Friday, April 29, 2011

Blown away

Yesterday was poised to be another productive day on the farm. The sky was a brilliant blue and the clouds were like white cotton candy -- a perfect day for working in the kitchen garden. As I sat at my desk, finishing up the day's editing work, I noticed the wind picking up. It started out gentle at first, playful, but as the dark clouds rolled in, it became menacing and then violent.

At first, small things were blown over -- a few bird houses, a chair, the kids' swing hanging from their favourite tree -- and then I began to worry about the tree itself as it whipped back and forth like it was made of rubber. The wind was unrelenting as it hammered away at our metal roof, screeching like a howling banshee. I took a step outside and from deep in the woods, I could hear the trees snapping like matchsticks. The power flickered on and off and then at 10:30 a.m. it went off for good. The house was eerily silent, save for the screaming of the wind.

By 11:30 a.m. the wind had died down enough that I thought it safe to venture outside. At the edge of the woods, I could see bud-tipped branches torn and lying on the ground, trees cut in two, and even one cedar knocked completely on its side, roots still clinging to the earth that once grounded it. I started walking down the hill towards the ponds and I noticed one of the hydro lines that bisect our property looked "wrong" -- it was sagging lower than its twin.

Returning to the house, I put Henry on a leash and walked out towards the road. It was covered with branches and the tops of several trees, but it was passable. I turned on to the main road and walked to the nearby power transformer. There was the other end of the saggy power line, severed and blowing in the wind.

What I didn't know at the time was that this windstorm, with 100 km/hour gusts, darkened hundreds of thousands of homes across Ontario. More than 65 utility poles were snapped and the damage was widespread. Of course, this was nothing compared to Wednesday's tornadoes that ravaged six southern states, killing hundreds of people.

I returned to a still and quiet house, put Henry inside and went back out to the road to clear away the debris. Even though the wind was but a breeze now, the creak and occasional snap of the trees made me nervous. It was humbling, that feeling. We have such hubris to think that humans can govern Nature, that we are "in control," when in an instant, all our structures, our brilliant engineering, our lives, can be taken away.

As the day progressed, I grew more impatient and agitated. We'd been without power before, but never for this long. While I'd reported the outage to the utility company, and subsequently my discovery of the severed lines, the hotline was no longer answering calls or providing any updates on when service would be restored. The generator, which is stored in the garage, is too heavy for me to move. I started worrying about the contents of the fridge, the absence of running water, the rising water levels in our basement sump.

I told myself that this really wasn't a big deal: Lucas would set up the generator when he got home, which would power the well pump, the fridge, the kitchen lights and one outlet that we could use to plug in the sump pump. It wasn't minus 30 degrees out, so we didn't need to worry about heat or frozen pipes -- and even if it did get chilly, we had the wood stove in the kitchen. When the kids got home, I planned on telling them that this would be an adventure -- just like in the pioneer days. It would be fun!

Instead, by the time they returned home, I was grumpy, stressed out and short tempered. There was nothing fun about this.

Because I work from home, I feel obliged to be accessible between the hours of 8:00 am and 6:00 pm. I felt like I needed to do "something" productive, so I trundled the kids into the van, dog in tow, and drove halfway to town where I could park at the side of the road and access the Internet via my phone. As we turned onto the main road, I noticed the line was still severed, with no utility vehicles in sight.

I responded to a number of work emails, read a few news releases that detailed the extent of the damage and then called Lucas. I'd asked him to bring home some food basics -- bread, yogurt, fruit, etc. -- because I hadn't done any baking or food prep before the power went out. He told me he hadn't yet had a chance to get to the grocery store but he'd be home in 10 minutes and we'd figure something out. I burst into tears.

I felt so ridiculously incompetent, powerless and unprepared -- something as minor as a power outage had thrown me into a major tailspin. I was embarrassed and disappointed by my reaction. I don’t think it was the power outage, per se, that affected me so much; it was one more stress on top of everything else -- we're low on wood, we're low on hay, I'm behind on the garden, gas prices are way up (along with everything else), and now this; or moreso, it was the reminder of how much we still have to learn that seemed like another bump along the road to "simpler living."

24 hours later and we're still without power. It could come back today, but mostly likely it'll be several days -- who knows. Given the amount of widespread damage (most recent update: 45,000 people restored, 130,000 still without), the utility company has to fix the areas that affect the greatest number of people first. I get that.

I also get that being without power offers opportunity. On my way home from yoga last night, I drove through pockets of the countryside that were still and quiet in absolute darkness. Such beauty! Then as I turned into our driveway, I could see tiny flickers of light in the windows and a lantern that Lucas had left me on the front step. Walking into the house, I was met with the rich smell of beeswax and the dance of dozens of candles -- a simple and loving gesture from a man who knew I needed some comfort.

In the light of the day, I can be pragmatic about this experience and the many lessons learned: that a power outage can happen at any time and it's not good enough to have an emergency preparedness plan in your head. While we were well stocked food-wise for the winter, I've let our reserves dwindle, which is a mistake. While I spend a lot of time learning about working towards greater self-reliance and sufficiency, there is much more that we can do. In the meantime, the generator is working well as a stop-gap measure, keeping our fridge humming and the (oh-so-cold!) water running. And compared to those people whose lives have been destroyed by violent acts of Nature, we're facing a minor inconvenience.

I know we'll be better prepared next time. I guess I just had a tough time embracing the "simple" life when right now it feels anything but simple.


Amy L. said...

Wow, Fiona, this all sounds overwhelming. I've only lived in the country three years and we've lost power only a few times, once during my morning rush to get to work in the city. I found myself completely at a loss of what to do...although I remembered I could shower at work, etc.

My husband and I have been talking vaguely about emergency plans since the devastating tsunami in Japan and now the tornados in the southern U.S. We're not prone to crazy weather events here in Western WA, but they do tell us to prepare for "the big one," the earthquake that some guess will lop much of the west coast off into the Pacific Ocean. I don't buy that, but I am aware that we are 100% unprepared for a devastation like that.

Will you share how you stocked your winter food stores and more about what emergency preparedness looks like for your family as you work on that?

Try to enjoy your day today...

Mama Pea said...

You came to the same conclusion I was thinking as I read through your excellently written post. Take the lesson from it all and be thankful of something else learned.

At the same time (currently experiencing a lot of the same stresses and emotions you are), I fully know it must have felt like an especially bad time to have to handle this additional inconvenience. (Just another straw heaped on the camel's back.)

As long as we can keep learning (while remaining upright and mostly sane), we making progress toward our important goals.

Sending you virtual hugs and comforting thoughts. Keep us updated, please.

Erin said...

So sorry you had that storm, be careful and look for damaged trees, they can keep coming down for months. Our longest without power was 2 weeks after an ice storm, but we have had to do 4-6 days at a time here and there for hurricanes and nor'easters and it's no picnic. We finally broke down and bought a generator 2 years ago so we can at least have water and save the freezer stuff, not enough power for heat or a/c though. Luckily, ours is on wheels so I can move it from the sheds to the house. I'm glad you saw that power line before anyone could get near it!

David said...

Fiona, we always think of big events that could bring our lives into chaos. Perhaps it could be a total collapse of the economy or a huge weather event but in reality even the small events such as a power outage will cause wide spread effect on folks in the neighborhood. When the power went out some time back my six year old grandson couldn't comprehend that fact that nothing worked. He went from room to room figuring at least one TV in the house will work. And then horror upon horror the computer didn't work either. After we gathered up the candles because it was dark outside, I explained that the pioneers didn't have electric and had live without it all the time. It was a shocking reality for him to think that when the sun went down it was totally dark outside. No street lights, no lights in the house, no night light, he thought people just couldn't live that way. Could they? We had to read our night time book by candle light and he drifted off to sleep with the night time candle flickering on the night stand. By morning the power was on and life was again wonderful.

I do have canned soup that can be eaten without cooking if needed. I suppose that if the power was out for an extended amount of time that my charcoal grill would appear out in front of my house with an invitation to neighbors to come eat the food before it spoiled out of my refrigerator. The longest that I have been without power at my house has been three days. It seems that more often than in years past the power get bumped during stormy weather. It's kind of fun and kind of scary what happens when the power goes off.

Have a great power on day.

936000 said...

Well, I just don't know what to say to that except I am so sorry you feel so overwhelmed and if I had a magic wand I surely would lend it to you!
I hope you get restored soon (yes, in every sense of the word)!

Annie*s Granny said...

I would absolutely fall apart, mentally, if I lost my electricity for that long! Not so much in AZ, where we're used to it, but here in this house where everything depends on electricity. We would have no way of cooking at all, or of heating our home. We used to have a motor home that was 12V and propane, so if the electricity went off we'd just move out there and survive the outage.

mtnchild said...

Isn't it amazing how spoiled we have become? I'm sorry you had a terrible day, but as you said you learned that even on the brightest days we all need to prepare for the darkest.

I was without power for a week, but I have always lived with natural gas, so I can survive a little better than those with all electric. I have a wood stove for heat too, so when the power is off in the winter, I tell neighbors to come over and share with me.

It can stress me to tears too, until I realize that I can do something or I can sit and stress.

I hope you are all warm and well fed by now, and if not, then soon.
Much Love and many hugs.

Anonymous said...

We're in Ontario too, hit by crazy winds and endless rain. I'm a few weeks behind in my garden :(

I love your blog, so much so that I think I'll have to add it to my blog list! said...

Amy -- that's a great idea! yes, I'll write about food & emerg preparedness plans... that'll help me get it straight in my head too!

Mama Pea -- thanks for the virtual hugs. Much appreciated!

Erin -- I was thinking about you lots during this time as I know you've been in my shoes many times, and dealing with it better than I did!

David -- Once I got over the initial shock, you're right -- I did reap some enjoyment from our "downtime." Thanks for sharing the story about your grandson -- just lovely.

Calling Ravens -- thanks for your kind words! And yes, I'm feeling restored and grounded again.

Granny -- we were very lucky in that we have the woodstove for heat, and a small generator to keep the fridge, well pump and sump going. It's interested how "essentials" become less so in a "crisis."

Yvette -- you're so, so right about making a choice between stressing and doing something. I find my first reaction is always to stress, and then do. I'd like to spend a bit less time in the former state and just get into the doing! Thanks for the kind words.

Trinityacres -- it's lovely to "meet" you and thanks for the kind words! And thank very much for adding me to your blog list -- i'm in very good company indeed! I'll be sure to visit your blog again.

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