Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sixty Hours Without Power

December storm 2014, 27 inchesEssex County Officials have asked NYSEG to request more crews in addition to the 30 trucks already on the job. NYSEG Representatives have stated that they have, and there are 25-30 more crew on their way… and that the New York State Emergency Management Office and the Governor’s Office have been continuously advised of power outages.

–  Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas in an e-mail residents December 11th.

The “Beep-Beep” woke me up. Then again “Beep-Beep.” I knew what that meant. It was the notification mechanism on our smoke detectors designed to send a warning signal indicating no electric power. This did not surprise me since a snowstorm had been predicted. It was still dark this Wednesday morning. I went back to sleep, unconcerned, having weathered many power-outages before.

When I could see enough to move around without the need for artificial light I checked the phone by my bed, one of two of the old-fashioned phones in the house that plug directly into the phone line and need no electricity. Thankfully there was a dial tone. I called the 800 number for New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG), the automated emergency number. Very familiar with this system because of numerous previous outages, I knew what to do – press “2” to indicate a power outage, press “1” to confirm the location of our house they have on file, and then listen to their message that states what they know. “There is a confirmed power outage in your area affecting 95 customers. Estimated power restoration at 11:45 am,” the automated message stated.

We, Bruce and I, could certainly stay comfortable for four more hours. I went downstairs and started a fire in our wood stove, lit the gas stove with a match, and heated up some water for tea. I knew we needed to be mindful about the use of the water because the pump wasn’t working and the water was limited. We did have an outhouse but by now we’d have to trudge through about six inches of heavy snow to get there.

I planned what I needed before opening the door to the refrigerator to minimize the loss of the cold, transferring a frozen casserole from the freezer to serve as a cold source, more worried about the loss of the food in the refrigerator than anything else. I did not think at the time that all I needed to do was to set the food outside.

When I designed the house in 1998 I was knowledgeable about frequent power outages. I made sure we had a wood stove for heat; a gas cooking stove with the capability to be lit with a match; telephones that did not require electricity; and an outhouse. We keep jugs of water in the basement, although we should change them more often than we do to assure fresh emergency water.

Two situations convinced us that a generator might be a wise investment. First, during the 1998 ice storm in our area, before we moved here, some households were without power for two weeks. Stand-alone generators were much in demand. Second, Millennium doomsday analysts predicted that computer controlled electrical grids would be shut down because short-sighted computer programmers did not take into account the change in dates to the year 2000. We bought a generator at the end of 1999 just in case these predictions had some validity and the NYSEG system became inoperable.

But by noon on Wednesday we still did not have power so I called the 800 number again, and heard, “We have a confirmed power outage affecting 135 customers in your area. Estimated power restoration 2 pm.” Since NYSEG is usually accurate with their original predictions, I started to become concerned that this outage was different from previous ones. I was not so troubled, however, that I wanted to power-up the generator. We had used the generator just a few times in the 15 years and for only one or two hours. It seemed it might not be worth the effort to shovel our way through the snow to the woodshed where the generator is located if we’d only need it for a couple of hours. And the house was keeping warm with the wood stove.

I called again around 2:15 pm, as we still did not have power. Their message stated, incorrectly, “Your power has been restored,” indicating to me that this storm was causing major logistical problems. So I called the NYSEG number, again reporting a power outage. And I kept calling, getting different messages … there are 1,035 households affected with power to be restored by 4 pm …. there are 3,489 household affected with power to be restored by 8 pm.” With so many households without power, we knew we’d be last on the priority list. Understandably, NYSEG’s policy is to take care of the greatest number of people first. We are at the end of the line.

We became concerned with this uncertainty. So, before it got dark, Bruce shoveled his way to the generator and started it up easily. Now we had power to the furnace, the water pump, the refrigerator, and lights in the kitchen/dining area.

In the meantime about two feet of heavy snow had fallen and our driveway had been plowed out twice. During the night another three or four inches fell, requiring the driveway to be plowed again. Twenty seven inches was a lot less than the storm of a number of years ago where six feet accumulated over a period of three days. The power outages from this new storm were much more extensive than the six-foot storm because the snow was heavier, and, settling on tree branches that hung over or fell on the power lines, caused the lines to break.

We were younger during the six-foot storm (we’re now in our late 70s), better able to handle the stress of dealing with no electricity and the uncertainty of what might happen next. Thankfully, our land-line telephones still worked, as we do not have cell phones reception in our house. Living in the mountains, five miles from town, and one mile from the nearest neighbor has its limitations.

The first night we parked our car and truck off to the side of the parking area of our driveway. In-between the two plowings we cleared our vehicles of snow and moved them to an area that was plowed. Unfortunately, while backing up the car, we caught the front bumper on a snow bank and tore it off from the body. It will cost $750 to repair.

The first night without power we left the generator running all night, not sure of how fast it burned the propane, or how much we had in the tank. We use propane for the gas cooking stove, the gas dryer, and the generator. Talking with the supplier the next day and a friend with lots of generator experience, we estimated our generator could run for a week.

December storm 2014, power out for 60 hoursEstimating the generator could run for a week brought us some peace as the messages from NYSEG continued to not be encouraging – “We know the power is out in your area and we cannot provide an estimate when your power will be restored.”

In the end, the power in our neighborhood was out for 60 hours, the most I have experienced in the 15 years living here.

We survived better than some of our neighbors; we could drive to town. One friend (our age) could not get her car out of her driveway for over four days. She did, however, walk to a party about one mile from her house. One neighbor did not have a generator, keeping their house warm with a wood stove and their food cold in the snow. They hoped their 10-year-old son might have learned how to live a few days without his electronics.

I found what I missed most during this 60-hour power outage was the internet – for email, social media, and to search the web. We’d drive to town to get wi-fi access to the internet to read our emails.

It was nice not having TV – I read more. And I became engulfed in the beauty of the snow covered trees and mountains. The silence made it all worthwhile.

We attended a fundraising dinner for Mountain Lakes Public Television the following Saturday night in Lake Placid and sat with a couple from Orange County, California, and four women from Ottawa, Canada. They raved about the beauty of the place – the winter wonderland. Yes, I thought, this is winter wonderland, this place-where-I-live.

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Award winning author Lorraine Duvall's newest book contains stories about where she has lived in the Adirondacks for the last 24 years, titled "Where The Styles Brook Waters Flow: The Place I Call Home." She writes of her paddling adventures in the book "In Praise of Quiet Waters: Finding Solitude and Adventure in the Wild Adirondacks." Some experiences from her memoir, "And I Know Too Much to Pretend," led her to research a woman's commune north of Warrensburg, resulting in the 2019 book, "Finding A Woman's Place: The story of a 1970s feminist collective in the Adirondacks." Duvall lives in Keene and is on the board of Protect the Adirondacks.

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11 Responses

  1. Susan Gaffney says:

    Yes: The cold, the uncertainty, the inconvenience, but also the outside beauty, the slowing down, and then, eventually, the relief at having electricity at the flick of a switch, and hot water at the turn of a knob. To me, civilization never looked so good as at the end of a power outage.

  2. brian says:

    When was this power outage? What area did it cover?

    • Lorraine Duvall says:

      Dec 10-12 or 13, covering the Towns of Jay, Keene, and Wilmington in Essex County. That’s what I know. The worst was Jay. Keene’s outages were intermittent over that period.

  3. Bruce says:

    Several days without power can be a pain. We heat with wood, keeping about 3 days supply on the front porch, with the wood shed close enough to easily replenish the porch with the garden tractor and cart which stay there, except when more than a couple inches is predicted, then we add another 2 or 3 days to the porch, because my tractor won’t go in deep snow. There is also a kerosene space heater and several days supply of kerosene for extra help with the heat.

    We also have a land line house phone which has only been dead once, during an equipment repair at the phone company’s switch (not during a snow storm, thank goodness). Our cell phones do not work at the house. There is a little creek next to the house where we can draw washing and flushing water.

    We keep bottled water on hand for drinking, cooking and coffee, as well as a supply of propane for the camp stove and lantern. There are two oil lamps, and if it looks like the power may go out at night (even in summer), we light one on low for a night light.

    We have an area of our driveway that actually accumulates a lot less snow due to wind sweeping, so our 4WD is parked there, with only a need to clear what the plow throws up to get out. The longest we’ve been without power during a storm has been 3 days (twice)in over 20 years, but there are frequent short outages all year.

    Fortunately for Western North Carolina, the worst snow storms occur when the temperature is right around freezing, so we’re not fighting extreme cold along with the power outages.

    I can sympathize with the writer.

  4. Mark says:

    and even though I have an automatic backup generator, it costs a lot more to make electricity than paying the utility. Varying with cost of propane, my 10Kw generator costs about $50/day to run. My entire monthly budget with Natiional Grid is less than $80/month. So…extended outages made long by inadequate staffing simply shifts the cost over to us from the understaffed utility.

    • Lorraine Duvall says:

      I’m a proponent of buried utility lines for esthetic reasons, and to mitigate storm outages. Politicians and utility companies say it is too expensive.

      However, if we add up the costs of downed lines one wonders – at what cost. We can look at the cost to repair (supplies, overtime pay, bringing in help from afar), cost to commercial businesses, and $50 an hour to run a generator, for example, we’re talking real $$s. Not to mention potential of loss-of-life and the inconvenience to customers.

      I’d like to see a study that takes all of these costs into consideration to justify not burying the lines. Perhaps it has been done. Does anyone have a reference?

      • bob says:

        Proponent of buried utility lines? How many MILES would they have to bury to get to your 1 house? What about before that? All of them underground for the sake of your ascetics?

        What happens when they break underground because of very common frost heaves? You still lose power, and it costs a ton more to fix, if it can be fixed, in the winter. Add that to your study.

        How many more clueless city dwellers are going to come up to the adks, build McMansions, complain about the costs and tell us how to do things? Has there been any study on that?

        “I have a generator! I am an island!”

        Small houses with wood stoves is how most people have managed to live in the adks. Try it. No studies, digging or whining needed.

  5. Keith Silliman says:

    Our outages in the Town of Franklin have gotten much shorter, I think in part to NGrid’s faily aggressive tree trimming program. Here at Loon Lae we are at the end of a distribution line and we often lose power when a breaker trips. Unfortunately, it is a manual switch and takes up to 4 or 5 hours at times for a crew to come out and reset.

    When I am away from the lake I receive weather advisories from Weather Underground. Whenever I get one, I can remotely boost the temperature in the house, which I do. Then if I lose power, I have enough time to get home and fire up the wood stove and start the generator.

    It is the not knowing when power will be restored that causes me the most stress.

  6. Curt Austin says:

    I enjoyed this story. It is interesting how different people cope with this situation. I try to make do with a small generator, water jugs, and an inside 80 gallon water tank. I find myself antsy over the lack of the internet lifeline, which seems a terrible failing on my part.

    But regarding underground electric lines: I note the author does not house her vehicles in a garage, though that is clearly preferable and might have saved her $750 on this particular occasion, plus no shoveling out, no frost on the windshield (a safety issue), and longer vehicle life. The cost/benefit ratio seems overwhelmingly in favor of a shelter for cars. Nevertheless, many people choose to go without, procrastinate about it, or don’t have the money.

    From a power company’s point of view, the cost/benefit of buried electric lines must not be favorable or they would do it on their own. They do not include our costs in the calculation, however, so one course of action would be to make our costs their costs, by regulation. We could require that they provide backup generators and fuel to all customers served by overhead lines.

    Underground supply in rural areas is probably more expensive than providing backup generators. Think of the distances, drainage issues, creeks, bridges, blasting through rock outcroppings, getting under roads. And if there is a break (it just takes an errant backhoe), the cost of fixing it.

    There’s no free lunch here: their costs become our costs. Do we want the cost of an uninterruptible supply? Can everyone afford this cost? Dare I ask, is all this digging environmentally sound?

    Most folks would be better off with a garage.

  7. Charlie S says:

    “The power outages from this new storm were much more extensive than the six-foot storm because the snow was heavier, and, settling on tree branches that hung over or fell on the power lines, caused the lines to break.”

    >> If the Earth keeps warming like it appears to be doing I suppose we’ll see more and more wet,heavy snow,more power lines down,more trees losing parts of their anatomies…more money being spent to fix the damage.

    It was nice not having TV – I read more.

    >> If television was eliminated from this society we’d have a lot less problems I’m certain.We might just have more thinking people.

  8. joe says:

    In general, people who live in the hamlets experience fewer shorter power failures. As I get older, the hamlet is more attractive.

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