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Surviving a Country Power Outage

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I must have known it was coming, a monster ice storm with a three-day power outage. On a trip to town on Monday January 26, I laid in food for us and for the wildlife that could have kept a whole regiment and all their pets fed for a week. Good thing, too. On Tuesday, I drove to Akron to pick Bill up, fresh from an exhausting trip to Florida. We got home just as the ice storm hit that evening, the roads rapidly becoming impassable sheets of ice. Tuesday afternoon, it started to rain on top of snow, with the air temperature standing at 26 degrees. We know what that means.
These are the kids' tracks on Wednesday morning, January 27, as they investigated the crunchy-glazed skating rink that had once been our yard. Photographed from the birding tower. It's been pouring all night and the air temperature is standing at 26.

One of those sneaky upper-level warm air masses was squatting over frigid southeast Ohio, dumping rain down onto earth and trees that had been frozen solid for ten days or more. Ice had been forming all night, a half-inch layer on every twig and wire, and I awoke at 5:15 Wednesday morning to the ominous sound of branches snapping in the woods, trees falling with a swish and tinkle of ice; rain pattering on a thick glazed crust of snow. Here it comes. I lay in the dark, marveling at the red glow of the clock radio, wondering what I should do to prepare for the outage, thinking ahead and behind to the outages before, knowing that when it came, this would be a big'un. I lay there a little too long.
At 5:58, the red glow winked off, and I hadn't so much as turned up the thermostat from its night setting of 62 degrees to at least start us off with a warm house. The dishwasher was full of dirty dishes. Blast! I'd have to do them by hand. And so much else.

We've got heat when the power's off, in the form of some gas logs in the living room, and our gas stove in the kitchen, which becomes an oversized space heater with the oven door open. That's it, but with curtains drawn across the kitchen entry, it's enough to keep our living space at 70 degrees, a huge blessing. (It did get down to 44 degrees in the basement, a bit too close to freezing for comfort...) Perhaps even better, we've got water, too, since we got gravity-feed town water about five years ago. And best of all, we've got an old gas water heater with an old-fashioned pilot, not one of those silly clickclickclickity electronic ignited things that needs electricity--duh!--to start. Having hot water in a power outage ROCKS. So Hard. If you can do dishes, get a hot shower now and then, you're really golden, because there are a lot of dishes generated by a snowed-in family of four with nothing better to do than cook rapidly spoiling food and eat it. We've survived a five-day power outage without water, before we got hooked into gravity-fed town water, and I found myself melting snow to heat on the stove to wash the dishes and endless Tupperware from all the food quickly spoiling in the powerless fridges and freezers. Yeah, two fridge/freezers and one chest freezer.

I can tell you that, however you feel about reading this blog, you do not want to be around me in an extended power outage without running water. In this one, with my running hot water, I was June Cleaver by comparison. Keeping my apron starched and cinched around my tiny girdled waist, my high heels clicking as I bustled about humming a happy tune. I will confess to hitting the wine about dark each evening. "Highball, darling?"A tree sparrow basks in a moment of sun.

The greenhouse is heated with gas, so life goes on there, too. Light comes in the form of some old oil lamps (the only way to go, much safer than candles) and our indispensible Petzl headlamps, one for each of us. Liam and Phoebe look really cute in headlamps, reading Captain Underpants or Calvin and Hobbes. Entertainment for the kids is drawing, reading, and playing together in the snow, and playing with Chet and Charlie, who goes from shoulder to shoulder cackling with glee.Don't be alarmed at his beak. It's not deformed--he's actually chewing the black drawstring cord of my sweatshirt here. He's ruined all our sweatshirts that way.
photo by Phoebe Thompson

All told, we're in fine shape, if somewhat cranky and out-0f-sorts as we shrug off our various electronic addictions. My major focus becomes cooking, as I don't want to lose all the fresh food I've laid in. So I got up Wednesday morning to a silent, dark house, started the gas fire, got down on my knees and lit the oven, washed the dishwasher contents by hand, and began cooking. I made a huge batch of spaghetti sauce and boned a bunch of chicken thighs. Started a soup with the bones and prepped a meal of chicken korma and stir-fried vegetables for that evening. Made the rest of the hamburger (we always buy family packs of everything) into burgers for the next night's cookout. Sorted through the fridge, making sure I had all the fresh food taken care of, and set a bunch of perishables out on the stoop to stay cold. Didn't want to deal with the freezer just yet. Which turned out to be a mistake.

Next: What do you do when it gets dark at 5 pm?


You're so much more self-sufficient in an ice storm than so many people. There was a huge ice storm here in Massachusetts/New Hampshire a few weeks ago. (Luckily, north of us.) Many were without power for a week or more and EVERYTHING they had - lights, hot water, oven, stove, refrigerators, freezers, hot water, computers, TV (!), wireless phones - needed electricity to work. A few years ago, we had a tornado-like summer storm that knocked out power in some neighborhoods for a few days, and people left home because they had no AC. Now, that's really sad considering this is New England. We are getting so helpless and dependent on centralized services. I hope we start learning not to put all our eggs in one energy basket.

What do I do when it's dark at 5pm? I come home and put my PJs on! But, it's getting lighter and lighter earlier and earlier. Yeah!!

My ice storm story is pretty heartwarming...well, maybe only to me :-) I live in Eastern WA and we had a super ice storm about 10 years ago (I was powerless for 6 days). On the second day, my father drove 150 miles from his home to mine bringing me a generator and a Coleman camp stove--then turned right around and went home, 6 hours roundtrip. Doncha love Dads?

Very different context, but when the grid collapsed that Friday night a few summers ago, we raced home to eat the perishables. I remember a marvellous meal of antipasto and martinis (the gin was in the freezer -- you wouldn't want it to get warm!)

Littleorangeguy got me to giggling about not letting the gin get warm! (We keep our gin in the freezer also--much easier to make martinis).
I was wondering if your basement could become a big walk-in fridge? At 44 degrees, close.
Your account shows how quickly our lives have come to depend on an uninterrupted power supply. I grew up (overseas) without electricity. So every night was a Tilley lamp night; all cooking was on a wood stove. Food preservation? All the methods people used before electricity--candling eggs anyone?

Country folks have to learn how to make do, don't we? I got very lucky this time (only out of electricity for 30 minutes on Wed. morning) and during the big outage last fall caused by Ike's left-over winds (only a out few hours that time.) My biggest event was Christmas '04, when the only heat source I had was a wood-burning fireplace, and the wood pile was iced over. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor, waking every two hours to feed the fire. I had a circuit - carry water to the barn for the horses, hit the frozen woodpile with a sledge hammer, carry ice-coated logs indoors and pile them on towels in front of the fireplace to thaw out, put dried logs from the last trip on the fire, and catch another nap before starting all over again. I had water and a gas stove, and I survived, but it was a really long and exhausting 3 days.

Glad you are well-equipped for survival (how did the fish cope?) and that you are back in the 21st century. Sometimes, a little power loss helps to build character, and makes you appreciate electricity all the more when it comes back on. I really feel for those poor people in KY who are suffering.


We/I missed you during those days but now I don't feel too bad for you. You had gas to heat and water - HOT water! Yes, I would be clicking around in my high heels, too. Our worst power outage during a hurricane left us without hot water and light for 5 days, but we didn't need heat in September. It was an opportunity to "eat out" for several days as we lost everything in our frig and freezer.

You guys are set. Minus our electronic playthings and our connection to the world, I would be OK, too. Room temperature wine by candlelight every evening at dusk. Early to bed. Not bad!

Hmm. I guess we Floridians do not have the market cornered on life without electricity. Sounds like you did well though. There's nothing like time without tv to build family memories. I do hope Chet Baker has a sweater or two though.

A tree fell on my roof during the ice storm in Vermont Dec. 11/12. It severed the fireplace chimney. Another tree took out my phone & power lines. Even the power meter was ripped off the side of the house. I was without power for 6 days. Had to move in with a friend. Am still dealing with the repercussions of the storm (insurance, for one). Major damage to sheetrock from leaks in some rooms. Our maple sugar industry will be suffering come spring. Many thousands of our maple trees had their tops sheared off. Good luck to you! I smypathize with the problems in Ohio and Kentucky too.

I remember being without power once for four days when the remnants of hurricane Opal came through and it was a total nightmare. You are to be commended Julie. And we didn't have snow and ice to contend with either.

Sounds to me like you were all set for the outage.

We have well water that requires and electrical pump to get the water into the house. After every outage, we talk about getting a generator for it but then forget... The other problem is that we buy a whole beef (several hundred pounds) from our neighbor every year for feeding our dogs. Fortunately, the freezer has never thawed... that would be a huge loss.

Perhaps next time I hear that sound of trees falling under the weight of ice I'll be inspired to jump out of bed rather than to sink deeper into it! This post brings me right back to our own ice storm adventures in December. It's great to share war stories, isn't it? We had 8 days without power, but we did fine; as a friend of our says, we have the perfect set up for the 'end days'. Wood stove for heat, propane stove for cooking, pond in the front yard for water, and a conveniently poorly insulated mudroom in which to keep coolers full of food.
I like to think I could've been a pioneer; compared to many people in my state we do without lots of 'conveniences' simply because we live in the woods. I think pioneer would be a stretch after this December. I really did miss my dishwasher and my vacuum; oil lamp time each night became simultaneously more unwelcome (it meant another night without power) and welcome (it meant the mess of dishes to try to wash by hand and the carpet covered in dirt were cast in a glowing light that took away their sharp edges). We did lots of frantic cooking and eating and we had family come join us 'in the woods' as their electric heat wasn't gonna cut it. We played lots of Scrabble and chess and managed to buy a great old railroad lantern - a local store had sold out, but brought out their own personal collection to sell to their customers who were in need of some light. Everyone kept tabs each day on how many people still had no power. We cut down a Christmas tree from our woods and put it melted right there in the house! Crews from all over the country were on the back roads of NH working almost non-stop to help us. Strangers offered us their generators when they heard we were still without power after day 4. Days are long and a bit more wearing without electricity but some amazing things happened in those long hours. It was worth it.
The night our power came back on I heard a spot by Sean Hurley on NHPR about a small town's experience with the power outage that really sums it up nicely. It gave me the chills and had me a little teary I'll admit! The link is if anyone wants to hear it.

Thanks for the post, Julie :)

Since you have a reliable supply of natural gas, have you considered an auxiliary generator powered by the stuff? Not cheap, but $4k can get a 15 kW unit delivered, and probably another $1k would get it hooked up and useable. That would be enough to run the basics, especially as you cook with gas.

We lost power for only a few hours this time, but earlier in the year, the power went out for a long-ish while and John and I found ourselves without a way to make *gasp* coffee in the morning. I realized what desperate addicts we were as we huddled around the little backpacking stove John dug out of the attic--admonishing one another to "be careful!" "what are you doing?" "don't waste the propane!"

Ah, good times, good times.

Actually sounds pretty cozy.
Last week I was able to leave a rack of pork spare ribs out on the porch overnight when there wasn't room in the freezer ... it was that cold HERE!

We have several big coolers that become our outside freezer.

I would love to see you as June Cleaver!

I've been through a 2 week power outage. Get this...My husband works for the power company. So when the lights go out....he goes to work and I deal with life. We have wood stove, stored water (we have a well), lots of non-freezer type food, and BOARD GAMES. We also have ice storms and live in the northwest woods, which means lots of power outages. We just deal with it. Until this year, no generator....(sitll haven't used it). Better without I think. I actually look forward to poweroutage.

We were w/o power once for 48 hrs from an ice storm. Fireplace and gas stove kept us warm, but not much water with our non-functioning electric well pump. We were the lucky ones. Many dairy farms around here were w/o power for weeks and there were booming sales in generators that year.
Any power outage, no matter how short-lived, makes me glad I'm not Amish!

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