They warned us that Sandy was coming. They warned us not to be complacent, not to assume that Sandy would, like Irene before it, largely leave our corner of New Jersey unscathed. We slept in the basement for Irene, our kids nervous about the storm and what damage it might bring despite our reassurances.
But Sandy would be worse than Irene, meteorologists promised. We heeded them—we thought. My wife Lauren and I are over-preparers; they say storm, we say how high, as in: How high should our cases of environmentally unfriendly water get stacked? We stuffed the fridge and freezer, as that keeps the contents colder longer if the power goes out. We bought oodles of non-perishables and batteries. We topped up the sump pump’s backup battery’s acid levels, since Uncle Mort talked us through how to do it.
This time, though, we were smarter about it with our kids: we told them we were having a campout and left it at that. That left the girls giggly instead of panicky. We made a rookie mistake with Irene by focusing on honesty, and we learned from it.
We filled the tubs with water so that we could use them to flush the toilets if necessary. Those tubs subsequently drained themselves well before morning, and it is decidedly not the thought that counts in these situations. Luckily, we never lost water.
We did, however, lose power.
With great power comes great responsibility; with no power comes a house of pain. You lose the obvious things, like the lights and the Internet. If you’re someone who reads The Magazine, you probably lose what you think of as your landline, too, since it’s likely a VoIP phone that dies with the Internet. When a storm wreaks havoc on the level of Sandy, it turns out that your friendly neighborhood cellphone tower might go offline, too.
For too long, we were stuck in our home with no direct means of contact with the outside world. We had a couple of battery-powered radios with which we could get news on occasion. That news was, essentially: Sandy is a serious bitch.
Despite having a natural-gas-powered heating system, we hadn’t given a thought to its electrical component. The furnace has an electronic brain, a fan, and an electric ignition. It gets its juice through a directly wired circuit, not a plug. My friend Adam broke his furnace’s junction box open, forked the wires directly into an extension cord, plugged that extension cord into his generator, and then sat and watched the setup for 90 minutes to make sure it didn’t start a fire. It didn’t. His house was warm.
That wouldn’t have helped us. We didn’t own a generator. I hadn’t thought it was necessary: my family had never needed one in my own childhood, and the technology seemed beyond me. Without power to make the furnace happy, the house got very cold. We were happy when we bought this house that it had no fireplace to burn the children; now we envied the neighbors with gas and wood blazes crackling away.
I complained when our home’s temperature was in the mid-60s, and then it dropped to the mid-50s. We bundled the kids and ourselves up in winter clothes and blankets, tried to play games that involved a lot of moving around, and shivered. We took walks outside to make the relative indoor temperature feel warmer in comparison.
I felt like I’d failed in my duty as a father, however chauvinistic that sounds, by not keeping the family warm.
The self-pity I felt turned quickly into guilt as I heard about the far worse fates, from death to washed-away homes, affecting others. Then I kept on feeling sorry for me and my family anyway. Kids tire of needing flashlights to see. Parents do, too. They tire of having no TV and no hot food. The novelty of eating ice cream straight out of the carton on the night the power died was forgotten; shivering together under blankets in the dark living room became the decidedly un-fun new normal.
Monday’s blackout stretched until Tuesday, which got colder. Wednesday was colder still. Wednesday night, we tucked the girls together in one room, the baby in his crib, and us in our own bed. I woke up, freezing, again and again, panicked that it was just too damn cold for the kids, and rushing to check on them. I brought the baby into our room so he could share our body warmth. I checked on the girls and added more blankets to their beds on five separate occasions between 2 am and 6 am.
At 6:30 am, I woke my wife and said: “We have to get out of here. This is no longer acceptable to me.”
We had planned a family vacation for the second week of November because of an existing school break to a Pennsylvania resort called Woodloch Pines. A promotion discounted our adult room rate and there was no charge for the kids. At 7 am, I stepped outside to a spot on my front lawn where my wife’s iPhone worked.
Me: “I’m supposed to come next week. I’m in New Jersey, smack-dab in Sandy’s path, and my house is powerless and freezing. Can we come this week instead?”
The kindest woman on planet earth (TKWOPE): “What day would you like to come?”
Me: “If you say I can come now, I’ll go start the car.”
TKWOPE: “Let me see what I have available. I have one room left, and it’s—”
Me: “I’ll take it.”
TKWOPE: “We’re running a special promotional rate for Sandy victims like you. But let me check what rate you were getting for next week. [She does.] Oh, that rate was better. Let me get you that rate for your stay instead.”
Me: “That’s awfully kind of you. Thank you so much.”
TKWOPE: “Well, we certainly don’t want to take advantage of you. This situation is just so terrible. Oh, and your kids missed Halloween, right? Bring their costumes, because we’re going to go trick-or-treating at 10:30 am.”
Me: “Oh, there’s no chance I can get there by 10:30. We’re at least 2.5 hours away, and we still have to pack.”
TKWOPE: “You know, you’re probably not alone. We’ll push it to later in the day. Bring the costumes.”
Me: “You are very kind. I have tears in my eyes now.”
TKWOPE: “Don’t say that! I’ve been trying not to cry this whole call! [She sobs.] This whole situation really is awful.”
She made reference to a Pennsylvania family where the matriarch had been killed by a tree that fell on the house, leaving behind her husband and two children. I shook my head at the tragedy, and thought about how my cold, powerless home was also awful. And that there was no comparison of course, so how could I justify my depression at my own family’s situation?
I felt a bit like we were running away, while our neighbors continued to tough it out. From the resort, we texted more with our neighbors than we ever had before, offering moral support and getting updates, largely motivated by our selfish desire to find out whether the fucking lights had come back on yet.
The kids, and we, had a great time at Woodloch. Displaced families from Jersey and New York filled up the resort, which had—pre-Sandy—expected maybe 40 families for the week. The resort can accomodate 900 guests. As I said, I got the last room.
On Friday, the day before we left the resort, we spent time trying to figure out where we’d go once we left Woodloch. I refused to go home to our cold, dark house. Another night at Woodloch would run $500. We called around and found hotels with rooms and no power, and with power and no rooms. Eventually, I found a suite in my hometown of Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. It would cost $129 a night. It would be 2.5 hours from home. It was our fallback option.
Fortunately, some family friends one town over from our home got their power back. (Their development was surrounded by still-powerless other developments, the luck of the electrical grid draw.) They opened their home to us; it went from a McMansion housing four to a McMansion housing nine, and it held up pretty well.
My girls held a sleepover with their boys in one room, and roughly two hours after bedtime, they finally gave up and fell asleep. The four parents got drunk in the basement on wine, tequila, and rum. Our 20 month old punished us by waking up screaming at 2 am and pretty much refusing to go back to sleep until four. The other kids woke up around 6 am.
It was hard to be too miffed, though: This house had power and Internet, a Woodlochian paradise right here in New Jersey. Our township would send email updates relaying information from the power company: “They’re working around the clock. Power will be restored to 28 percent of town residents by the end of the day tomorrow.” For whatever that’s worth.
Sunday afternoon in our friends’ warm home, Lauren’s iPhone buzzed.
“Power just came on!!!”
I rushed home the minute Lauren showed me the message: I wanted to see it with my own eyes, to make sure the heater started up properly, and to take inventory at the homestead. It was 53 degrees in the house. Based on the blinking clocks, I arrived 22 minutes after the electricity did.
I was happy for us—elated, even—but even more joyous for the families next door. When I pushed the button on the garage door opener and the door dutifully lurched upwards, I teared up all over again. Regaining a feeling of power after extended bouts of powerlessness is emotional stuff, whether figurative or literal.
I returned to my friends’ home; we watched football, made dinner, and ate it, as my home warmed up. After dessert, I loaded up the minivan, and we headed home. My three-year-old daughter fell asleep on the short ride home; waking her again (for tooth-brushing, Pull-Up and pajama dressing, and the like) left her weepy. Lauren started the bedtime prep as I unloaded the minivan’s overstuffed trunk into the house.
I thought about how I’d write this piece, how it might make me look bad at times, and what the point of all it would be. I wondered if there were lessons to be learned, or lessons that I had learned. Beyond “research generators,” I mean.
I grabbed the kids’ blankets, pillows, and the bag of stuffed animals we’d toted to Pennsylvania and the friends’ house and headed towards the stairs. My hands were too burdened to flick off the light in the kitchen. I left it on.
We calmed the three-year-old and made up the beds. I’d left the kids’ toothbrushes downstairs, so I went to get them. This time, I had a free hand left to flick off the lights. I did so. The downstairs was immediately plunged into darkness.
I turned the light back on again so that I could better make my way upstairs, where I put the kids to sleep in their own beds. And I felt guilty about it.
Lex is an author, senior contributor to Macworld, and podcaster. He heads up podcast ad sales for The Mid Roll. Lex has three kids and one wife. His hobbies include writing third-person bios for Internet publications.