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10 November 2012

Post-Sandy Update

by John D. Muccigrosso

It's not really post-Sandy for a lot of people. There are still hundreds of thousands without power and many - including a bunch of people I know at Breezy Point and a bigger bunch that I don't, but see every summer - are in worse shape than that. Still we've got power back and things are close enough to normal that I thought I'd revisit what I wrote the day before the storm hit.

1. The Model - Wow, the model nailed it. About the only thing it got wrong was the speed of the storm, which moved faster than expected...fortunately. Instead of having a landfall early Tuesday morning, it landed late Monday evening and by daylight on Tuesday was mostly gone.

2. The Rainfall - As predicted, rainfall was minimal around here. It didn't even hit the lower end of the range that had been predicted when I was writing. Instead we got a little more than an inch. My sump, which was dry before the rain came, was dry after too, and that was a good thing because we didn't have power from about 7:40 pm on Monday night. So a flooded basement was the one thing I didn't have to worry about. (And likewise I was wrong that we would get flooding without power.) As I wrote, this lack of rainfall was not something anyone was talking much about on TV, even though it meant one thing a lot of people did not have to worry about.

3. Outages - Al Roker was right. In the coastal areas that got hit hard with ocean surges, power seemed to be out uniformly, while elsewhere outages were spotty. Here in Maplewood, for example, the Village never lost power, while a few families are still out. We lost it for nearly eight days. I think I was right that damage in this immediate area was less than last year's Halloween storm, but there was so much damage along the coast and in heavily wooded areas, that the various utility companies couldn't repair it as quickly. That said, some of the damage around here was pretty spectacular, and a lot of trees went down, taking power lines with them.

4. Timing - The good forecasting and speedy action by public officials was indeed aided in great measure by the weekend. Lots of colleges and universities (like mine) were able to send kids home in plenty of time, and the various public-transportation systems had time to take action without worrying about a lot of people getting home from work. Individuals were also able to do a lot of shopping...a lot.

Once the full extent of the damage had become clear, there were a few lucky things too. The fairly low rainfall meant that those who hadn't been flooded didn't get water damage on top of the power loss. Also temperatures in the first days were moderate, with highs in the 50s, so people without heat could get by more easily. The major roads were fairly clear too, so on Tuesday and Wednesday it was possible to get around (or out of town) without too much trouble. Finally outages in a lot of areas were spotty. As I said above, Maplewood Village never lost power, and the public libraries were able to open up right away too. This meant that it was possible to escape a dark home to recharge one's literal or figural batteries. Cell service was a bit spotty, but good enough that most people I know had telephone and internet at least intermittently, which was good for keeping in touch.

At our house, we learned that our water heater doesn't need electricity, which was a nice surprise. That meant hot showers and clean dishes. Out gas stove kept working too, even if we had to light it by hand. No oven though, since that is controlled by the electronics in the control panel. We have a propane grill outside, which we didn't use, but could have. We also keep the house pretty cool in winter, so indoor temps in the high 50s were familiar.

Once it was clear that we didn't have to worry about flooding the basement, and that school and work were going to remain closed at least through the end of the week, we decided to make that visit to friends in upstate NY that we'd been putting off. Off we went, and discovered that just a little over two hours away, in an area that had been hit hard last year by the remnants of Irene, life was going on pretty much as normal. We caught up on the TV coverage of the disaster at home and counted our blessings. It seems like about half of our local friends performed some version of an escape.

This is two years in a row that we've lost power. Last year it was brief for us, but friends went without for several days. So I've got some plans to be better prepared. As I said, as long as our gas stays on, we have hot water and can cook indoors. Without gas, we'd be cooking outside. No electricity is a drag, but the appropriate candles along with the battery-powered small lights we have already (yay, LEDs!) can get us through the nights. For entertainment, we certainly missed more accessible internet, but cell service was good enough for keeping in touch and the radio was great (kudos to WNYC for terrific coverage of the storm and its aftermath). Our laptops could run all evening as long as we had charged them up during the day, but TV would have been nice (still finishing up The Wire on NetFlix).

The really big barrier to staying comfortably in the house was heat. Our furnace uses gas to create steam, so it doesn't use a lot of electricity, but it is hard-wired into the house line, so it couldn't be run without some playing around. It doesn't use a lot of juice, so it could easily have been run off an inverter from the car (which is how I charged up my phone), had it been wired for that. So item #1 is a transfer switch, which will let us run the furnace off the car inverter...or a generator, which we ordered on the last day we had power and arrived on the last day we didn't. The generator runs on propane, which we now always have for our grill. It isn't big (2kW), but it's enough to run the furnace, our sump pump, the stove, and various appliances, at least one at a time. The Prius in the driveway means that we have a fairly large supply of electricity around the house, so in a pinch we don't need to fire up the generator. We get about 400 miles to the tank, so we haven't been bothered by the rationing still in effect in NJ (and due to end in a few days). I may get a battery backup for the sump pump too. Those can last a few days at best, but I'm more concerned about short-term outages, like Irene last year, when the sump pump was running virtually non-stop for a few hours as the storm front passed through our area. I'd rather not have to run out to fire up the generator in those conditions. A back-up water pump is another possible purchase. I'm looking at smallish transfer pumps which can run off the car inverter (ours maxes out at 100W) and can be moved around to handle whatever flooding we might get. If nothing else, it could also help reduce the load on the sump pump during those surges.

All in all, we were pretty lucky. Lots of people lost their homes, other property, even lives. We had to do some labor, but got to visit dear friends and watch the destruction from a safe distance on TV. One cold night in the house was a small penalty in comparison to what might have been. tags: