Thursday, February 6, 2014

Ice Storm

A snowstorm turned to ice early yesterday and by sunrise, with the weight of the ice, I could hear trees and large branches falling in all directions, one after another. Several fell onto my street; one hit the roof of my house and bounced off. It did no damage but had to be cut in four places to restore access to my back door. When so many branches fall, some are sure to hit power lines, and a day later, most of the county and large parts of about eight nearby counties are without electricity. Trees fell onto expressways, and stretches of highways remain closed today because of downed trees. But there aren’t always alternate routes; some side streets and back roads are too icy to drive on.

I had heard about this kind of damaging ice storm, particularly the one that had shut down Quebec for two weeks some years ago, but this was my first time being in the middle of one. Facing the prospect of being without electricity, heat, running water, and Internet for five days, my best option was to evacuate to another county, less hard hit, where I could keep working. Others staying home have had to find places where they can wash, recharge cell phones, connect to the Internet, or warm up — actions that on better days are more or less automatic at home.

The sudden loss of electricity offers an abrupt change in perspective. You don’t realize how much you rely on electricity until it is not there. Even then it can be confusing. At a supermarket running on backup power, I saw one customer who didn’t understand why the conveyor belt at the checkout wasn’t running. Others were perplexed that stores and restaurants closed their doors when the power went out. The inaccessibility of transportation and communication have their own effects. I saw firsthand how the difficulty of driving and walking on tree-strewn streets leads to a risk-averse mentality, in which even a three-block shopping trip is avoided if possible. Similarly, after a day of not being able to make cell phone calls because of declining batteries and limited network capacity, I found that I stopped thinking in terms of voice calls. The resulting changes in habits won’t reverse immediately when the crisis is over.