Sunday, November 18, 2012

Lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy

Like many of the people living on Long Island, I was affected by Superstorm Sandy. This is true both personally, as well as professionally. In this post, I will focus on personal experiences.

Nobody in my immediate family was injured and my house did  not sustain any damage, but a force of nature such as Sandy does illustrate the need for preparedness. Given where I live, I knew that my biggest problem would be the availability of electric power and when everything was over and done with, we had been without electricity  for over 10 days.  What I had not anticipated was the fact that we would have little or no available fuel for our vehicles for weeks.

Compared to the devastation that so many other people are still going through, our experience was an inconvenience, at most. However, not having electrical power did leave us in a situation where we had no telephone connectivity, no Internet, no television and no radio. In other words, we were in the dark literally and figuratively.

Our landlines are Verizon FiOS, which need power to work. While the FiOS setup comes with a backup battery, it only lasts for a few hours. The cell phone towers were quickly overloaded while they were working, but as the storm did more and more damage, cell phone signal was gone in no-time. Our phones were charged; they just had nothing to talk to.

Cell phone service did return after a few days, but only very spotty and without any data connectivity. Text messaging was really the only way to get news in or out.

No power also means no television, no radio and no Internet. Consequently, it took a few days for us to figure out how badly the area was really affected by the storm. Since we had trees down all around us and potentially live wires all over the road, we were pretty much constrained to our block the first day or two.

Sure, we had radios in the car, but if you don't know how much gas you have left, you're not going to risk running you battery into the ground. You are also not going to run your engine, just because you want to listen to the radio. Suddenly, a seemingly infinite resource like gasoline is preciously scarce.

If you haven't done so already, becoming friendly with the people in your neighborhood really helps too in preparedness. We received countless offers from people who had working fireplaces to use their homes (even when they were out!) to warm  up, or from people with generators to recharge our electronic devices there. Apart from that, a neighborhood where people are friendly to each other is a safer neighborhood. Oddities will stand out more and people are more likely to report suspicious behavior.

People are good at functioning without artificial light. It took my family about a day to adjust to the natural rhythm of waking up with sunrise and going to be with sunset. We still had cold and warm running water as well as natural gas, so we were able to use warm water and cook. Since we had no power, we knew that whatever was left in the fridge and freezer would last only a few days. This was a good time for a lot of cooking (starting early, because darkness set in by 5 pm) and to finally get rid of dozens of half-empty bottles of condiments.

The temperature would drop pretty steeply at night, but not to a point where extra blankets and layered clothing would not help. The house was kept somewhat warm by running two of the four gas burners pretty much all day long and by strategically placing pots of boiling water around the house. Paired with being smart about closing and opening curtains and keeping doors closed, we did okay.

Since we were trying to keep the heat in, we had to be a little careful about candles, oil lamps and such. Fortunately, we had carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house and having them gave some peace of mind.

After about 10 days, some of our neighbors started getting their power back and I ran a long extension cable over from them. By removing the leads to house-power from our heating system and by replacing them with a link into the neighbors house, we were able to get power heat back, and after that happened, we were pretty much all set. Dealing without TV, radio and artificial light is possible, as long as you have heat. Knowing that, I was ready for another long weekend without power.

Fortunately, it took another 4 hours after rigging the heat before house power returned. While we lost it again less than 24 hours later due to the snow storm, that outage was only two days and we were ready for that.

In the middle of all this, we had to call 911 at 3am to have somebody transported to the emergency room (all is well, thank you for asking). Calling 911 with no house line, poor cell phone coverage, roads blocked by falling trees and power lines is not fun, by the way. Make sure you can get out onto the street and signal to the first responders where they need to be. They're looking after their own safety too and anything you can do to make their lives easier benefits you too.

One of the reasons that it took fairly long for us to get power back is because we had huge trees crushing power lines at the other end of our block. The normal restoration cycle is that trees must be cleared first by specialized crews. Those crews do not come in until the power company certifies that the wires are not "hot". Once the trees are gone, the tree debris needs to be removed. Then, new electric poles need to be put in place, and only then will the utility come back to restore power. Now, that sounds easy, until you realize that there are a good half-dozen parties involved and since communications are difficult, coordination is too.

Be nice to the tree guys. If you can, give them coffee, donuts, etc. while they are working. They are helping you out, even if it doesn't seem like they are making progress. But remember, they are often from out of state, away from their family, unfamiliar with the area, working long days and sleeping in uncomfortable feds. If you have it, give them a 6-pack of beer as they pack up for the day. I know I would appreciate that if I were in their shoes ;)

So: what lessons did I learn for preparedness?

1. When there is a storm warning, fill up your cars with gas and get a few gas cans with spare fuel. It will most likely take at least three weeks for the fuel distribution logistical system to return after another storm.

2. Make sure you have flash lights in the house. If you choose battery operated ones, have a mix between lights with a focused beam and lights that are lanterns. The new high-intensity LED flashlights actually give off a lot of light and are relatively easy on your batteries. I HIGHLY recommend having a few lights that work based on a hand crank too. A minute of cranking yields about 40 minutes of light. I purchased this camping lantern. It is powered by sunlight or by a hand crank. Previously, I also purchased a little battery operated
camping lantern. The light yield is tremendous and after using it for several hours each day during the power outage, the batteries are still going strong.

3. Have radios. Hand cranks are good, battery operated is acceptable too. Know what stations to tune to. Not bad! I purchased an Eton radio that combines AM/FM, weather band, flashlight and USB charger.

4. You'll need bottled water at hand. We were lucky enough to not lose water, but without it, I don't think we would have been able to stay in the house.

5. A well-stocked pantry containing pasta, beans, canned tomatoes, cereals, etc. pays off big time. After about 4 days, you'll have to get rid of what is in your fridge. Your pantry will last.

6. If you are a coffee junkie like me, make sure you have ground coffee in the house, as well as a filter that you can put on a coffee pot and just poor boiling water on it. We never lost our ability to make coffee (or tea, hot chocolate, etc.) I have this Melita Coffee maker. Don't forget to stock up on filters!

7. Have an electrician put in a transfer switch on your heating system. That way, you can switch over to an external power source, such as a generator, or an extension cord.

8. When it is time to purchase your next car, consider springing for the power converter option. Our car has a 115V output that can provide at most 100W of power (about 1 Ampere).

9. Have a flashlight that can blink or can have a different colors. It will do wonders to attract attention when in need.

10. Even though roads were hard to travel, UPS and USPS continued to deliver. If your local community has charging stations set up and maybe even offers some Internet connectivity, online orders with overnight shipping can be very useful!

11. Have an inventory of your battery-operated devices, know what batteries they take and have a supply at hand for emergency purposes. Don't rely on rechargeable batteries; they don't hold their charge well and they don't last as long as their non-reusable counterparts. Besides that, since you'll need batteries, you probably cannot recharge them anyway.

12. If you are a HAM radio operator, like I am, have at least one radio that can be operated from battery or mobile. Know where your local emergency communications net is, and make sure that the people operating that net are at least somewhat familiar with your callsign.

13. Have carbon monoxide detectors and check that they work. We heard more than a few stories of people who got overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning caused by burning candles or by improperly operating fire places.

14. If you have a fire place in your house, have the chimney cleaned once a year. We did not take the chance to run ours because I was not sure when the last time it was cleaned was and I wasn't about to set the house on fire. If your chimney is clean, have wood to burn. Don't use pine as that is too oily and may create deadly fumes.

15. If you have little children, make sure that you have them clean up the floor before going to bed. If you need to leave the house in the dark, you don't want to be tripping over toys.

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