September 15, 2008 – A fresh perspective on future crises that may become more and more frequent. The way things are going in the financial realm these days, serial crises may not be far behind.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
I’m still a little stressed from yesterday’s events. The morning began with gale force winds, the remnants of hurricane Ike as it tore through town, snapping trees like toothpicks. My house shook with every gust and I thought the windows would pop out, but fortunately my house sustained only minor damage.
Tree snapped like a toothpick
While I’ve been planning contingencies for various collapse scenarios for a long time, I’ve never before considered combinations of events, until yesterday. We predictably lost electricity early in the morning. Now, in the past my contingency plans to deal with that might involve driving to the store to buy ice for the refrigerator, driving to a restaurant to eat, driving somewhere to get something. But yesterday a second thing happened: a tree fell over and blocked the only road out! So there I was, no electricity, and trapped!
Way out blocked
During the gale I felt at a loss for what to do. The groaning and shaking of the house were so harrowing that I wanted to get out of the house, but I feared that any minute a window would blow out and I’d have to scramble to board it up. Fortunately, the worst of the wind didn’t last very long – no more than a couple of hours – whereupon I took a walk, eyes tightly squinting shut to keep out the airborne debris flying about, and took some photos of the damage.
Normally when we lose power here – which happens several times a year – it’s restored within a few hours. So I waited a few hours yesterday to see if that pattern would hold. But by afternoon there were still no signs of repairs taking place and I feared that power might be out for a couple of days. So I made a reluctant decision to obtain a gasoline powered electric generator. I figured I could use it to power the refrigerator and save my perishable food, my computer so I could work, and the television so I could at least enjoy a little comfort. The funny thing is that for the last year I’ve been telling myself that I should buy such a generator for just this type of situation. I’ve looked at them more than a dozen times, but always declined to buy one because the likelihood of a prolonged power outage is so low. Of course, when you’re out of power and your refrigerator is warming up, “remote” goes right out the window and no sum of money is too much to pay for electricity. Yesterday, facing the possibility of a prolonged outage, I kicked myself for all the times I had an opportunity to buy one of these generators in advance.
It may seem like I overreacted in deciding to buy one yesterday, but looking at the damage and the power lines crushed under fallen trees, it really looked like it could be as much as a couple of days before power was restored. So, after helping my neighbor (and his dopey dog) saw up the tree blocking the road I went out in search of a generator. What I saw was remarkable and like one of those apocalyptic movies: at every one of the four stores I went to people were streaming out of the store with generators! Probably 90% of the people in the stores that Sunday were there to buy generators. In the parking lot of every store I went to, someone was loading one or more generators into their vehicle. Suddenly the abundant selection and range of prices that were available to me just days earlier when I last looked at generators was absent. People were grabbing whatever they could get their hands on. Frankly, I was surprised that so many people could afford to shell out $400-600 for these things. One guy bought four of them and was loading them into the back of his pickup truck as I entered the store. While I was stuffing the one I bought into the back seat of my little car two people who just pulled into the parking lot asked me if there were any left. It was surreal. I suppose this is a common phenomenon in places where they have such crises all the time, but it was new to me. It just goes to show that the time to prepare for an emergency is before the emergency, not after. I was lucky to find a generator at all. Had I not obtained one at the fourth store I went to, I would have simply bought a bunch of bags of ice and hoped for the best.
Anyway, I got home with my generator and a couple of long power cables and managed to get it set up in the dwindling twilight. I powered it up and was taken aback by how loud it was. I turned it off and felt a bit sheepish about making so much noise. But then I decided that this was an exceptional circumstance and people would just have to tolerate the noise for a few hours. So I powered up the generator again, hooked up the refrigerator and started it cooling down. Then I stringed a 100' power cable from the generator all the way through the house to the living room and hooked up the television, the DVD player and a solitary lamp, and it was heaven! While the rest of the neighborhood was completely blacked out, save for the bright full moon, I had light and watched a movie while drinking a soothing vodka. I have to say, that’s the way to have a power outage!
I ran the generator for three hours and then went to bed, fully intending to start it up in the morning to make my coffee and run my computer. I was actually a little disappointed that the power came on in the middle of the night, more than 16 hours after it went off, because I wanted to try out my survival plan. Nevertheless, the brand new experience of having a generator was very instructive. I’ve been through many power outages lasting hours – and they always seem to happen at night – and it’s such an empty experience. There’s almost nothing one can do but go to bed. Most of my activities involve electricity, so when there isn’t any I practically cannot do anything I normally do. It’s extremely depressing. I imagine that the longer it persists, the more depressing it is. But what I discovered yesterday is that having a generator, even if it’s run only for a few hours makes life infinitely more tolerable than not having any electricity at all. Had the power outage persisted for several days, my plan was to run the generator from 6-10 AM and from 6-10 PM, during which times I would schedule my activities to take maximum advantage of the available electricity. While producing electricity that way is very expensive ($1.60 per hour), it at least makes life tolerable. With a mere eight hours of electricity per day – or even half that – one can do quite a lot. The rest of the time one can engage in activities that don’t require electricity.
Although I could not really afford to buy that generator and although I only got a few hours use out of it so far, I’m glad I bought it anyway because it was a good learning experience. I learned how much I appreciate electricity when there isn’t any! I learned how much more comfortable life can be if one is able to produce even a few hours of electricity a day during a crisis. And I learned to consider the possibility of multiple crises occurring simultaneously.
What I’d really like to do – and have wanted to do for a long time – is build a low cost solar- or wind-powered electricity generation system. The problem with the systems available is that they are too darned expensive.
While shopping for generators I also saw something else I’ve long been searching for: a low cost wood burning stove, for $150. I’m worried about soaring natural gas prices and gas shortages (gas is just as tenuous an energy source as oil), which would be disastrous in the winter. (Also, even if one has gas, if there is an electricity outage, the central heater won’t work.) So I’ve long thought about distributing three wood burning stoves around my house. I have tons of wood I can burn, especially after mother nature downed all those trees yesterday! Alas, I spent all my money on the generator, though! So I’ll have to wait until I come up with more funds.
Interestingly, I ran across this essay today as I was contemplating writing this post. Written by someone who sounds like he’s had far more experience with quality-of-life-impairing crises, it echoes my thoughts about the preciousness of having electricity.