State of Emergency

This is coming a bit late–most everybody has their power back by now. But I have a free moment to breathe, and I really have been hurting for something to scroll down the freakish zoot-suit-boogieing android post immediately below.

I live in the Connecticut valley, so the ice storm passed right over our heads without breaking a branch. There was a visible line on the sides of all the hills, at maybe six or seven hundred feet—a stark division between bare brown oak and black hemlock woods and a crystalline otherworld of steely, sparkling ice. Over the first couple days there was a rash of paranoid tree-felling along the street I live on, beautiful, perfectly healthy, centuries-old maples chainsawed into towering heaps of lumber for fear the next storm might bring them down and kill us all. I felt guiltily fortunate, hearing news reports about what had happened to people barely more than five miles away.

Then I had to drive up into the hills to the farm where I work.

It was unbelievable. There were miles-long sections of road where the top of every single tree on both shoulders had been sheared off fifteen feet up. Entire houses and yards were buried under fallen timber. National guard humvees rolled past with coal-gray chunks of slush clinging in their wheel-wells, utterly surreal against the frozen landscape. Dozens of electric company cranes moved in long, slow lines, surrounded by dead-eyed, frost-covered dudes in grey and orange.

On the dirt road that leads to the farm, a huge tree-trunk had snapped almost completely in half, fell across the road and got caught in branches on other side, so that I had to drive underneath its horizontal trunk, swerving to avoid the low-hanging brush and praying that the whole thing wouldn’t choose that moment to fall and crush me.

At work, they had been without power for six days. We operated on a little gas generator, switching off every few hours between powering the refrigerator and oven to the computers and fax machine. I learned how to work the generator: a horrible roaring gremlin, like a lawnmower engine off its wheels, loud and awful-smelling. It gave me a new appreciation for electric power—and a potent sensibility of its limitations. Running a small hair-dryer (for shrink-wrapping herbal tinctures) at its lowest possible setting was enough to blow out the generator in three seconds flat.

We had our christmas party by candlelight, huddled close to the wood stove in hats and coats. At four, when it got too dark to see, everybody packed up and went home.

The local home-supply megastore, which had only opened the week before after overcoming vehement community resistance (and which I’ve been angrily boycotting in the vain hope it will go away and the marshes and pasture it replaced will magically reappear) sold out its supply of generators in two days.

“This is what it’s going to be like from now on,” my boss said. “People can’t rely on the power company anymore.”

I felt sick. The implication is there—the cause of all this. And gas-powered generators aren’t going to be the answer.

So I went home and tried to make myself feel better by filling out my christmas shopping list with LED and CFL light bulbs and solar-powered cellphone chargers and worm-powered home composting kits. It hasn’t quite worked. Maybe it’ll help to blog about it.

Here’s some other stuff I would have bought for people if I could budget it:

I’ll shut up now.


  1. Hope things are going alright for you and the company where you work. Sounds like a very frustrating and surreal experience.

    Certainly the green products you mention are very prudent. I’ll take a couple Tesla’s and throw in a Toyota Volta. I think there will be big business in conversion, companies that will change existing gas cars to other engines. There’s so many cars just sitting around, maybe it’d be good if the old companies went out of business, and the recession causes people to realize you don’t have to buy a new car every couple years because the old one got dirty.

    Also, I think President Obama will be able to push through some ‘New Deal’ type legislation that involves upgrading the power grid (which I think in New England is very old and urgently needs fixing) plus create some efficient public transportation.

    One thing I think will become more commonplace is working from home like I do. It seems there’s less stigma these days, and the technology and global bandwidth is improving. I think the gas prices and economy are the main reason, lot of cost cutting going on. Just yesterday I working with several people from Australia using a computer sharing program and VOIP. So that saved a ton of jet fuel.

    I hope you have a happy (safe, warm, and green) holiday.

  2. yow. glad you’re doing ok. we lost power for 3 days last spring–i ran my laptop and the router off the UPS power supply until it was gone. then we threw out everything in the fridge.

    i’m a pretty self-reliant guy–split my own firewood and char my own meat. but any time a major utility goes out, it’s always a shocking reminder how slavishly devoted modern society is to all of those things. if there ever is a singularity, it’s going to be a very rude awakening for all of us.

  3. We lost electricity until Sunday afternoon. Without backup heat, it was 37 degrees on Sunday morning in the house after it had warmed up a bit. Kind of like camping. Otherwise, it wasn’t too bad, I hauled water from the brook to flush toilets and we went elsewhere to eat and shower–but I think that without those two things, it would have been iffy indeed. Lots of people in the hilltowns helped out at the emergency shelters, and overall people seemed to weather it with humor and grace. But it does make you think, or if it doesn’t, it ought to. I don’t know that the grid is necessarily ready to go down any minute, but for my entire life I’ve felt like one day we would find ourselves without electricity. It’s something you think about when you grow up in a rural area, your grandparents or parents grew up without electricity, and you read a lot of SF, I think.

    People don’t really know how to do things anymore, either. My grandfather could build a house almost entirely by himself, wiring, plumbing, masonry, carpentry, framing (I’m living in one of the houses he built, in fact, and it’s very cozy when the electricity’s on). He could grow veggies, raise and slaughter animals, make roads and ponds, weld, pound nails, hoe potatoes, find arrowheads, drive all kinds of farm equipment, cut and split wood, and dowse. He was also a self-taught musician. I can do some of those things, though not enough to survive on my own if there were an Event, but you know, I’d probably still be ahead of most people these days. That’s one of the things that I find scary–the cumulative loss of knowledge in our society that people would then have to reinvent/rediscover in the event that Something happened.

  4. Michael, your descriptions are more powerful than any generator yet invented. How fast do maples grow? As for that work Christmas party, how do you think you’ll remember it compared to others? – “We had our christmas party by candlelight, huddled close to the wood stove in hats and coats. At four, when it got too dark to see, everybody packed up and went home.”

    Thank you for writing this so vividly. You’ve really allowed me to feel your shivering at the destruction dealt by ice, even as summer reigns here in Australia.

    “Some say the world will end in fire…”

    Your terrible storm and the weakness of the technological response make me think we need a Doctor Oh on our planet for if so, you could have partied all night, admired the moving spectacle of a glittering workspace Christmas tree, and strolled home even on a moonless night with not a streetlight working.

    “The flaring up of a new star in the firmament, where there have been no stars before, testifies to the recent disintegration of a planet whose former inhabitants had achieved a high level of civilization and discovered the means of releasing atomic energy. Master Oh did what he could to prevent such incidents, and in the following way: when a planet became depleted of its natural fuels, such as coal or oil, he would instruct the inhabitants in the breeding of electric eels. This was implemented on more than one globe, under the namd of the Simulation of Progress. Which of our astronauts has not enjoyed an evening stroll on Enteroptosis, wandering through the dark accompanied by a trained eel with a light bulb in its little mouth?!”
    – Stanislaw Lem, “The Thirteenth Voyage, The Star Diaries

    With best wishes for a gentle end to this year and a beautiful 2009.

  5. Thank you everyone for the thoughts and wishes.

    Jeff, I have high hopes for Obama, but also a lot of worry. There’s a lot of middle management between him and the people. For anything to happen in Massachusetts, for example, it’s going to have to go through Deval Patrick—who I voted for—but who has shown himself to be somewhat of a giant, out-of-touch mess when it comes to handling the state budget.
    But yeah, hooray for the eeenternets and telecommuting. It’s no substitute for knowledgeable hands to push power management reset buttons when the generator overloads the computer…but it defintely takes some weight off the transportation industry. 🙂

    Liz, I am with you about it being the skilled and self-reliant folks of the older generation that would know best how to survive after the thing happens. The dude at my work who taught me about the generator is a retired sailor, full of that kind of handy practical knowledge—he is definitely the kind of person I’d want to have around at the end of the world. I try slowly to learn about how to grow food and build shelter and make power, but I know I am still far too wired into the grid to really commit.

    Anna, I’m very glad you enjoyed this. I love the electric eels idea. Lem is awesome. I went and lookd around to see about the plausibility of it, and lo what did I come across?
    The possibility of powering human medical implants with modified electric eel cells—cool!

    About the maples—I live in “historic” Sunderland; a sort of prototypical planned community on the bank of the Connecticut. Some of the maples on my street are ten, twelve feet in circumference and were probably planted back in 1700 when the land was first cleared and settled. The town has a rule about planting a new one every time you cut one down, so there are plenty of skinny, two-inch circumference saplings, two or three years old. I think the rule ought to be they should plant ten every time they kill one. Or a hundred.

    Happy solstice, y’all.

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