Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sit Down in Darkness

Mother Nature had a temper tantrum yesterday.

The heat and humidity that had been enveloping my part of New Jersey finally exploded, sending walls of water down the sides of the enclosed porch where we sat (after just getting back into the garage in time from our time out and about Saturday) and watched fierce winds nearly snap the dogwood tree in half.

We received three days worth of rain in 30 minutes. The globally warmed air masses that had sat over us and kept temperatures 10 or so degrees more than the norm, ran into some cooler air creating what the forecasters call "an unstable air mass." That has to be the understatement of the year.

What we saw was the kind of weather you would expect in a tropical rain forest, not suburban New Jersey. We later learned streets we had driven just a few hours earlier were closed because of downed trees, snapped power lines and flooding.

This kind of weather, we've been warned, will become more common now that ice caps are melting, waters are warming and air masses are stuck over us bringing too much cold or too much heat to what used to be called temperate zones.

Twenty minutes into watching this maelstrom in our backyard, I realized if one of our trees fell on the porch roof it would kill us. Ten minutes after the rain let up just a bit a hummingbird came to the feeder. It fed a long time and then went into the nearby apple tree to ride out the storm.

I walked inside and was not surprised to find the power out.

A power failure is not the time to discover many of your flashlights don't have working batteries. Luckily, we had quite a few that were working, and radios with batteries. It is also not the time to realize your neighbors - the ones you wave at and rarely speak to - would have no idea if you died during this storm and could care less.

Calling friends from our hot car, where I had the phone plugged in to charge, produced no results either. No one was taking my call. One friend later told me she heard my message and was surprised because she thought I was so self-sufficient.

MH and I can take care of ourselves but there are times, I've now learned, that is not enough.

And then there was the power company.

Mine is owned by a conglomerate in Ohio. The first time I called, at 3:30pm, 15 min. after the outage, I got an automated voice, gave my information and was told the power would return at 6pm. At 7pm, still in the dark, I called again. This time the automated voice shunted me to a customer center, likely in Ohio, where the woman was completely in the dark, so to speak.

Three times she told me if the problem was my fuse box, it would cost $85 for a service call. Three times I told her the entire street was out. Then she told me I was the first to report the problem. I exploded. What the hell have you been doing for 3 1/2 hours? No doubt she used my phone number to gain access to my records - I did not care to look for the last bill with the account number on it - to see I had indeed called and assure me crews would be out soon.

Would I want a call telling me the power was back? (This "service" from the utility always annoys and amuses. Why would I want you to tell me something I can see?)

Sure, I said, and then hung up.

For the next 3 hours I tried not to go insane as the den, which was the coolest room in the house (we had been out all day and had not put the AC on), slowly warmed. I tried not to worry about whether the basement would flood because the sump pump has no backup battery. I tried not to worry about the food in the refrigerator. I got out my portable WiFi and my laptop with its long battery life. I could see sites but not send messages.

I discovered that while it is nice to have that real keyboard on my old BlackBerry, not a lot of websites are set up for old BlackBerrys anymore. MH's Samsung allowed him access to the utility's site - a site put up after Hurricane Sandy kept much of the state without power for over a week - and we learned that at one point only 11 people in my town had no power. That number corresponded to the number of houses on my street! That was the nadir.

To see lights on a block away while I was reading by flashlight depressed me. That I was reading the essays of William Styron - author of "Lie Down in Darkness" and "Darkness Visible" - provided a bit of macabre humor.

It was almost nice to see those houses on the next block lose power, too.

We went upstairs to lie down, wondering how we'd sleep. I had one window open a crack for air as the rain continued to fall. We heard the utility trucks.

At 10:15 p.m., seven hours after it started, it was over. The lights and the fan went on. We waited to see if it would last. It has.

At 10:30 p.m., the utility called to say power wasn't expected to be back on until 12:30 a.m.

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