Friday, April 6, 2012

How Do We Manage When the Electricity Goes Out?

Several weeks ago, the Pacific Northwest experienced an unexpected and record-breaking snow storm. It dumped 9 inches of heavy, wet snow on us, and things pretty much came to a standstill for two days. Trees couldn't stand up to the weight of all that snow and many came down. Especially hard hit were the ornamental plum trees that were in blossom. But everywhere tree limbs--and whole trees--crashed down. I lost a large lower limb from a Doug Fir in my front yard near the house. And around the corner from me, half of a neighbor's mighty oak broke away.Thankfully, it crashed into the street. Another neighbor lost a birch tree that fell on his house. That same scenario was repeated all around our area. As a result, thousands of us lost power in our area.

My power went out in the early morning, shortly after I had gotten up. Normally I wouldn't have even been out of bed that early, but the snow was calling to me and I wanted to sit with a morning cup of coffee and enjoy the quiet and peace of the falling snow before I showered and tried getting to work in one piece on the snowy, slippery roads. So I turned on my coffee pot and watched the snow fall as I waited for it to finish brewing. As I was pouring my first cup I was suddenly plunged into absolute darkness. I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face.

Ah well, I thought, surely it won't be long till it's back on. I fumbled in the dark and lit two of my lanterns so I'd have some light while I waited for the electricity to power back up. Then I sat and drank my coffee and waited. And waited.

Turns out the power didn't come back on for about 15 hours. It was so interesting to talk to people about their experiences because many of them were absolutely helpless in the face of this. They had no idea how to take care of basic needs and they were unprepared. They didn't have a clue how to spend that much time unplugged.

I thought of the Amish: When the electricity goes out in their area, it doesn't even register because they don't use high-line electricity. For the Amish, a day without electricity is like any other day. But of course, not for "the Englisch," which is what they call the rest of us.

Because I strive to live a relatively simple life, I wasn't too hampered by the turn of events. In fact, I rather relished the thought of living unplugged and low-tech for the day. I had my lanterns for light and my handpowered grain grinder for flour and cereal, a pantry full of home-canned food, and my books and spinning wheel and knitting and treadle sewing machine to keep me happily engaged. I had water and a propane stove out back under my patio roof for cooking and heating water. I figured I could take care of myself for quite a long time. Except...

I had no heat. In the Lilliputian cottage I have no wood stove. When I raised my boys in the country, we only heated with wood, and that big old farmhouse never seemed cold. The wood stove pumped out heat all winter long. We'd go through about three cords every winter, and I could stoke that old stove full, turn down the damper, and keep the house warm all night long. In the morning when I got up, I'd first thing go open the damper and get the coals glowing red hot before adding more wood for the day. Many's the day I'd set my cast iron pot on the stove and cook lunch or dinner for us, using the "free" heat from the fire. In the damp and soggy Pacific Northwest, wood heat, in my opinion, can't be beat. It's the best thing for keeping a body warm.

But even with no heat (I bundled up in my woolen hand knits from top to bottom and felt a bit smug), I was fine. And because of the choices I've made to live life simply, I was prepared and knew how to take care of myself.

As I see it, when an emergency hits, there are some things that are nice to have in place. We have need of food, water, shelter, heat if it's cold out (and it seems the electricity always goes out in a winter storm around these parts), an alternative light source, and any special needs, such as medicine or medical equipment. Each of us should think through these needs and decide how we can make them happen even in an outage. A little thought and preparation will go a long way.

I'm reminded of when my boys were little and we'd regularly have days (and occasionally weeks) when we "lived like pioneers." Even though it was fun, it was also educational. Depending on the season, we could forage and fish, cook out back or on the wood stove, play games by kerosene lantern light at the kitchen table, and wash our clothes by hand (even jeans!) and hang them outside or by the fire to dry. Good times.

I remember one time I gathered "fur and skins" (fabric from our local fabric store), leather thongs, and some big wooden needles that I'd found somewhere--the memory of which escapes me now--and when the boys woke up that morning I informed them that they would have to make their own clothes in order to dress for the day. They loved it! In fact, they got so excited about the project that they made a "skins" tent to play in also and we ate our meals there for several days.

These "play days" helped make my sons the creative tinkerers they are today, I think. In fact, besides the heat issue, I found I had one more problem on that snowy day and that was my fancy new iPhone. I'm fairly new to that technology, and people called or messaged me all day long (snow storm and power out = really big news!). Needless to say, my power bar was going down and I'd soon enugh run out of juice. And that was when I realized that once the power was gone, so was my ability to communicate with the outside world--granted, not a necessity, but nice to have available. I mentioned it to one of my boys and without skipping a beat he said to plug the phone into the car chager...which he'd given me for Christmas...and turn the key to accessories and let 'er rip. I did and my communications disaster was averted.

You and your family could try a "live like the pioneers" day (or two or three!) and find where you have gaps in your ability to take care of yourselves. And then you can make plans for how to close those gaps so when an uncertain future hits, you'll be prepared.

As for me, I'm saving up for a wood stove for the Lilliputian cottage. I know me well enough to know that I won't rest easy until I have it installed. And when I do, even if it's the dead of summer, I'll fire it up and put on a pot of stew.

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