALL parts of the pan are safe for heating. We are lucky enough to live on a little river and so we thought of the river as a possible water source in the back of our minds during the outage.
- EATING FOOD: As an environmentalist, I hate using disposable things, even though I realize that they are almost impossible to avoid in our culture. I tend to have a great deal of guilt about this, but cut myself a little slack with something like surviving an extended blackout. One things that greatly lessens my guilt is choosing “smarter”disposable items, like the 100% home compostable, sustainable sugar cane fiber paper plates that we found (www.stalkmarket.net). There are also brands of “corn cups” and other corn-based, compostable cups and utensils available. Still, some dishes will be dirtied. The best tactic that we found is to begin the blackout (if it known ahead of time that one will occur) with an empty dishwasher and then just fill it up as you create dishes. The next step is to hope that the power comes back on before the dishwasher is full (sadly, this did not happen for us).
- BATHROOM AND CLEANLINESS:
- HAND-WASHING: Some people clean a bathtub and fill it up with water prior to an impending blackout to have an extra water source. Since we have two young children (ages 1 and 5 years old), we did not feel comfortable having an unattended tub of water in the house for a long period of time. Instead, we washed and filled a few sinks with water, then covered the sink to keep the water fairly clean. To wash our hands, we used hand sanitizer, but on the occasions when we wanted more cleansing (changing a diaper, for instance) we would scoop some of our sink water into a clean bowl and use that water to wash our hands with soap in an empty sink. It’s important to pour the water over one’s hands rather than put hands into the bowl so as to keep the water clean.
- TOILETS: A toilet needs water in its back tank in order to flush. A toilet tank could be refilled with water saved in a bathtub, but like I said, we considered a full tub to be a potential hazard given the age of our kids. To avoid this, we (ok, my husband) made the trek from the river to our house with river water, which we used to fill our toilet tanks so they could be periodically flushed. We also collected rainwater in a wheelbarrow (any large container or barrel would do) during the storm. We also used the collected rainwater to fill the toilet tanks so they could flush. Any water works, although I imagine it’s better for plumbing if the water is fairly low in particulates (i.e. not full of debris).
- SHOWERING: This is the thing I missed the most. We gave the kids sponge baths and one night I sat my 1 year old in an empty baby bathtub and washed her with 12 ounces of water. I went over her body (not her hair) with a mildly-soapy washcloth and then rinsed her with little handfuls of water. This worked fine. The great thing about baby wash is that it’s mild enough that it’s fine if all of it isn’t rinsed away, although I think I did fairly well with the rinsing. Adults should keep alert for showering opportunities. For instance, the YMCA and some of the other gyms near us opened its doors to allow all community members access to their showers. Also, some places of work and some universities have showers in the bathrooms. In the worst case scenario, just don’t shower. In my opinion, it’s more of a discomfort or inconvenience than an actual need, even for a week. People go without showers for long periods of time throughout the world; it will not hurt you. In fact, my father reminds us every winter that in the old days, farmers and country folk didn’t shower often in the winter time since being wet in the cold could put one in danger of hypothermia. My father is a colorful character as you will see (love him).
- EMBRACE THE ANALOG: Need coffee? Break out the French press or the Vietnamese drip coffee maker. We were pleasantly reminded of what good coffee these little non-electric items make. Need to know the time? Put on a watch and in our case we inherited my grandparents’ beloved grandfather clock which is run on weights. The grandfather clock kept us apprised of the time and provided us with lovely little chimes to break up our day.
- THINK OF SPECIAL NEEDS, ESPECIALLY FOR KIDS: Although my baby is eating solid foods, she is still breastfeeding a sufficient portion of the time that I knew that her nutritional needs would not be a major issue for a few chaotic days. We did make sure that we were stocked up on diapers (cloth diapers could not be washed without water). We found some “lower environmental impact” diapers and used these. We had our entire family sleep in one room on the Big Night when the storm was at its worst. We also like to keep a few surprise toys (animal flashcards, small cars, etc) for the kids for times like these to break up the monotony of a long dreary and uncertain day. We used a battery-powered pseudo-candle as a nightlight for our 5 year old son.
- AS LONG AS EVERYONE IS HEALTHY AND THE HOUSE IS OK, TRY TO HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR AND A SENSE OF ADVENTURE. Sure, it’s forced camping, but it’s also a time when memories are being made. In fact, my husband got the camera out almost immediately and started documenting our little adventure. Making it through difficult times together is part of what makes families stronger.
- ENJOY SIMPLE FAMILY TIME: board games, jigsaw puzzles, talking, walking, reading, crafts, an impromptu visit to the neighbors to socialize…one thing we like to do is make up stories in which one person says a sentence, and everyone adds another sentence to the story as it goes around the room. Little kids make up ridiculous stories and pretty soon we’re all laughing. My husband and I had long, stream-of-consciousness talks like we hadn’t had in years. We drank wine and looked at the incredibly clear night sky that lacked all light pollution. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law visited us from another part of the country during the blackout, which we loved. It became a festive, fun adventure. How many times are we liberated from technology and any expectation of a clean house? The blackout became a time to recollect ourselves without the world’s busyness and expectation lapping at our door. In some ways, the long blackout became an unexpected gift, even though we sorely missed the running water. And like my three month road trip around the country, I think the experience will have a lasting impact on me.
**I’ve included the specific brands of some items that we have and like. There may be other alternatives that are as good or better than what I’ve listed here but some of these things were new to me and knowing about them might be useful to someone else. I’m not compensated in any way for these comments.