The nature of home (thoughts while waiting for a hurricane)

I turned my attention the nature of “home” while waiting for Hurricane Sandy to hit. It’s been a year since Hurricane Irene left many of us in the eastern United States with an extended power outage. Sandy also coincided with the anniversary of a rare October snowstorm that left New England powerless for days. It’s understandable that people were nervous – even frightened –  waiting for another big storm when the memories of last year’s storms are so fresh.

Even so, nervousness evolved in some cases into dramatic claims that people who lost only electricity and/or running water had “lost their homes” or were “homeless” during the 2011 storms. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of people truly lost their homes such that the homes were no longer habitable without unjustifiable or unattainable expense, or had other devastating losses. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Irene caused $15.8 billion in damages, more than seven million homes and businesses lost electricity, 2.3 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders and at least 45 people died. I couldn’t find the total number of homes destroyed during Irene, so I looked at individual states. In my home state of Connecticut, 767,000 homes lost electricity and 25 homes were destroyed. I expected the number of Connecticut homes destroyed during Irene to be higher than this so I checked another state that was heavily affected; North Carolina saw 1100 homes destroyed and hundreds of thousands left without power. The number of people who “lost their homes” or became “homeless” due to the storm was orders of magnitude less than those who lost power only.

I’m in no way trivializing the magnitude or destruction of Irene (and now Sandy) or the plight of those who suffered. I only make the observation that many who complain the loudest are often not the ones who sustained the great losses. In fact, the squeakiest of wheels are only able to squeak so loudly because they still have megaphones available to them. Those who truly suffer through a disaster often have no alternative but to suffer in silence, having lost everything. Statistically, you were 30,000 more likely to speak to someone who lost power in Connecticut than someone who literally lost their home.

The phenomenon of the squeaky wheel encompasses more than how one responds to a hurricane, of course. I’ve often wondered why some people are inclined to complain, regardless of topic. Is it reassurance of being loved? Desire for attention? With the storms, I see complaining as a symptom of privilege and a lack of perspective of how good we as a society have it. Many around the world would be appalled by the first-world view that being without electricity, internet or cable access would equate to any measure of true suffering.

If anything, natural disasters are a reality check. We’re lucky and have been lucky for a long time if we barely know how to survive without modern conveniences.

First, a global perspective. According to the United Nations, 1.3 billion people – about 20 percent of the world’s population – live without electricity  and 2.6 billion people live without indoor plumbing. Does that make these people homeless? To me, “home” coincides with family rather than where light switches work, if they exist at all.

Next, a historical perspective. It wasn’t until 1925 that half of United States homes had electric power, and it took the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 as part of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal to extend the access to electrical distribution systems to rural US areas. Yes, 100 years ago the US was still largely non-electrical.

Finally, a perspective on society and nature. If you are inside a building while reading this, look at the walls. The walls might be straight and meet at right-angles, and built of a variety of materials. Maybe there are glass windows to enable peering outside from the safety of the artificial environment created. The building is in some ways a facade. Sure, it keeps out wind and rain, but walls are also a psychological comfort to make us feel protected from nature. The truth is, the walls are thin. Nature finds its way indoors all the time. Insects. A resourceful squirrel. Sunlight and air. A leaky roof. Houses are a pedestal upon which we perch to associate with society and deny that we are part of nature. When a storm comes and society is no longer able to provide electricity or food, the deception of the house is lifted. The complicated infrastructure that we take for granted falters. We realize that we are a single step from being outdoors and have lost our ability to survive in it.

We used to be self-sufficient. We kept food cold with natural springs. We milked cows, grew vegetables and preserved food for the winter. If we didn’t know how to harness nature’s offerings, we didn’t survive. Now, after a few generations with running water and brightly-lit nights, we consider it a hardship when the power goes out. It’s a perspective that shows ignorance to both history and to the reality that many in the world survive by understanding nature.

At our home, we do what we can to learn self-sufficiency. We collect rainwater. We compost and use the compost to fertilize the garden, then practice preserving food for the winter. It’s very small-scale but we see it as teaching ourselves and our children basic skills and appreciation for lost basic skills. When our children are older, we will take them backpacking to show them how to live in the forest (with the luxury of a backpack and tent). It’s by no means true survivalism, but these experiences build confidence. It’s a reminder that we are not above nature on a pedestal, but a part of it.

The next storm will come. And when it does, I hope my children will know they still have a home when the lights go out because the family is together. People have lived without electricity for millennia. I hope they know they will be fine until the lights return.

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