Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hurricanes: Ban Them Now!

Well, that was fun. Oh wait, no it wasn't.

Regular reader1 will probably be aware that Hurricane Irene blew into Long Island a couple of weeks ago. Given the fact that it was actually dying down to category 1 by the time it made landfall, I expected it would be no real inconvenience, and thus rested my head in confidence on Saturday night.

At about 2:30 am the next morning the power went out on the side street that runs along one edge of our property because a small branch snapped off the dead tree the guy across the road is cultivating and fell on the copper-clad thread of cotton that the Long Island Power Authority deems suitable for urban power distribution and strings for miles on rotten poles inadequately bedded in the sand that serves for soil hereabouts. The irony here is that the main road that runs along the front of the property, and which is referenced in our address, suffered no such interruption of power.

"Irony?" I here you sneer, digging out your Alanis Morrisette collection. "How is that irony?"
It is irony because after a warping power pole had tugged the cleat anchoring our power lines to the house off the wall twice in six months we insisted the IQ brigade at LIPA "do something to permanently address the problem" and they switched out power line to the side street's transformer2.

And so, as the hurricane swept over Long Island in the early morning, we awoke to no power and a flood in the basement.

Mrs Stevie got busy with towels and something called a "sham-wow", soaking up the water and transferring it to buckets which were dumped into the septic system so it could seep back into the waterlogged ground and thence back into the basement in a few hours. I declined to join in since I knew the power would be back on in a few hours. After all, not even LIPA could be caught so badly out of crease as to not have contingency plans well in hand.

It was pointed out to me that stuff was getting ruined by the water, but I replied that all my stuff had been systematically ruined in previous floods so there was nothing I cared about, and all their stuff had been put up on shelves after the last time surely? This was greeted with harsh words but I remained resolute in my refusal to join the basement bailing fun.

In order to assuage Mrs Stevie's deteriorating temper I offered to drive them out for breakfast at a diner. The wind was howling and rain was falling, but it had stopped falling crosswise which I took to be a good sign, so we ignored the witless idiots on the radio saying "stay home", mostly because when we were home we had no electricity for the radio and so couldn't heed their advice until we had ignored it and fired up the Steviemobile, and drove to a nearby diner.

On the way I began to get intimations that the situation might be a tad worse than I had apprehended. Bits of tree were scattered everywhere. That much I did expect. What I had not expected to see was trees ripped out of the ground by their roots and dropped wherever gravity and the prevailing wind felt was appropriate. One fallen tree had a root system that was over ten feet across. The owner probably wished that it had gone down a bit further than it did. It looked like what happens when a very young child is let loose on a scale model railway. There were trees down everywhere. Trees big enough to block whole streets, and over a quarter of the town was blacked out.

The diner was in good repair and had power (and had a backup generator, I was informed) and staff, who all looked like they would rather be at home bailing out their own basements3. That diner was to do record business that day and most of the following week. As it was, we had breakfast with coffee (my main reason for suggesting the trip), and we left to see if Mrs Stevie's parents were okay.

They were in darkness, but un-flooded, so I drove the family home and returned with one of our Coleman electric lanterns after replacing the batteries so they would at least have enough light to get about the place.

I took Monday off and, after taking a box of coffee to the in-laws4 the Stevieling and I went out for a drive out east along the Long Island Expressway. She drove because she needs the practice, it was time she had freeway experience and this day at this time traffic would be very light. I just sat biting my arm and screaming when it was appropriate, while offering advice such as "You're drifting to the right, honey. You're drifting into the shoulder sweetheart! Daughter! You're about to drive into a stream of traffic on your right! TURN THE STEERING WHEEL TO THE LEFT AT ONCE! ARGHARGHLEFT!" and "You see those red lights on the car up ahead? Those mean the driver in front of you is braking. So slow down a little. Slow down! SLOW! STOP THIS VEHICLE IMMEDIATELY! ARGHARGHSTOPTHECAR!"

As we negotiated roads blocked by police insisting we turn right when we wanted to turn left (because all the traffic lights were out) we could see miles of power lines lying on the ground because the poles had fallen over. I started to get a very bad feeling about the whole reliance on LIPA to get the job done quickly theory and decided to formulate a new philosophy straightway - one involving Long Island being in the electrical dark ages for the foreseeable future - while keeping up a brave face and a positive attitude in front of the women of La Famile Stevie.

Mrs Stevie had scored some dry ice to keep the fridge cold which turned out to be the last dry ice in New York, and it worked quite well, but we had no electricity so we had no stove to cook with. The fact that I get home around the time it is starting to get dark was also getting old. I was reduced to walking around with one of those strap-to-your-head LED lamps so I could see anything. It worked well, but it was so damned depressing to only be able to see things right in front of me and only see those in shades of actinic blue-white. On Tuesday the performance of the Long Island Rail Road was the icing on the cake and I came home only to leave again in the ostensibly hopeless search for a generator.

As it happened my first stop was Home Despot where it transpired they had just taken delivery of a load of generators. By the time I found where they were there were only two left, and one of those was gone by the time I had finished checking the price. I grabbed the last one and called Mrs Stevie to bring her wagon to collect me as it was far too big to fit in my car. Then it was a simple matter of paying for it, spending twenty minutes sobbing, clawing at my face, tearing my clothes, pouring dirt on my head and yelling "Why me?" and then it was back home for several hours of generator assembly by flashlight.

Once it was bolted together it was a sort of wheelbarrow affair, a wheeled frame containing the engine/alternator, fuel tank and breaker panel with electric sockets with two folding handles so I could move it with only moderate back strain. I filled the sump with oil and put some gas in the tank, then read the starting instructions and my heart fell. The instructions said to choke the engine then pull the starter cord until the engine compression came up, then to heave on the cord to start it. My chainsaw has the same start sequence and it is no picnic getting that bastard to fire up. I was quite despondent when I contemplated the size of the generator's engine, but it actually fired while I was doing the pull-to-prime thing - the easiest pull-start I've ever personally experienced.

It was also the loudest motorized thing I've ever started with the possible exception of Troll5. Standing next to it, the sound of Mrs Stevie's voice was totally drowned out unless she shrieked at such volumes her nose bled. Unlooked-for bonus there. The noise was magnified by the narrowness of the area between the fence that separates us from Crazy Joe and our kitchen, and the dimensions of the enclosure meant that Mr Singh, the neighbor we are on good terms with, was getting the full benefit of the sound. I shut it down and moved it behind the swimming pool, figuring the body of water would act to muffle the sound. It did, a bit, but it still sounded like a Mr Softee van was serving delicious cone-mounted treats in our garden. Oh well.

The generator has five power taps: one 240 volt, 25 amp supply and four 120 volt, 20 amp supplies, and will supply five and a half kilowatts, but it was getting late so I decided that only emergency power would be plumbed this night. This equated to the fridge and a light. Fridge compressors suck an awful lot of power, but I happened to know ours is under 20 amps at peak (when it starts) so it was just a matter of avoiding voltage drop by using a short enough extension cord, something I didn't have in the thickness of wire required for the current draw, so I used the cord I power the swimming pool pump with, which is as thick as my little finger and weighs a ton. This and another, regular outdoor extension cord were thrown through the open kitchen window and plugged into the fridge and a lamp and all was happiness in the home. I, however, went out to buy gasoline, which because I had only a small can involved two round trips to the gas station to fill the tank.

Now I have a five gallon can somewhere in the garage, but it had been silted over with crap the women put in there then moved about to find other stuff they put in there and now, with no lights, I wasn’t ever going to find it. Mrs Stevie said she’d pick one up while she was out, but wouldn’t ya know it, there were none to be had fer luvner money so she bought a Kerosene can instead. A kerosene can is exactly the same as a gas can, and a day later that same can was available as a gas can, but a kerosene can is blue and it is illegal to fill a can that is not metal or plastic and colored red at a public gas station in New York. I explained this quandary to Mrs Stevie but she announced that she didn’t care because it was my job to fill the thing each morning. It would be my problem. A frank exchange of views was held in which I lost badly, but which fortunately the neighbors were not party to on account of the racket from the generator.
And so to bed.

The next day Mrs Stevie and I had a spirited disagreement on whether we should run the generator all day while we were at work. I felt we shouldn't, mostly because of the cost (24 hours running would be around $70-80) but also because my feeling was that the thing wasn't intended for such a heavy duty cycle (the box had a list of envisioned uses and some had "standby" featured prominently in the wording and specific instructions on how to shut the thing down including a five-minute, no-load running period so that the alternator could cool down before the engine - and the cooling fan - stopped). Not only that, but there were strongly worded contra-indications on the subject of the thing failing under load and my experience has been that tools with moving parts must be watched like a hawk because those parts have a tendency to stop moving in dangerously creative and expensive ways as soon as you take your eyes off 'em. Mrs Stevie felt that if the generator was not running flat out the fridge would slag down in a pool of water and rotting food within minutes.

The discussion ranged over a number of subjects, most of them to my detriment, and then we had another frank exchange of views and I gassed up the generator and left for work, its ear-splitting "blat" announcing to one and all that our (empty) house had power not of LIPA's doing.

As my home-bound train approached Wyandanch (Perl of the East) I got a call from Mrs Stevie to inform me she and The Stevieling were going out. She later claimed that she added the fact that since the generator was still running she wasn't going to do as we had agreed at breakfast and put more gasoline in it, but if she did she said it to empty air and static. Needless to say when I got home the damned thing was silent.
Silent and red hot.

It had clearly shut down while the fridge motor was running and was now in a state engineers call "heat soak" which is a fancy way of saying that the heat built-up in the engine and alternator casing was not blown away by the fan and so was hanging around while the formerly moving parts added more and more heat to the business. The generator was actually getting hotter as it sat there doing zero.

I waited a bit, refueled it and attempted to start it, but it refused to countenance the idea. My guess now is that some sensor had shut off the electrics.

By the time Mrs Stevie got back I had hurt my shoulder trying to get the bastard to turn over so I gave her the benefit of my feelings on the matter of owning a $750 paperweight, my opinion of the headache and nausea I had suffered all day as a result of being splashed by gasoline first thing in the morning, and the exact depth of my despair at the thought of yet another night by flashlight, and then I departed in the Steviemobile for an hour's drive to cool off and revel in the air conditioning, the wide field of illumination of the headlamps on the blacktop and the soft, powerful purr of the engine as we ate up the miles going nowhere useful. I returned home to find Mrs Stevie attempting to start the machine so I went to bed.

Early the next morning I managed to get it started again and put my foot down. I explained that the fridge was capable of sustaining its temperature if it wasn't opened for the eight hours we wouldn't be there if we froze cool packs overnight and moved them into the fridge when we left for work, and that if anyone wanted TV, Internet and a washing machine this side of Christmas they had better get in line with my "only when we're in" plan for running the generator because I was absolutely not doing any more improvised electrical work in the dark by the light of an LED flashlight. Mrs Stevie argued until I mentioned the sheer cost of electrifying an empty house, and she finally agreed6.

That night I ran more extension cords and by 10 pm we had all the aforementioned facilities up and glowing while the neighbors gnashed heir teeth in the dark or listened to their own generators. By Wednesday most of that side street were running similar lash-ups.

One funny incident occurred just as I was leaving. I saw Mrs Crazy Joe come out and glare at the fence between us, from where the sound of our generator was making itself known to the area. This was rich. On Monday they had deployed a generator of their own and placed it about five feet from my house. Payback is a birchbark canoe as the Algonquin Wise-men say.

Of course this running of extension cords necessitated the purchase of a new, thick and hence trés expensiv one because of the previously raised concern about voltage drop over the length of the cord, since the washing machine is another amp-hog. By now I was becoming inured to the hand-over-fist costs of the blackout and so the customers of Home Despot were treated only to quiet sobbing and some pounding of my head against the robot-checkout machine as it printed my receipt.

And so we had light, TV, Internet, cold soda and clean underwear despite the Long Island Power Authority. Huzzah!

On Friday night, around 7:30 pm, I arrived home to find Mrs Stevie feeding coffee and donuts to some LIPA guys who had arrived in theater thirty minutes before and were not feeling the love on account of a crowd of onlookers whose attitude could best be described as "disgruntled" that was letting the workforce know how much they valued the chance to live for a week as their original colonist ancestors had. Galvanized by sugary foods and delicious beverages they had the power back on in a trice and gradually the neighborhood fell silent as, house by house, the generators began to shut down.
Ours was last.
  1. TOS Circulation now in double digits if you count me and in binary
  2. We had naively expected them to simply allow another foot of cable from the looped reserve at the pole, but they were feeling mischievous and decided to reward our temerity by making our back garden resemble one from Queens by gittishly draping sixty feet of power line over it
  3. I recently got into a discussion with some non-Americans over tipping, in which some of the tightest people I've ever communed with decried the process and claimed to "not understand how to do it". Tipping 101: If the person serving you braved a hurricane so that they could have the single pleasure of serving you eggs and coffee, they bloody well deserve a tip, and a big one, and a verbal thank-you for doing so with a smile
  4. Yes, a box. Google "Box Of Joe"
  5. The Snowblower of Supreme Spiffiness
  6. There’s some Scots blood in her from her mother’s side of the family that I can sometimes appeal to