My family and I just rode out Hurricane Matthew. (If you didn’t know, we live in Myrtle Beach, SC.) By most tracks, the storm was supposed to kind of pinball off the coast below us and then veer off out to the ocean as it gradually lost power.
We’d stayed through storms before in the past, and with a six-month-old and two pets, driving two hours inland and finding a hotel seemed like a lot of hassle for what looked like some gusting winds and heavy rain.
I did some hurricane prep by draining a ton of water out of our pool and clearing all the debris away from the sides of our house so water could freely channel down and out into the road. I also filled some jugs with water, you know, just in case, and made sure all of our cell phones were fully charged. But I’ve lived in our current house for about 15 years, and in that time I can’t recall ever losing power for more than about 15 minutes, so I wasn’t really too concerned.
In fact, up until Saturday afternoon, my biggest concern was that my Blue Apron shipment hadn’t arrived and I would miss out on those meals for the week. Our family even went out to an anniversary party on Friday night and then my wife and I watched the UHD Blu-ray of Warcraft.
We got about 10 inches of water overnight with some moderate winds but nothing too scary. We lost power at 3:01 PM on Saturday with no fanfare other than a click. I was in our bathroom having showered after spending a couple of hours cleaning up the first round of debris and draining more water out of the pool. My first thought was that the motion lights had timed out. I waved my hand over the Crestron motion sensor and saw the green light on the keypad was off. Dead.
A few minutes without power and it’s immediately apparent how “soft” we’ve become to rely on that unseen electricity coursing through our homes.
Beyond no TV and entertainment, this first thing you notice is the lack of lighting. Everything is suddenly some shade of dark. Fortunately, the power failed with our automated shades in the up position, so we were able to enjoy natural light.
I went into our room to lie down for a bit and noticed the exterior wall in our bedroom looked odd. It was like the wall was full of bulging pockets. I looked closer and saw that the sheetrock ceiling above was completely soaked, and rainwater was seeping through and pooling into pockets behind the paint. I went over and touched the wet ceiling with my finger and it promptly went straight through the ceiling and up into the attic, causing a stream of water and attic gunk to pour down into my face.
I got out my drywall saw to cut out the rotten section of ceiling and started getting really pissed that this was happening when I had a moment of clarity. Here I was with my family, safe and in good shelter with food and water, and I was getting salty over a small leak in our ceiling. A leak I had the means to get repaired and that wouldn’t affect our lives in one bit. To the south of us in Haiti, more than 850 people were dead with many more without anything. It definitely helped put my small “drama” in perspective.
Come 6 p.m., it was virtually pitch black inside our house. Everything we did was navigated by the flashlight built into our phones. My wife gathered up all the candles we had, but it was a small inventory. “I thought we had tons of candles?” I asked.
“We did. I gave most of them away because we never used them…”
The LED flashlight we kept in the kitchen drawer was mostly dim and took AAA batteries, which we didn’t have. I grabbed a mini-Mag out of my tool bag.
My daughter, Lauryn, has a habit of opening the refrigerator and just staring inside like something new is going to magically appear, or like she’s watching a new, potentially interesting TV show. I had to tell her that she wasn’t allowed to open it; we had to preserve the cool temps inside for as long as possible so our food would last. Before opening the fridge for dinner, we made an inventory of what we planned on grabbing so it could be an open-grab-close food rescue mission where we got in-and-out as fast as possible.
We had an early dinner of cheese and tomato sandwiches by candlelight on Saturday and afterwards played Phase 10 (a card game) and turned into bed about 9 p.m.
You take for granted all the little bits of background ambient light that illuminate your world. The flickering of ethernet lights, the red standby lights, the glow of clocks, the light bleeding in from outside the house. When the whole neighborhood is dark, it is an odd feeling.
We were pelted by rain and heavy winds throughout Saturday night, the howl of wind and the occasional crack of trees and limbs audible over the steady rains. I lay in bed waiting/hoping to see the lights suddenly spring back on, and wondering what we would do the next day for food if the power didn’t come back on. Did my grill work? Did I have gas for it? How long until all the food in the freezer went bad?
The next morning the storm had blown through and the weather was the typical beautiful blue skies that follow a major storm. We still didn’t have power and my wife asked if I could find us some coffee. Lauryn and I jumped in our SUV and headed out. The roads were mostly clear, but many trees were down in our neighborhood. A tree was lying on top of my neighbor’s house, blocking the front door. We passed three other houses with trees lying on them on the way out of our neighborhood.
A local grocery store was open, though completely dark inside. They powered the register with a generator and would sell anything in the store except perishable items. I checked my wallet—I had $40 cash left over from CEDIA. (Fortunately the credit card reader was working.)
I grabbed several cans of soup figuring I could cook on the grill (gas permitting), some bread, fruit, a large bottle of wine, and five boxes of Cheese Nips for $5 because it was too good a deal to pass up. I talked to the young girl that was running the register and asked how her house faired. She said she didn’t have power, but figured she could at least come in to work and be helpful and have something to do.
We found a gas station that was open and throngs of people were streaming out carrying handfuls of large coffees. We went in, waiting in the lengthy line as pots brewed and were emptied, and grabbed some and headed back home.
We spent Saturday afternoon cleaning debris out of our yard. Neighbors would walk by and ask if everything was OK; did anyone need anything? Later that afternoon I took my daughters for a walk around the neighborhood and we exchanged pleasantries, one neighbor cooking a large pot of chili on a tailgate grill who he said he would bring us three bowls later (and did!). Power came back on around 5 p.m. on Sunday while we were on our walk and people shouted to us, “The power’s back on!” as we passed.
I know we dodged the brunt of this storm, and definitely feel fortunate for it. We were without power for only 26 hours and never lost water, and our biggest discomfort was really having to eat a couple of cold sandwich meals.
But how would we have fared if the damage had been more severe and we had been without power for three, four, or seven or more days? What if the power didn’t come back on for weeks the way it did after Hurricane Sandy?
I feel a bit warned by this experience and am inspired to (hopefully) be better prepared next time. Have batteries. Have candles. Have cash. Have a food plan and a way to cook, or at least be able to boil water if necessary. Have enough gas in the cars so you can charge up cell phones.
We were fortunate this time, but next may be different.
For a terrific novel on how quickly things can change and how fast society can unravel, I strongly encourage you to read One Second After by William R. Forstchen.