Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - Weathering The Storm

Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post titled "The Importance of Emergency Preparedness."   In that post, I described some of the steps I had taken to be prepared in case my family and I found ourselves affected by a prolonged power outage or storm.

Well, as those of you who have been following the news know, Hurricane Sandy struck the New York-New Jersey area with tremendous destructive force, and I was finally able to put my disaster preparedness to the test.

We lost our power early on the morning of Tuesday, October 30.  I recall that my wife and I had both woken up around 3 a.m. and could see that we still had power because of the time being displayed on the cable box for the television in our bedroom.  At that point, I figured we had endured the worst of the storm and would not lose our electricity.  Several hours later though, we awoke to see that the cable box and the LED clock on our room were both dark and the air was cold.  We already knew that our kids schools were closed, as well as my office.  My wife also did not have to report to her new job in Queens for the day.

Without being able to watch the news or access the Internet on my computer, our only source of information about what was going on would come from a portable radio I had purchased for just this occasion.  Listening to 1010 WINS, we got a sense of the devasation caused by the storm, even though we couldn't see images of the worst hit places like the South Shore of Long Island or the New Jersey Shore.   We also knew that the loss of power on Long Island was widespread and that it could take at least several days or more for power to be restored.  We could also see with our own eyes, which will be the subject of a separate post, the havoc wreaked in our own neighborhood, with fallen trees blocking sidestreets and at least one house that had suffered physical damage from a fallen tree.

While we did not have electricity, we were fortunate to have hot water because we have a gas water heater.  We could also use our gas stove, though it would require using a barbecue lighter to ignite the flame.  I was not comfortable doing this though and decided that we would rely on our Max Burton tabletop stove that I had purchased years earlier but never really got to use.   The stove is fueled by butane canisters and I had nine of them.  One thing I would learn is how long it would take to deplete a canister, which turned out to be about every two days.  I am pleased to say that the stove worked very well and I enthusiastically recommend it.   We used it for canned soup and boiling water for tea and instant oatmeal.  My wife also cooked chicken and tilapia on it, though it ended up not being a good idea because the food soon spoiled because there was no power for the refrigerator.

And therein lies the first lesson I learned from Hurricane Sandy.  Do not buy meat, poultry, fish or other such perishables when you know a major storm is coming that might knock out your electricity.  For items such as milk, cold cuts, and other smaller perishables, I have made a mental note to self to buy ice before the storm hits and keep the items in a cooler.  One tip worth following that I will try to remember in the future is to freeze blocks of ice to help keep the freezer colder when the power goes out. 

Another demerit on my part was that I neglected to maintain our emergency food supply at adequate levels.  Not long ago, I had done an audit and saw that some of the items I had were well past their expiration dates so I had to throw them out, while others that were just a few weeks past the date I ended up eating so as not to let them go to waste.  Luckily, it ended up not being serious because shopping areas near us had power as early as the next day and we ate out as often as we ate in.  The second lesson from this experience was that I have to do a better job of maintaining my emergency food supply and be more mindful of the expiration dates.   This weekend I will work on reconstituting the supply to an adequate level of several weeks worth of food.

Thanks to the loss of power, our oil burner lay dormant, and with the temperature dipping down into the low forties, we had to endure a cold night.  In my post that I linked to in the opening paragraph above, I considered purchasing a kerosene heater.  Since then, I did end up buying one.  I had also bought a five gallon drum of kerosene.  In my ignorance, I did not realize at the time that kerosene over a year old should not be used.  So, after I set up the kerosene heater in our living room on the morning of October 31st, I had no means to fuel it.   I went to the Home Depot on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset and purchased a half gallon container of kerosene, which turned out to only fill the heater to half of its capacity.  I tested it out successfully during the day time.  During the night I turned it on and had it at its highest setting.   The living room became very warm, though the fuel became depleted after about four hours.

With the return of electrical power uncertain, I knocked myself for not having an adequate supply on hand.  Lesson #3 learned.  I returned to the Home Depot in Syosset on Thursday, November 1st, only to find that they no longer had any in stock.  I decided to try my hand at their store in Westbury, further west on Jericho Turnpike.  When I entered the store, I noted a number of people milling about where boxes of the kerosene heaters were stacked, but I did not see any kerosene fuel containers.  Not wanting to give up, I walked to the other end of the store and serendipitously discovered a box containing two 2.5 gallon containers of kerosene, which appeared to represent the last supply of kerosene in the store.  I eagerly snatched it up, grateful that I had enough kerosene for at least the next four nights.

As good as this was, it also led to another area of concern.  Among the victims of the widespread loss of power on Long Island were many gasoline stations.  This resulted in long lines of cars at the few gas stations that did have power.   The situation was further exacerbated due to people without power standing in line at these gas stations with gasoline cans to fill to provide fuel for the generators they were relying on to provide electricity for their homes.  The day before the storm, I filled my wife's car up, because she would have to drive into Queens for her job, whereas my driving was mostly local.  I started that Thursday with little more than a quarter of a tank of gas, and by the time I returned home with my supply of kerosene, the gasoline in my car was below a quarter of a tank.  By Friday, my wife's car was also down to about a quarter of a tank.

Friday night, I could see a long line of cars stretched out along the curb of the right line of the southbound lane of South Oyster Bay Road leading up to the Hess station at the corner of South Oyster Bay Road and Old Country Road.  I had already decided that it was incredibly stupid to wait in line with my car with the engine idling, as the hour or more wait would probably end up burning up all the gas I had before I could get into the station.  I had a couple of 2.5 gallon gas cans in my tool shed that I had used for gasoline for my old lawn mower.  I grabbed one of them and walked down to the station.  Several of the pumping stations there were dedicated for people standing on line with gas cans.  I was in line about roughly one hour when it was finally my turn.  After I filled it up, I walked back up South Oyster Bay Road past the line of cars.  A number of people asked me if the station still had gas and I told them yes, though there was no guarantee that there would still be any by the time they got there.  This situation would play itself out across Long Island, as desperate people low on gas would waste it driving around in search of stations and then idling in line while waiting for their turn to pull up to the pump.  In some instances, drivers with empty tanks would literally have to push their vehicles alongside the gas pumping station.

When I got home, I put most of the gasoline into my wife's car and then a little bit in mine.  I had boosted her gas supply to about 3/8 of a tank, while mine budged a little closer to the quarter line, not nearly enough to justify driving around looking for more gasoline the next day.   The fourth lesson from Hurricane Sandy was that it is imperative to obtain two 5-gallon gas cans to have on hand in case a future gas shortage arises.  However, I will have to wait a few weeks after all of this has passed us by, as gas cans are selling like hot cakes right now. 

As for my gasoline problem, I realized that I had an ace in the hole.  My mom has a car but no longer drives because of the shape she is in.  I decided to drive down to her apartment to see how much gas she had.  To my tremendous relief, she had a full tank.  Plan A was to try and siphon some of her gas into my two gas cans, but alas, the siphon did not work.  So, Plan B, with my mom's permission, was to drive to a gas station that was pumping gas, park near it, and then stand in line to fill up my gas cans.  I ended up doing this twice on Saturday, November 2nd.  My wife's car was filled up to about 3/4 of a tank, while I had gotten enough to bring my car up to 3/8 of a tank.  I then scored another 5 gallons the next day, when I saw that the BP station at the corner of South Oyster Bay Road and Woodbury Road had gas while I was walking to Trader Joes.  With that, I was up to about 5/8 of a tank, enough to tide me for the week. 

My prediction, and time will tell in a few days, is that by this week's end the gas supply problem on Long Island will have significantly improved.   As more homeowners with generators have their electricity restored, they will no longer need to buy gasoline for the generators, which will ease up on the demand.  Concomitantly, gas stations that until now have had gas but were without power will come back online, thereby expanding the supply of gasoline.  By the middle of next week, barring some further adverse circumstances, the gas lines should be just a memory.

Speaking of generators, one of my most unpleasant memories of this whole experience will be the nearly incessant loud purring of our next door neighbor's generator.  At least now we will have peace and quiet again, assuming that the follow up storm we are experiencing today doesn't knock out the power again.  I don't begrudge people buying a generator for times such as these, but for me personally, it does seem a bit gratuitous.  Generators cost a lot of money and take up space that I really don't have.  I can live without electricity for a few days as long as I have hot water, heat, food and the means to cook it.  I do plan though to look into the possibility of obtaining some kind of large battery device that could conceivably power a refrigerator or other applicances for a day or two.

Lastly, during the eight nights without electricity, I relied heavily on, and indeed depleted, my supply of glow sticks.  I used two of them per night, one for our bedroom and one for the bathroom.  They generally last about eight hours or so, so I would wait until roughly 10 p.m. to activate them.  They are ideal for power failure situations at night, because they provide sufficient illumination to enable you to find your way around a room without being so bright that they make it hard to fall asleep or cause you to squint like you do when you turn on a light in the dark.  They are also a safe alternative to candles, which are a potential fire hazard, especially if left burning while one is asleep.

In conclusion, when it comes to rating my preparedness for dealing with the lengthy power failure caused by Hurricane Sandy, I would give myself a B-.  This has been a valuable experience that has revealed to me where my preparations were deficient and where I need to make improvements so as to be better prepared for the next time, as I have no doubt that at some point there will be a next time.  I also hope this post ends up being informative to those of you who read this in making your own preparations for handling a similar situation.

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