Five Days without Power, Heat, Phone & Internet

Coping through the Halloween Storm of 2011

Consider me lucky or just average, but I can’t ever recall being without power for more than 24 hours. At my current home in the Upper Gregory section of West Orange, about four or five years ago the power went out frequently during significant storms, but it was never for more than a few hours, 10 to 12 at most.

But the last week has been a life-altering saga for my family and me — an experience similar to what thousands of neighbors in West Orange and throughout northern New Jersey, I’m sure, have been living as well.

It started Saturday afternoon, when tree branches began cracking under the weight of the wet, heavy snow on their leaves. The expansive gingko tree looming from our neighbor’s backyard led off. A loud crack followed by a thud sent us running to the kitchen to check on the damage to our deck. Miraculously, a very large, missile-like branch covered with yellow fan-shaped leaves lay inches away from our glass-topped table. Smaller shoots off the main branch rested atop the table, later providing protection from the dozen or so limbs and branches that ultimately littered our deck and yard by storm’s end.

But the gingko was by no means the worst of our problems. Amid the series of cracks and thuds which my daughter termed “like Armageddon,” we lost power mid-afternoon when, right next door, a snapped pin-oak limb took down the main cable serving our street. The massive branch hung from the lower utility lines, and the live wire nestled in the crook of a small crab-apple tree on the neighbor’s tree lawn.

The power line brought real drama to the saga when it slipped out of the tree at about 4:30 p.m. (I watched from my dining room window as it slithered off the tree like a snake.) Immediately the surging electricity began arcing on the ground – sending out sparks like a roman candle — until power appeared cut about a half-hour later. Then, we were awakened before 6 a.m. Sunday to another light show, when the power cable began arcing again, this time igniting the crab-apple tree and burning a 10-inch hole in the tree lawn (that turned the soil to mottled glass) before emergency personnel arrived and shut off the electricity. 

Once the mix of fear, anger and frustration subsided, I tried to prepare the family for what I knew would be an extended outage. Having been a media relations manager for the phone company during a hurricane and some major nor’easters, I knew the drill: phone and cable companies can’t come near the power lines until they’re repaired, and lines entangled with branches requiring tree trimmers are usually the last to be fixed. I expected our power back not until late Monday or Tuesday.

In the meantime, we’d lost our land-line phone service, and due to some malfunction, my husband’s Blackberry wasn’t receiving or sending e-mail. In addition, all three of the families’ cell phone batteries were running low — plus the battery that powers our chain saw. So Sunday afternoon, in a bit of a panic, we headed off in search of a warm place to recharge our batteries (personal and mechanical). Unfortunately, it took multiple stops before finally achieving our goal.  Out on the roads, we saw the type of carnage on our street replicated all over the area.

We treated the first two days and nights of the outage as an adventure. My husband equated it to camping. Sunny days filled the house with light, and we played Clue, Trouble and lots of hands of Uno Attack. My daughter practiced her piano, and my son played his guitar. At night, we ate dinner by candlelight and pulled out sleeping bags for extra warmth. The crescent moon served as a bright, white beacon in the dark, still night. And thankfully, we had plenty of hot water, making my 8:30 a.m. shower with the sun streaming through the bathroom window a high point of my day. The outage was certainly inconvenient but not intolerable.

However, by Tuesday, with town-wide repair efforts seemingly at a snail’s pace and prospects of the imminent return of our power remote, feelings of frustration and anger bubbled up inside me again. Three days without power was enough — I had to get back to my life! That night, on our way home, my son and I encountered two PSE&G guys with flashlights inspecting the fallen wires from some neighbors’ homes. They were blocking the small cleared area on our street, so I got out of the car, gave them a piece of my mind and requested they move their car so I “could get back to my cold, dark house.”

But something changed for me on Wednesday. Perhaps it was the return to school of two of my kids. Perhaps it was again no sight of repair crews out my dining room window or during my neighborhood walk of the dog. Or maybe it was just the gorgeous, unseasonable weather that day. Whatever it was, I found that on day four of No Power, No Heat ... I was letting go of a lot. I was finding that I didn’t need to check my e-mail every half-hour, and the silence of no radio, TV, microwave or washer-dryer was actually rather nice, and washing dishes by hand wasn’t so bad after all (especially the hot-water part).

Instead of spending a good portion of my day in the basement in front of the computer, I sat on my sun porch, the only interior space without a bone-numbing chill. That afternoon the room was delightful, and I lounged on the wrought-iron sofa going through piles of unread newspapers and jotting notes on a legal pad.

So at 10 a.m. Thursday, my heart leapt at the sight of two power company vehicles at the bottom of my street. As I’d expected, the two crews took most of the day to bring power back to all the homes in the neighborhood. But the unheated house didn’t feel nearly as chilly as I watched and waited for the guys to do some very complicated repair work.

During the course of the day, I had a couple of conversations with John, the crew supervisor. He explained that he was a PSE&G employee but the other members were from Indiana. John did all the talking, and he couldn’t have been more patient, polite and helpful, both to me and the many neighbors that came by to ask him when their power would return.

One resident of an adjacent street said his house and a group of eight others also had been without power since Saturday. Their street did not appear to be on John’s list, but by 5 p.m., the tree branch that had been dangling from their power lines had been cut down and they were back in service.

John told me crews were all working shifts of 16 hours on and 8 hours off. I was amazed that after five grueling days — dealing with the stresses of the actual work as well as frustrated customers — he could be so placid and professional. 

When our power came back a little after 4 p.m. on Thursday, my kids and I clapped, laughed and cheered! And much to our surprise, the FIOS phone, cable and internet service was back as well. An hour later, when I picked up my younger son from soccer practice, I couldn’t keep from blurting to him, the coach, the other kids and parents, “We’ve got our power back, heat — and everything!”

The past couple of days, I’ve had a chance to reflect on how life has changed since that Saturday morning. Despite the seemingly immediate and seamless return to normal for the family — the boys back on Xbox and Wii, my husband holed up in his third-floor office, and my daughter watching TV and posting to Facebook again — everyone admits they’ll never again take for granted those little things — the ability to flick a switch and light a room, the warmth of the bathroom floor early in the morning, opening the fridge and grabbing some fresh food to eat. 

My 11-year-old (who celebrated his birthday on Saturday and labeled it “the worst birthday of my life!”) remarked, “It’s amazing how we managed to do without power, TV and internet for five days. We actually found things to do … but the toughest part, without question, was no heat.”

I can’t guarantee my kids won’t slip back into their old, oblivious ways. But I, myself, have developed a greater appreciation for the radiance of a sunny day, the lengths some people go to help those in need, and the incredible benefits of patience and perseverance. I’ve also committed to focusing more on all the blessings I have rather than stewing about those I don’t. Hope you’ve recovered your power by now and that everyone affected by the storm will soon be back to normal again.

P.S.: After a couple of brief outages on Friday, we lost our power again for 17 hours (from midday Saturday to early Sunday morning) and got the chance to practice those virtues much sooner than expected. But after a 121-hour outage, this was a piece of cake!

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GGB November 09, 2011 at 01:59 PM
My experience in Livingston (and I used to live in Upper Gregory as well-so I know those trees) is equal to yours. I am sitting at home this morning awaiting the PSEG team to troubleshoot. Added to the neighbors tree that fell onto my front lawn taking down all my power, cable, internet lines with it, I had to spend a large fee to have a cleaning crew inside my home which became covered with a coat of black dust throughout. Disgusting. Hopefully it came from the restart of our heating system and is not a health issue. I had the opportunity to speak to The Livingston Environmental committee. Semi assured me that it not a health issue-breathing in whatever that is. Some of our streets are still a disaster area with downed trees , making driving in the neighborhood a little like a maze. Still, to my knowledge, no one died, no one got badly hurt. This after all, was not an earthquake which swallowed up people pets and homes, nor a Sunami, nor a huge flood which also took life and land. Perhaps it was a way of telling us that its time to look around and count our blessing here and now in this place we call home.
DANIEL November 09, 2011 at 10:13 PM
Fr. Donald Guenther November 11, 2011 at 04:41 PM
What a terrific article. I am sure you reflect the thoughts and words of many. Would that everyday be a "day of thanks" for all the conveniences, comforts, relationships and simple joys of life that all too often we take for granted until something happens.


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