Monday, February 20, 2006

Kunstler: A Short Emergency

February 20, 2006
Friday morning the sky went dark like a sudden memory of wartime, and a cold wind roared out of the northwest in a fury over my town in upstate New York. The winds picked up through the morning and pretty soon things were flying around outside my office window, including the trellis in the garden. Then trees toppled over. The trees crashed down across powerlines and at one-thirty in the afternoon the power went out in Saratoga Springs. It would stay down all weekend. I went out to take a look later on Friday afternoon. Many of the shops and bistros downtown closed by late afternoon. The yearly regional music festival called the Dance Flurry had to shut down.

Back home, the furnace quit working. Even though it burns natural gas, it requires electricity to power the igniters. People we knew were already heading up to the big box hardware emporiums for generators and kerosene heaters. I came across one neighbor trying to hook up a generator. He was very blue because he owned ten rental properties around town and he had no idea how he was going to keep the pipes from freezing if the temperatures really plunged as low as the radio was saying: single digits.

That night, my girlfriend was struggling to get back upstate from New York City on Amtrak. She couldn't reach me because our telephones were all cordless models with plug-in transmitter bases that didn't work with the power off. So she called our friends around the corner, who had a hardwired phone (which can run whether the electrical service is on or not), and I got the message.

They stayed at my place for dinner. It wasn't too bad. The gas stove was still working -- though not the oven, which could only be turned on via an electronic keypad -- and we had penne with mushrooms and a nice salad by candle light. I had lots of candles on hand, and a kerosene lamp and a battery-powered lantern and several flashlights. Lucky me. With the stove burners all lit, we were perfectly comfortable at the table.

Sally finally got home from New York around eleven. It was eerie coming into town with all the lights off, she said, and her seat on the train had been the only one in the car without a reading light that worked, so she'd already had a lot of practice sitting in the dark -- thanks a lot, Amtrak. I like sleeping in a pretty chilly room, so passing the night was fine -- apart from my normal insomnical tendencies. But the next morning, when the inside temperature reached 49 degrees, and the radio said there was no telling when service might be restored, we decided to make other arrangements.

We were lucky. We had friends two towns over who had power and a spare bedroom. On the way over there (about fifteen miles) I went past two gas stations with long lines of cars waiting around them, and people at the pumps filling up red plastic auxiliary cans. We turned on the local TV news late Saturday night to see what had transpired during the day and a there was a news report about a house in Saratoga that had burned down that night because the people who lived there had cranked up the fireplaces and the chimneys were not adequately cleaned. The address the TV news-reader gave was around the corner from us. It was not anyone I knew. They lived across the street from the couple I made dinner for on Friday.

Sunday afternoon I went back into town. The power was still down in my neighborhood. There were rumors that it was supposed to come back on sometime between noon and the dinner hour, but it was still down at 3:30pm. The people next door happened to be loading some stuff into their car when I came by. The temperature inside their place was 39, they said-- despite the fact that it was about 15 outside. Perhaps the water heater was keeping things above freezing. I went past the burned house on my way back to our temporary quarters. It was a Dutch colonial dating from perhaps the 1920s. The house was obviously totaled. The windows in the upper stories were blown out and you could see everything inside was charred black. They had got plywood nailed up over the first floor windows already.

So, this was our little disaster of the year. The downtown merchants lost a pile of money with the Dance Flurry getting canceled, and the neighbor we didn't know got burned out, and we didn't hear yet what happened to the other neighbor with all the rentals. One house over on Spring Street lost a roof -- which blew off and landed in Court Street. Our little rented cottage is okay so far. The landlord ran a propane construction heater in there on Saturday and said he was coming back late this afternoon to give it another blast. The daytime temperatures tomorrow are headed back above freezing again. I suppose we'll be able to get back in tomorrow sometime (Monday).

The odd thing, of course, is that all the way back since Christmas we have enjoyed (yeah, strange word) supernaturally warm temperatures this winter. We've had whole weeks in the high 40s and even mid-50s. The lakes and ponds did not freeze this year. The ground is bare and we've had zero cross-country skiing. The winter carnival in town was all but canceled except for the chowder contest between the downtown eateries. I had been predicting back in December that a normal winter would get us into trouble with punishing home heating prices. The bills have been high, despite the mild weather, but not killing as they could have been with normal temperatures. And the market price of natural gas has sunk way down to the $7-8 range because demand has been so low.

The week preceding the storm was like spring up here. Personally, I liked walking the dog around town wearing only a sweater, with none of the slush and icy snard which is usually underfoot here all winter. But everyone is a little nervous about what this all means. We'd prefer winter, when all is said and done. We read about the Greenland ice caps melting and we put it together with what is happening to us, and the picture is not reassuring. Especially when it resolves into freak wind storms that are generated by very cold fronts colliding with masses of abnormally warm air, in places that they shouldn't be this time of year.

Being homo sapiens, we are not that good at thinking ahead. I wonder if any of my neighbors have imagined a March featuring funnel clouds and patio furniture flying through the air?


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