IMHO: Power Less

Last Saturday night, we returned to a home darkened by a power outage.  

I could see a power line down across the street, but we didn’t know when we had lost power (oh, for the days before digital clocks). It was nearly midnight, we were tired, so we called in the outage to the local utility (is it just me, or is there something incredibly stupid about having an automated voice telling you to check their Web site for updates on power outages when you are almost certainly calling from a house without power?), and then just sort of camped out in the living room, hoping all would be back to normal in the morning.

It wasn’t.

The next morning we were able to piece together that the area had been hit by gusting winds of up to 75 mph, toppling trees and power lines throughout our community and the Northeast.  We were just one family among thousands without power.

Over the next 48 hours, we did a lot of scrambling and made some hard choices.  See, in our house, when we don’t have power, we don’t have heat, light, phone (except for cell—and that only so long as the batteries last), hot water, refrigeration, or Internet.  Worse, because of all the rain we got along with the wind, we got water in our basement because the sump pump that normally keeps such things under control requires electricity to do so.

The First 24

We didn’t “do” much for the first 24 hours other than listen for news, talk to our neighbors, and try to flag down the occasional utility vehicle for a progress report (somewhat surrealistically, on Sunday night, I found myself reading my Kindle by candlelight).  We knew that lots of people were in the same predicament, and that we’d just have to wait our turn.  However, after spending our second night without power, we began to take a more long-distance view; bringing in bigger candles, some food that didn’t require electricity to preserve or prepare, and things like a portable coffee maker that we could run off a small gasoline-powered generator that a neighbor lent us (as well as some extra-long extension cords).  These were little things—but they certainly made the next 36 hours more tolerable.

This is not the first time we’ve lost power for an extended time in this house. Some of the “better” flashlights that helped us through this emergency we acquired after the last one; I’ve maintained the ability to recharge my laptop via a car battery ever since a particularly nasty past outage; and there were some artificial logs in the basement that might have helped this time—if they hadn’t been stored in the basement with the temporarily disabled sump pump (there was also some question about just how long those things are “good” for).  And, since this one, we’ve once again pondered how best to prepare for the next time.

But these kinds of occurrences, while aggravating, are still relatively rare.  Yes, we threw out hundreds of dollars worth of food—but should we spend thousands of dollars on a generator to forestall that episodic catastrophe?  We’ll toss out those fireplace logs—but should we replace them if they are going to sit in a box in the basement for so many years we won’t even know if they are still “good”?  As much as I prized that inexpensive coffee maker on Monday, I have a feeling it is now destined for a more permanent home in the basement.


Ultimately, we’ll make choices—we’ll do our best to factor in the likelihood of a recurrence of the particular set of circumstances that we confronted this weekend, balance that against the costs of insulating ourselves against the worst of it, and make decisions that fit our budget and our personal priorities.  We’ll do that with a different set of eyes this weekend than we might have a month ago, of course.

People make those kinds of trade-off decisions all the time, certainly when it comes to saving for retirement—balancing the “here and now” calls of day-to-day life against their sense of the size of the amount needed and timing of the day when they will have to call on those savings.  Of course, the timing for many is no more in their control than this past weekend’s storm—and even those who have an eye on a particular date can find that occasional “storms” in the market can have a dramatic impact.

Here’s hoping that when that time comes, they won’t be “powerless” do something about it.