Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Saga

The Saga of the Storm

This story is probably familiar to anyone who lives here, who can rightly say, So what? Quit yer bitchin'. But, I'll record it for out-of-towners and posterity anyway, and any lessons that can be learned.

Day One: The Day of Great Wind
In retrospect, I probably should have given more credence to the weather reports, but you know how the media are about storm predictions. So dramatic! So overwrought! I knew we had plenty of emergency supplies, but I probably should have filled up the gas tank and battoned down the hatches a bit more. By midnight the wind was howling so loud that sleep was impossible. I heard the wind chimes clanging, clanging loudly, and then go silent - shredded to bits, as it turned out. By 1 am the power was out. I got up and looked out the windows with the dogs, watching the trees gyrate and sway. I went back to sleep knowing we'd wake up cold.

Day Two: The Day of Great Darkness
It was pitch dark as well as cold on Friday morning. We live on the slope of a valley, a big bowl where we can see for miles around - and we saw no lights, none. We heard on the radio that 175,000 people were without power in the city of Seattle, and another 700,000 around Puget Sound, but we didn't need the figures to realize we wouldn't have power by nightfall. Enrico works downtown where power was reportedly on, so he went to look for a bus. Most buses in our neighborhood run on electric trolly lines, but he found a crowded deisel. He called me to report that there appeared to be no electricity south of Jackson Street - basically the entire southern half of the city.

As I work from home, I had no office to go to, and no hope of escaping to a wireless coffee shop. Not without more gas in the car, and the radio reported two-hour lineups at functioning gas stations. With 14 hours of darkness ahead, I dedicated myself to preparing for the night - pulling out candles, batteries, blankets, the radios; cleaning up the kitchen before the hot water ran out; tidying up clutter that would just get in the way while fumbling in the dark; and boiling water on the camp stove to fill our thermoses. Periodically I'd call Enrico at work, and the sound of clacking keyboards and ringing phones made it seem like we were on two different planets. I'm on this primitive planet, with no hope of escape, and he has travelled through the stargate to the Land of the People of the Light.

Still, it was mild outside, probably in the 50s, and our evening of candlelight seemed like an adventure. Seattle City Light reported that of 65 main lines down, they'd managed to get half up on Friday, reducing the number of powerless from 175,000 to 55,000. They hoped to get the rest of the main lines up on Saturday, and the secondary lines on Sunday.

Day Three: The Day of Great Cold
Saturday we toured the neighborhood with the dogs - an amazing number of trees down including a big chunk of our maple tree which politely but narrowly avoided bringing down either our fence or our living room window. Not everyone was so lucky. Our neighborhood commercial district was back up and running, and we went out for lunch and dinner, hoping we might have power by evening.

But as the day wore on our hopes faded: City Light reported much slower progress than expected, as they encountered damage in the south end that was stunningly worse than anticipated. By the end of the day, only 10 more main lines were up instead of the remaining 30, and 36,000 people were without power - including us. The rural and suburban dwellers were in even worse shape, as PSE battled trees down over an immense, forested service area.

And worse yet, the temperature was dropping fast, predicted to go into the 20s at night. Not unheard of in Seattle, but rare, and cruel that it should hit right now. Would our pipes freeze? Was there anything we could do about it? Cities around the region opened emergency shelters.

Hardest of all was the fact that there was electricity all around us now. Where once we were in the majority, now we were surrounded by people with power, even right across the street. I didn't begrudge them their heat, but somehow when the entire valley was black, it was easier to be resigned. Now we passed the bustling commercial district, and houses with their Christmas lights blinking obliviously a mere eight blocks away. When the sun set, the cold suddenly became like a physical companion in our house, sucking the life energy from us. Our breath appeared in enormous, billowy clouds, and even the dogs were cold. We hunkered under blankets and read each other stories. We went to sleep with the dogs between us, tucked under a blanket for warmth.

Day Four: The Day of Great Breakdowns
Worse than going to bed in a 35-degree house is waking up in a 25-degree house. How do you get out of bed in that kind of cold? Enrico got up to let the dogs out and feed them, and I bleated weakly that he should check all the faucets to see if the pipes had frozen. Reassured that they hadn't, I went back to sleep.

Eventually I got up and killed some time by calling my family to complain piteously about my lot in life. We went out to breakfast at the only diner, surrounded by fellow refugees. Waiting for a table, I heard somebody say to his companions that "No, my power never did go out, go figure!" - and I was overcome with an urge to yell at him, GET OUT OF THIS RESTAURANT, today this place is only for people without heat or light! But I restrained myself.

We had an offer from friends for a place to stay, and after breakfast I came up with the brilliant idea of asking them if we could come over for a few hours with the dogs - have a shower, get some coffee, just be warm for a while. Toby had started to shiver and I was increasingly unwilling to just leave the dogs in the cold house. Of course they have fur, and they spend time in colder weather than this - but it's one thing to run around, it's another to just sit with no way to get your blood moving. Nelly's coat is thickly luxurious but Toby's is thin, and he's had shivering fits on camping trips warmer than this.

So Enrico called the friends, and they said they'd be glad to have us over - in about three hours' time. I started to cry. I had a picture in my head of heat, and a SHOWER, and changing out of the clothing that I'd been wearing for 72 hours straight because it was too fracking cold to disrobe. It seemed like a respite was right in my grasp, and to see it slip by even three hours caused my pluckishness to collapse like the downed trees that surrounded me on all sides.

Enrico really, really hates to see me cry. Thus my breakdown was immediately followed by his own, which took the form of focusing all of his considerable mental energy on finding a solution to all our troubles. Trained as an economist, I could see him trying to construct an equation in his head that would solve for all the variables - heat, food, unhappy wife, shivering dogs, collapsed tree...

We puttered around. We went for a long walk. We went to the friends' for showers. We left the dogs and went to a coffee shop to read the Sunday paper. I broke down and bought Toby a fleece coat - pastel green and fuzzy like a baby's feety pajamas, with little pink swirls. Enrico was a little apalled, in solidarity for the affront to Toby's manliness, but I didn't care. As the day wore on it was clear - once again - that we would not have power for a third night, fourth if you count the night of the storm itself. By now, the Christmas lights were getting on my last nerve. It was like electricity pornography, this obscene display of energy consumption.

City Light hoped to get the rest of the main feeders up by midnight, but then they would have to start on all the secondary lines and individual transformers. They predicted 18,000 still without power by Monday morning, with many people out at least until midnight Tuesday. Still the suburban and rural folks were worse off, an inconceivable quarter million of them without power with no end in sight, and people were starting to fall ill and even die from carbon monoxide poisoning - bringing grills inside, hooking generators up improperly.

Temperatures were once again dropping into the 20s, so we accepted an invitation from Zena and her husband to spend the night. They have 18-month-old twins, two cats, and a dog, so they are basically saints for taking us in. Nelly wants to beat up their dog, and both of our guys want very badly to eat the cats. But we made it work, and it was very much appreciated.

Day Five: The Day of Great Wandering and Great Joy
By now I was getting the hang of this. I took my agitated dogs home from Zena's and went to a couple of meetings. When I returned mid-day, there was an army of City Light crews on my street. Six bucket trucks, a dozen guys, replacing multiple power poles. When I got home Toby greeted me happily in his little green coat - in a palsy of shivering. I had planned to head back out to a coffee shop to get some work done, but clearly the dogs couldn't stay. They couldn't keep warm sitting still in a 35-degree house.

So I threw my plans out the window and threw the dogs in the car, and - as my grandparents used to say - we went bummin.' I bought some lunch and ate it parked by the lake, listening to NPR. I took some business calls. We ran errands. Periodically I'd swing by the house, and the City Light crews were still working away. The neighbors were out, and I met people I've never once talked to in 10 years. The crews were hoping to have us up by 10 pm, but making no promises. The damage was - par for the course - worse than expected. We went to the grocery store and bought cookies and fruit for the City Light guys. I didn't ask them when they'd be done; I just thanked them.

By late afternoon I was home, under the blankets with the dogs next to me. They were curled into the tightest little balls, nose to tail, under a blanket, and when I got up at sunset to light candles and boil water, they didn't move. They were just four glowing eyes under a mountain of blanket.

We had an offer of lodging from another friend for Monday night, and Enrico and I debated the pros and cons. The promise of having our home back within a few hours was too tantalizing, but of course it meant another cold, dark evening, and maybe the power wouldn't come up. Our friend's house would be warm and inviting and completely dog-friendly, but we'd be sleeping on the floor. After weighing the options, we decided to stick it out. Enrico walked the dogs and I went to the store for hot deli food and more candles. We had just set up our meal - dragging the dogs' beds into the dining room so Nelly and Toby could be nearby without lying on the frigid floor - when the lights went up. Just like that. I could have run outside and kissed the City Light crew. We watched a Jeeves and Wooster episode on DVD, and put the emergency supplies away. The furnace ran for three hours straight to heat the house back up. At first it seemed surreal to have the light, and so many options again; but soon it seemed surreal that we'd ever been without them.

The utility crews have been working 18-hour shifts since Thursday: 18 hours on, 6 hours off for sleep, often in their trucks or in substations to maximize sleep time. I'm sure they are getting massive overtime pay, but so what? They have to be exhausted and COLD. Their families are without them, a week before Christmas. A lot of them are probably without power too, and when I think about the extra effort it took us just to live our lives for the past four days, I wonder how the spouses and children of these electrical workers are managing. I want to find a way for us, the grateful residents of Puget Sound, to somehow throw them all a big thank-you party when this is done.

So today I emptied the fridge, and restocked the food, and answered email. I know that there are still thousands of people in the cold, with no idea when it will end. I know those crews have been joined by colleagues from around the country, but are still working 16 hour days. I wish them all the very, very best.

Next up: Some things I learned, about human nature, the electrical grid, neighborliness, emergency preparedness, why people used to sleep with their livestock, and the apparent but tragic extinction of the hot water bottle.

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