Monday, July 21, 2008

Lessons from the blackout

I'm still cleaning up the mess left by a "microburst" that plowed over 15 utility poles and knocked out power around me for a day and a half. Among the casualties were the cottonwood tree next to my house, which mercifully just nicked the roof on its way down, my ancient Mac and my WiFi network (apparently because of a surge).

With the power back on and me being in no great hurry to take a chainsaw to that defunct tree, I have a little time to enjoy the air conditioning and consider my community's unscheduled tour of the 19th century. The first thing that occurs to me is how incredibly unsuitable modern homes are to life without electricity.

I say that even though my wife and I are, I think, better prepared than most to roughing it for a while. We're both veteran campers and backpackers, so we're not freaked out by relatively primitive conditions. We also have a lot of outdoor gear that serves excellent double-duty during a blackout.

My old Coleman dual-fuel lantern, for instance, throws almost as good a light as any electric lamp in the house. We have canned goods, pasta, beans and dehydrated meals enough to last us weeks, no matter what corruption befalls the contents of the refrigerator. And we have any number of camping stoves to draw on even if the gas stove hadn't still been serviceable in the absence of power. Worse comes to worse, we could cook over an open fire -- we've both done it.

But that gas stove ... Unlike the top, the oven is useless without power. The cheap model it replaced didn't care whether the electricity was on or off. That's annoying, since it means we upgraded to greater dependency.

And the refrigerator contents we saved only because APS (the power company) handed out dry ice. I think the milk turned, but everything else was fine.

Our worst vulnerability, though, is water. Our well feeds us water through an electric pump. Without power, we have only what's in the pressure tank -- which gave out sooner than I expected. I was able to run into town, where the power never failed, for water, but what if ...

What if the problem had been more widespread? That might have meant no dry ice and no handy containers of water at the market. My house would have been marginally habitable only because we're a short walk to the river and I could lug back enough of the wet stuff to keep us going. The bathrooms would have been rendered useless, as would much of the kitchen and the laundry room. This house is really designed with the assumption that power will always be available. The house stays cool because of air conditioning, not because it's designed for clever air flow or has a sleeping porch of the kind you see on some older homes around here.

Less than a century after electricity became cheap and reliable, we live as if the power will never go out. I hope it never does in a catastrophic way. But should the worst happen, I think most of us are not just unprepared, we're living in homes that would be little more than uninhabitable caves.

That's not to say I want to transfer my family to some pre-technological cottage where we'll pump our water by hand and bake our goods in a wood-burning hearth just so I'll be prepared for post-apocalyptic life. The fact that I set up a computer and restored my Internet connection before tackling that tree shows where my priorities lie.

But I'm thinking we need some backup plans around here, so we can enjoy our modern home without becoming slaves to its conveniences.


Anonymous Paul said...

Holy hell! Have you had some bad weather recently, or did this come out of the blue? Microbursts aren't really common in northern Arizona.

July 22, 2008 10:33 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

It's monsoon, but nothing spectacular. The storm really came out of no where and knocked the stuffing out of the area. We'll all be cleaning up damage for days.

July 22, 2008 11:23 AM  

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