Post Hurricane Sandy—living without power for eleven days, was challenging. So here are my observations on living without electric power, water, or heat.
- When H.G. Wells wrote his famous novel, The Time Machine, he created the blood thirsty Morlocks who lived underground, coming out only in the dark, and the timid and gentle Eloi, who could only function during daylight hours. I found myself behaving like an Eloi for the last couple of weeks. I woke early (something I never do) and went to bed soon after dark. During the daylight hours we frantically rushed about, finishing tasks—choosing my clothes for work the next day, planning meals, filling water containers, cooking on our gas stove, reading, replacing candles, bringing in wood for the fireplace, and discussing the situation on the driveway or cul-de-sac, with the other fellow Elois. As dusk approached, we all rushed inside, locked our doors and uneasily waited for the night to pass. Good planning was essential.
- Did you know that an empty freezer will grow black mold and stink to high heaven after eleven days with no power? The plan to throw away all the food in the freezer and fridge was to avoid returning to a house filled with the smell of rotting food, but I never expected that mounds of black fuzzy mold would grow inside, on the bottom grill and all over the rubber molding of the freezer. Even after cleaning, bleaching and disinfecting, the basement still has a funky smell. That commercial which urges you to buy tons of extra food, at the warehouses and then “simply use the vacuum sealer to save the extra,” doesn’t weigh in the seasonal power outages.
- As the temperatures dropped to a chilly 32oC, sitting beside the fire, inside my living room, it was nearly impossible to keep warm. I marveled at the skill of the pioneers and their ability to keep warm and survive in the outdoors. The first day after power was restored; the temperature inside the house was only 47oC. After a day of central heat the temperature rose and while I luxuriated in the warmth, I fervently thanked the creative mind of Franz san Galli, who tired of his perpetually frozen state, and in desperation invented the radiator, which led to central heat.
- Flipping a switch and having that simple movement result in a light going on is pure magic. Even after the power was restored, I found myself walking into dark rooms and forgetting that I could easily illuminate the entire room. It was wonderful to read without squinting though dim candlelight. No wonder, that Benjamin Franklin eventually had to invent bifocals. Good job with the whole kite and key thing, Ben!
- If you have unexpected visitors coming and you have not cleaned your house, here’s a tip: Turn off all your lights and use only candlelight. My house never looked cleaner or more inviting than in the days without power. When I finally saw my house in bright light, I was dismayed when I realized I had been living in filth and squalor—dust and dirt in every corner, dishes unwashed in the sink, water containers scattered throughout, counters smeared with spills, toilets in dire need of cleaning, scattered dirty clothes, putrid yellow water pooled in front of the freezer and ashes scattered around the fireplace. The entire house needed a bath. There’s a distinct advantage to not being able to see where you live.
- Our dependence on electric power and internet was clearly evidenced in the past few weeks. Some people managed better than others. My friend Lina said she enjoyed her week long power outage. She said her family played bingo, slept in front of the fireplace and she cooked all the meals over the open flames. She said it was like camping. I played Scrabble and read short stories and novels out loud with candlelight. Many people were frantic with the loss of not only their power, but internet and phone connections as most of the cell towers were not functioning. I wondered what was going on in people’s homes, as families who usually didn’t even eat together, were forced to spend days and days together without television, phone or internet. I would imagine that people had a chance to finally get to know each other—for better or worse.
- While most people in New Jersey and New York pulled together and helped each other, there were those disgusting individuals who took advantage of other’s misfortune. On Election Day, I was just getting ready to begin teaching my evening class at Rutgers, when my neighbor texted me. She wanted to warn me that a group of men dressed as Verizon workers had been seen trying to loot homes in the darkened neighborhood close to mine. They had been chased away, but a new friend and fellow voting booth volunteer emailed me of a much more serious situation about a friend of his from Toms River, NJ: House had 12 inches of water. Thank you for all of your well wishes thoughts and prayers. Started pulling out carpet today and more tomorrow. Looting attempt, possibly at my house, was thwarted. Long story, but we decided to do a neighbor watch tonight with teams of two taking two hour shifts. Police with machine guns have cordoned off our neighborhood, fire trucks patrolling streets and coast guard cruising lagoons. We all felt safe enough to try to get sleep. Reports are out that the looters have taken to row boats and jet skis to vet into seaside heights and other lagoon communities. Coast guard patrols are comforting. There’s not much I can add to that. There are always those whose instincts to behave like Morlocks, surpass any speck of human compassion that might exist within them.
For the most part, New Jersey-ians and New Yorkers have marveled at the new bonds and friendships that were formed as a result of the difficult situation. I saw people and neighbors I haven’t seen all year. Conversations between strangers in gas line, convenience stores, sidewalks and grocery stores were common, as strangers exchanged stories and survival tactics. Sharing in the same difficult circumstances, created new friends and strengthened old bonds.
My family and friends offered help in many different ways—food, warmth, water, offers to stay in their homes, encouragement, support and love. My hope is that it will not take another hurricane or disaster for all of us to realize how important it is to reach out and show compassion to help a friend, a neighbor and even more significant—a stranger.