Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Posted by Kate at 7:00 AM
The freak Halloween storm that visited the northeastern US left us without power for most of the weekend and Monday. On Saturday we watched as heavy flakes of snow fell, and kept falling all day. This came just two days after the first light frost of the year, which came more than three weeks later than the historical average first frost date. We hadn't even had a hard frost yet in this incredibly mild autumn season. That meant that most of the trees were still fully garbed in their own leaves. And that meant a large snowfall was a big problem.
On Saturday afternoon we went around outside trying to keep the worst of the snow off our fruit trees, young and old, and also off the plastic sheeting of the still unfinished hoop house. This was accomplished with brooms and poles. That went well; we had no damage to those trees or the little hoop house. But the taller trees were much harder to protect, especially the very large shade trees close to the house. All through the afternoon we could hear trees and tree limbs all around the neighborhood snapping and cracking; it was like a pan of popcorn popping, so frequent and regular were the sounds. By noon we had lost power, and the phone went dead a couple hours later. Outside we watched the occasional flash of electrical transformers exploding, waiting just a moment for the sound to reach us. The audio-visual show continued well into the evening as the snow continued to fall. After each nearby crack! I checked in anxiously with my husband to make sure he hadn't been hurt by a limb coming down.
I have to admit that even though we had advanced warning of this storm and its likely consequences, I prepared less well than I did for the hurricanes of August and September. We skated through those storms with barely a blip. Not so much this time. I did make sure the dishes were done and that we had water on hand to flush toilets and for drinking. I showered on Friday night and even filled our large thermos with hot water so we could wash our faces. But I didn't gather our oil lamps, matches, and flashlights, and didn't fill the empty space in the chest freezer with bottles of water to move to our refrigerator. Now we keep plenty of stored water on hand all the time anyway, and we did have everything we needed to weather such a storm and power loss. The large chest cooler got cleaned on Sunday, loaded up with plenty of snow, and placed on the porch to accept the contents of our fridge and house freezer. We had heat from the gas fireplace insert that I had carefully laid away batteries for in case of power loss; we had our gas stovetop range to cook on; and we were well supplied with tanks of propane to keep those going for quite a while. All in all we were fine. But I still felt as though I'd been caught flat-footed.
The funny thing is that just Saturday, after listening to Nicole Foss's description of how she prepared her family for life after peak oil, I had talked with my husband about getting some deep cycle marine batteries to carry us through a few days of power outage. Or rather to support the truly essential functions of the house through a power outage. We had talked about installing some PV panels a while back, and part of that project was to include a battery backup so that we would have power in the event the grid went down. Given our budgetary constraints we decided that solar thermal was a higher priority, so the PV system could wait. And when the grid went down this weekend, so did all the benefits of our solar thermal system. It made sense to me on Saturday morning that we should ensure at least a few days' supply of electricity to at least keep our chest freezer working, to keep water moving through our radiant heat floors, out through the sump pumps in the basement, and also out of our taps. Everything else we could do without, I thought. And after 48 hours or so without electricity, I still think so. Flashlights and oil lamps were no big deal. It was an inconvenience not to have a working oven, because we were out of bread and couldn't make any more. But everything else in the kitchen was manageable with no electricity and a limited supply of water and light. Even if we never scrape up the money for a PV installation, the batteries themselves would provide a large benefit in the case of future power outages.
Although the fallen limbs caused no damage to the house, the garden or the hoop house, that's not to say we came through completely unscathed. Far from it. The entrance to our house was a scene of devastation. The driveway was blocked by two large limbs, with another heavy limb resting too much weight on our split rail fence. The fence in the backyard fared even worse. One half of a large split mulberry came down across the corner of the fence, taking out four panels. At least it spared our newly planted Ashmead's Kernel apple tree. The trellising for all our black raspberries took the brunt of the fall and is almost certainly toast, but the canes themselves probably don't care about any damage suffered during this time of the year. We needed to revamp those trellises anyway. On the other hand, the poultry schooner caved in completely from the weight of the snow. It was waiting in the garden for the tilling power of the chickens. Somehow as we were knocking snow off other structures we just didn't pay attention to it sitting out in the open there. Still, we think it's mostly salvageable, and should be good as new with a few new pieces of lumber.
The thing that struck real fear into my heart during this storm was the massive tulip poplar tree that stands where our driveway meets the road. This tree towers over our house. If it had lost even one major limb, chances were good that either the road would be blocked, or our house would be very seriously damaged. Fortunately I recognized that there was really nothing I could do about it and managed mostly not to worry about it. We've had the tree checked by an arborist who pronounced it in excellent condition, so we'd done due diligence. More fortunately still, it took almost no damage at all. It's rather stunning to compare the damage the magnolia, which stands right next to it, took. We'll be cleaning up the debris from the storm for the next few weeks at least.
Since I'm currently in a glass-half-full state of mind, I see all the fallen trees as material for a hugelkultur mound or two (something I've mulled before, but we didn't have enough wood until now), and as more sunlight next year in our front yard and the garden too. We have a WWOOF volunteer arriving this evening who will be able to help us deal with the additional work load. And we had already planned to replace a good portion of the fence anyway, in pursuit of a slow-moving hedgerow project. It may be that due to the storm damage, we get a little bit of money towards that effort from our homeowner's insurance. And of course, the storm gave me a valuable lesson in living in this home without electricity. No thought experiment or advance preparations were quite the same as actually dealing with no power.
I hope all my readers in the path of this storm came through without any harm. If you were affected by it, please let me know how it went for you in the comments.