Ice or Snow? We will take the snow

Living in New England without electricity is an experience

by Bill Pappou Drew

It is over. We have met the challenges. In dealing with the effects of the recent ice storm, living without electricity is an eye-opening experience.

It is a frozen world but the ducks don't seem to mind.  (Photo courtesy of Len Lathrop)

The physical effects of water droplets hitting cold surfaces are dramatic. They create beautiful scenes of trees and bushes taking on a crystal cloak. For photographers there are wonderful photo opportunities that present themselves. Not so beautiful are the results; trees down, shrubs ruined, power lines broken and civilization in disarray and at a standstill.

Enough is enough. The rain continues to fall, and ice continues to form. It is a test for nature and man.

Seen are the minor effects as bush limbs and young birch trees heel over and kiss the ground. A pruning takes place as tree branches fall. In New England the term for the bigger ones is “widow makers.”  

A Limb down in roadway on Wild Rose Lane.  (Bill Drew photo)

Additional images taken by our Rye Reflections' photo crew can be found here.

The action increases as nature brings to the front door wood for the fireplace as larger branches reach the limit of the tree trunk’s holding power and thus become independent and break away. Others fall in roadways and onto cars and houses as the situation turns dramatically devastating and alarming. Some situations cause a major cleanup but with the downed power lines there are long waiting periods for a line crews to arrive.

The recognition of the magnitude of the situation takes time to settle in. We in New England deal with the occasional power outage due to a violent electrical storm, when a vehicle hits a pole or the power line shorts out or breaks. The electricity is off for a few hours, and we take it for granted we will soon be back to normal. Well, in December’s storm, soon never came, and hours turned into days, 10 to 15 for some.

In New Castle, as I am sure in other nearby towns, the first signs of the changing scene are members of our police and volunteer fire department responding to the emergency; caution markers placed for downed power lines; roads blocked off to isolate dangerous situations and hastily set up portable generators handling the overflow of water in cellars and to power furnaces for heat. As time moves on, word spreads as to the depth of the situation.

Downed power line blocking the roadway.  (Photo courtesy of Len Lathrop)

Most of the southern part of New Hampshire and southern Maine are without power. Power line crews are requested from the bordering states of Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Connecticut and beyond. Major help is needed for the PSNH (Public Service of NH, the electrical utility). It is now a crisis, and updates of when it will all end become the most requested information.  

Waking up the next morning without heat brings the realization of what it was like to live in the past, when the fireplaces and wood stoves were necessities. There is to be no hot coffee and no morning shower, with hot water anyway. For me, it is no keyboard action: Disaster.

One-man power. An old bicycle serves to turn the armature of a generator, creating power for a laptop. (Internet photo)
I suppose I could rig up my bike to power a generator similar to that Internet picture, showing a software technical support person in India with his laptop assisting a user in the United States.

Challenges bring out the best in people. An emergency center is set up in the church parish hall with power from the adjacent town building. It comes from a generator provided by the Fire Department to assist town departments to fulfill the needs of the populace. People are assisting one another in talking about each other’s predicament and using proven suggestions in making changes to adapt. There is a feeling of bonding with one another as we are concerned about ourselves, as well as those around us. A member of the Police Department delivers hot soup to our door and makes a check to see if we are as comfortable as possible. He alerts us to the emergency shelter and services in town. A volunteer EMT from the Fire Department checks the blood pressure of my invalid wife. They are doing an excellent job.

Will the situation ever end?  As we see lights again in the windows of downtown Portsmouth, it should only be a matter of hours now before we get power. Another 24 hours rolls by and still no sign of improvement and no PSNH trucks in sight. Again, when will it end? I have had enough of this “education” and experiment in survival training.

Having gone to bed at 7 pm, I am awake at 3 am after the eight-hour sleep. I try to read a book via a flashlight. It is difficult. My hand gets tired holding the light. I head out to the truck stop next to the Interstate. There are lights in the inner city, but adjacent residential areas are very dark. It is dark all the way to the highway and even beyond as the adjacent gas station is deserted. Thanks heavens; an oasis, the truck stop is all lit up. With them it is a business, and they need to “self generate” power to pump gas and keep the trucks rolling.

I follow a family of three, a husband, wife and five-year-old daughter, into the complex, and we sit down in adjacent booths in the restaurant. Not being one who talks much, I overcome my shyness and begin a conversation with the question, “Where are you from?”

“Deerfield,“ is the answer, thirty miles away.

“You mean all the area in between is without power?” I guess I should have realized that fact as my daughter. living fifty miles away in Litchfield. is also without power and, as time will tell, will be so for the next six days. This family’s generator ran out of gas, and with no gas stations open they have retreated to a warm, cozy place with food and modern facilities such as a shower, TV and game room, store and restaurant. The roads between here and there are a mess but mostly passable. It looks like the effort required to restore power to the whole area is overwhelming. It looks as though we will be in this situation for quite a while.  

Existing is full of new challenges, but there is need to try to continue leading a normal life. On Saturday there is a traditional Christmas party my daughter gives where attendees bring gifts for a local family in need. It is all prearranged with ages and gender of the children and some specific needs each may have.

I drive into Maine, secure a take-out food at an open gas station/convenience store facility and share a candle light dinner with my wife. I then, alone, drive an hour to the party and see it is in full swing. My daughter politely suggests I go upstairs and take a shower; I wonder why? I no sooner have removed my clothes when the lights go out. I am naked, in the dark. Well, the water will still be hot so go for it. By the time I end the process, the lights return and I too join the party, learning the generator stopped supplying the limited power as it had ran out of gas.

During the previous evening, with the intermittent power generation, fire alarms in the home were going off. Upon going to bed, daughter Cindi hears a noise from eight-year-old Kianna’s bedroom. She checks and observes her putting on her shoes. After hearing the fire alarm, Kianna responds, “It’s OK Mom. I’m down low putting on my shoes. I’ll meet you out by the big tree”  (fire safety procedures taught in school and a predetermined meeting place).

Winter ice has far-reaching effects on family life; Living with a family during the ice storm is summarized in Len Lathrop’s poem, published in his local weekly newspaper, The Hudson-Litchfield News: “Twas Two Weeks Before Christmas.” (The article also includes pictures).

As I return home there is very little traffic on the roadway. I think of people huddled together keeping each other warm. Thoughts return of the big power outage in the northeast many decades ago when months later, there was a significant spike in the birth rate. There are more thoughts of pipes freezing, food rotting, homes and cars damaged, and outbursts of emotional frustration.

Upon my arrival to New Castle, I see lights along the shore. Finally power has arrived.  After recovering from the drive and the party, it is clean up time; dirty dishes, refrigerator, trashed foodstuffs, dirty laundry, and, yes, there is now an operable keyboard and a lead to the Internet. Again, I am back in touch with the world.

There is an “improved” feeling now in town. We have survived, working together, to meet the situation. On the island most homes are heated using oil, and electricity is required to operate the process. It has been a difficult time. Fourteen days after the beginnings of the storm, tens of thousands of New Hampshire homes are still without power.

A few days later, New England tests us again with our ability to cope with nature. Over the course of a couple of days, two storms, with a 24-hour break in between, drop more than 24 inches of snow. We emerge from our warmth and take on life at the end of a shovel. We will take these type storms any day compared to an ice storm, where the latter produces a comfort zone out of control. What is all this talk about global warming?


"BREAKFAST on the main deck
has been  SUSPENDED
Until further notice

Main deck at sunrise after the snow storms.  (Bill Drew photo)

January, 2009