It's been difficult to write this post. Not because we spent nine days without heat and electricity, but because millions of people in the Northeast are still struggling, far worse than we did, over a week later, from the wrath and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In New Jersey today, eight days after the storm, 566,000 people are still without power, according to the latest news conference with the governor. We got off easy--we lost a couple of trees and a shutter blew off our house. We still had hot water, a gas stove, and use of our telephones. I would say that we were blessed, but I don't want to imply for a moment that others who were less fortunate weren't deserving of blessings. Instead, I will say that we are grateful for being back on the grid; we are hopeful for the full recovery of our region and its residents; we are thankful for everybody near and far who is helping out with repairs and disaster relief; and we send our deepest condolences to those families who lost lives, livelihoods, homes, and treasured belongings.
We are a bit wiser as a result of the hurricane. Here is what we learned (although much of it was simply reinforced):
1) Never take our energy resources for granted. If there's ever been a time to rethink our energy usage and habits--on a personal level, a national level, and a global level--it's when you're sitting in a cold, dark house, lit only with strategically placed candles and a weak fire in the fireplace, with two young children, who have cold noses and cold hands. It's when you're throwing out bags upon bags of foods that have gone bad in your freezer and feeling enormously guilty for the waste. It's when you're going to bed in three layers of clothing, under five blankets, with your children vigorously nuzzling against you, wearing their winter hats to bed and asking if you'll have heat tomorrow. When a natural disaster strikes, it really hits home that our non-renewable energy resources are fragile and precarious.
2) It's hard to ignore the climate crisis when you have three destructive storms within three years (two hurricanes, one blizzard in October--for the latter, see the post entitled "Appreciating Autumn"). A friend called to check in (we still had our land lines) and said he was taking an informal survey: Is the freakish weather a sign of our climate crisis, or just a fluke? You can guess how I voted. Al Gore, in An Inconvenient Truth, warns about the increased severity and occurences of natural disasters as a result of the worsening global warming crisis. (See the post entitled iPad Apps for Nature-Lovers for the app version of his book.) As an environmentalist, I've always been one of his supporters, so it's hard for me to understand those who write him off as a crackpot alarmist when we're experiencing firsthand the uptick of severe weather patterns.
3) We don't need as much as we think we need. When our freezer food was reduced to garbage, we realized that we shouldn't be stockpiling the freezer on a regular basis. In a natural disaster, that food is useless. We could still use our gas stove, so we salvaged what we could from the fridge and the coolers stored on the back porch, and then ate canned food. It made me think of how Europeans typically shop--they buy small quantities of fresh food a couple of times a week, and as my 100-year-old Aunt Ann says, "they don't make a hog of themselves."
A trip to the local supermarket after the hurricane was an eye-opening experience. The aisles were crowded with mountains of trash bags, full of fresh, frozen, meat, and dairy foods that couldn't be salvaged. The cashier told me they lost $5,000 in meat alone. (All of those animals giving up their lives for no good reason...sad.) The photo below is of poor quality because I snapped it on my phone and the store was dark, but I think you can still get the picture of how depressing the sight was. Those carts are all filled with food waste, and this was just one aisle of the store.
We also didn't need the racket of the news. It was actually a bit of a relief to have five days without any television or the internet, especially during this overheated political season. Our township called us each day to give emergency updates of what we really needed to know. Everything else that passes as "news" fell to the wayside. It was a strange feeling to be disconnected from the world at large, except at specific intervals (at the town's charging stations for cell phones and laptops).
We really got down to the basics of survival. What we really needed were candles, matches, firewood, canned and boxed food, and D batteries for flashlights. Aside from the firewood which ran a bit short, we were prepared this time around. We spent a lot of time as a family sitting around the fire, reading by flashlight, wearing our thickest sweaters, hats, and scarves. We all went to bed at the same time-- 9:00 p.m., which I don't think I've done since fourth grade. That part reminded me of "The Waltons." ("Good-night John-Boy. Good-night, Jim-Bob...")
4) Without television and electronics, you tap into your own creative resources. We really had to use our imaginations to distract the kids from the cold. We played lots of games about hibernating animals, so we could cuddle under blankets while pretending we were chipmunks or raccoons. When our kids were at each other's throats with cabin fever, I sent them to their rooms. Not out of punishment; just realizing they needed their own personal time to decompress and relax. I set up a "reading fort" for each of them, layering them with several blankets and providing a large selection of their favorite books.
We also had to creatively improvise for Halloween. For the second year in a row, Halloween was cancelled due to weather emergencies. (Update: Halloween in New Jersey was moved this year to November 5.) Our children typically start wearing their costumes the first week of September and don't really quit until well into spring, so this is a holiday they get really excited about. To make up for their disappointment, we set up Trick-or-Treating stations in the house. I was in the office and my husband was in the dining room, and the kids went back and forth, knocking on our respective doors for candy. It was really silly, and really funny, but it cured the dark doldrums for a spell.
5) We need to rethink our gas usage and vehicles. Fortunately, we had filled up our gas tanks for our two cars before the hurricane struck, because even eight days later, there are very long lines for gas in New Jersey, supervised by police. The state has mandated an odd-and-even day gasoline rationing system. Luckily, we haven't needed any gas yet. We've long been considering a hybrid car, and Hurricane Sandy has made us take those considerations much more seriously.
6) A community of friends, a network of strangers--everybody pulls together in times of crisis. Friends who had gotten their power back before us invited us over for hot meals. (We declined, as we were trying to eat our way through our salvageable food, and we could still heat it up.) Other friends offered sleepovers and the use of their washing machines. Long lines of cars honked their thanks for the electrical workers in a truck convoy from Georgia. Our township officials and staff not only had municipal buildings open for charging phones, but also provided free snacks, drinks, and reading materials for residents. We brought a supply of coloring books to one of the municipal buildings and the kids enjoyed a couple of hours of heat, light, hot cocoa, and cookies.
On a national level, it was also refreshing and surprising to finally see some government bipartisanship in action, as Governor Chris Christie and President Obama amicably supported each other during and after the storm.
7) Hard times magnify your sense of perspective. Although it was not easy being without heat or power, our neighborhood fared relatively well. A few people had enormous trees uprooted in their yards (with the mangled roots sticking up a good six or seven feet--incredible!), but they were thankful the trees hadn't hit their houses.
8) Appreciate what you have, while you have it, and conserve it. Enough said.
© 2012 by Joy Sussman/JoyfullyGreen.com. All rights reserved. Photos and text digitally fingerprinted. Site licensed by Creative Commons.