The wind suddenly changed pitch and we all went to the French doors just in time to see the tree crash through the back fence and land with a “whump” across the children’s redwood play set. Fifteen minutes later another gust brought down a huge old oak (41-inches in diameter) across the back of the house. The trunk broke at the gable, filling the backyard with a jumble of broken branches.
We ran upstairs to assess the damage and put buckets under the dripping holes where limbs protruded through the roof. We had just enough time to take the art off the walls and move furniture to a safer place before the lights went out. They were to remain off for a week.
We awoke the next morning in the 19th century. The house was cold and for seven days we would live by candlelight. There was natural gas but no electricity to operate the furnace. A puddle formed under the refrigerator and all the food went into the garbage. There was no TV, our cell phones didn’t work and neither did our computers. We had no idea of the amount of damage done to the Jersey Shore or that several million people across the tri-state area were in our same condition.
We did what any self-reliant, red-blooded American family would do in a similar situation: We bailed. We went to a relative’s house. They had a generator fueled by natural gas. The generator powered only the essential services; the refrigerators, the furnace and small appliances, (fortunately the cafe maker) and a few light bulbs in the kitchen area. A neighbor stopped and asked if he could recharge his cell phone. All the receptacles were in constant use recharging phones and I-pads. In the rest of the house we used candles.
Getting there was an adventure. We would go down one road for a short distance until we came to a downed tree in a tangle of power lines, backtrack and try another route. Trees that had no power lines were often cut and pushed out of the way. Trees with lines had to await the arrival of power crews which often took a week or more to clear. There were a lot of downed trees and a lot of detours.
As the week progressed the enormity of the disaster began to unfold. There was no gas; the few stations that were open soon had lines a mile or more long. Several times I saw lines of 50 or more people standing in the darkness, gas cans at their feet, looking all the world like they were standing in a field of red pumpkins, hoping to get gasoline for their generators. When the stations ran out of gas there was no more. The tank farms that feed the stations have electric pumps that fill the trucks that deliverer the fuel.
There was no money. ATMs ran out of cash the first day. Banks were closed. One bank that was open rationed the amount of money that could be withdrawn. Ironically, the businesses that were open operated on a cash-only basis; their cash registers didn’t work; their card scanners didn’t work and the cashers had to tabulate the bills by hand. Thousands of businesses were simply closed.
There was no communication. We did not see a television program for a week. With the exception of Verizon, phones didn’t work. I finally borrowed a phone and called my wife. There was no Internet.
The malls were open but operated on minimum power with reduced lighting. Many of the stores were closed but the food halls were open and it was warm. To get out of their cold, dark houses people went to the malls and hung out all day. They sat and read and talked with their friends. I had gone to New Jersey to do some work for a client. My work completed, I flew home cold and tired on the morning of the 6th to vote.
My take-away from the storm is that we live in a 21st century world with a 20th century infrastructure. The electrical system upon which we are increasingly dependent has simply not kept up with the technology it supports. Every aspect of life is now dependent upon electricity and its reliable, uninterrupted delivery. This same sequence of events took place exactly one year ago with some residents not regaining power for five weeks. With climate change we can expect to see more and even worse events in the future.
Much of the hardship created by the storm could have been avoided simply by burying the power lines. They are ugly and they are unreliable. Sewage and water lines are underground, gas lines are underground, fiber optic cables are underground and there is no longer any excuse for power lines, phone lines and transmission cables not to be underground. If the power companies will not take the initiative to do it government must step in to make them do it.
Electricity is a public service and to serve the public it must keep up with the times.
Robert Meredith is a Cobb County artist with a national following. His work has been exhibited from New York City to Carmel, Cal., and abroad. This year he celebrated his 50th one man show in as many years with an exhibition of fifty six paintings at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. He lives in West Cobb with his wife Brenda. They have four adult children.