Power, February 2013
I liked the name Frankenstorm because it was so visual, this being a few days before Halloween and all. The guy on the TV called it that and, thinking like a smart businessman, I immediately tried to buy a URL for Frankenstorm.com. I was too late, of course. I was also too late for .net, .gov, .us, and on and on.
This was when we were still laughing over the whole thing. Before it turned left and knocked us on our keisters.
Marianne and I were sitting in the living room. The front door was double-locked and shaking like a Viking was on the other side, trying to get in. The windows were rattling; the roof shingles were flying down the block. The siding was coming off the house. There’s this pine tree in our backyard that was huge when we got here in 1977. It’s even larger now. It was waving like a reed. I kept looking up at it, and it kept looking down at me.
A remembered line from a forgotten novel: If God has a voice, it is the wind.
The pine tree survived Hurricane Sandy and when I look at it now I see it in a new way. I see so many things in a new way. The day after the storm, a million people on Long Island were without power and millions more in New York City and New Jersey were in the same shape. Our lights had flickered but stayed on the whole time. Go figure.
The morning after, we all came outside to look at the wreckage. Trees were down everywhere. There was very little rain for us in this storm. It was all about the wind and how the wind rules the waters, and how the waters don’t discriminate.
How we take things for granted. The power is always on because it just is. We don’t think much about what’s involved in making that power, and how we can’t store electricity, not the sort that runs cities. We don’t think about the steam pipes that lay beneath the city streets and the enormous power they contain, or how vulnerable they are to floods. If water from the sky or the rivers or the bay gets onto those pipes they can explode and put parts of city streets on top of tall buildings. But we don’t think of these things from day to day. This is infrastructure, and it’s supposed to be there all the time. I no longer see it that way.
Marianne and I sat and watched the news. There was nothing else on but the news and the film footage was horrifying. Places we knew and loved were gone. Neighborhoods were gone – 100,000 homes on Long Island, gone to water or fire. People were lost. Were they dead, hurt, or just without cell service? We didn’t know. We thought of September 11 on Long Island. It was like that, but so much bigger and so much more frustrating because all you can do with a hurricane is shake your fists. You can’t strike back. You can never get even. You can do only small things.
So we ran heavy extension cords to the neighbors and checked to see how the old people across the street were doing. We settled in and waited. The traffic lights weren’t working so we walked, being sure to give the trees a wide berth. Who looks at trees that way? There was little food in the stores and long lines at the gasoline stations and this went on for a very long time. It was 1973 again.
After a while, we turned off the TV and retreated into books. Neighbors stopped by to plug in coffee makers and to take showers. They charged cell phones and flashlights. We sat and talked. We looked at the table lamps and listened to the refrigerator hum. It makes me laugh to think about it now in February, but last fall, we gained this astonishing appreciation for the things we usually take for granted. We talked about how good it is to have a stove, a hot shower, a phone call from a loved one. I can’t get past those feelings.
Days pass and the waters recede. A homeowner posts on the HeatingHelp.com site, “Please help. I am stuck in a disaster zone. Have a generator that powers my burner. I hooked it up to the main power feed and the aquastat powers on, and the burner fires up, but it won't circulate the water, so I took the power off the burner and hooked it up to the circulator and that worked. But then when I hook the power back up to the burner it seems to be out of water. I'm on Long Island and it's a war zone here. Forgive me. I'm also typing all this out from a phone. So spelling is way off.”
And a contractor replies, “Hooked it up to the main power feed? Please tell me you understand the implications of this.” While another writes, “First, was the boiler under water? If so, do not use it.” But there’s no reply from the homeowner and I keep thinking about him and his family.
And more questions arrive as days without power spread into weeks without power. One wants to know why his generator is not able to run his boiler. Another asks, “What is this error code I’m seeing on the panel?” Still another posts, “Can I start my boiler with batteries?”
The contractors put their toes slowly into this ocean of questions, wanting to help, but also not wanting to hurt. They understand the power that their knowledge represents, but they also know that misinterpretation on anyone’s part can hurt badly.
“HI. I'm a heating contractor in NYC. I live in the Rockaways on Long Island. I have lots of customers whose boilers and water heaters have gone under saltwater. I'm working on one customer’s boiler and told him that I'm replacing all the controls, gas valve, pump, etc. that was under water. I am cleaning up all the burner tubes. After replacing everything, it still isn't lighting off smoothly all the time. I won’t let him use it until its burning properly. My plumbing supply is already almost out of water heaters, boiler controls, etc. What absolutely needs replacing in the interim to get people heat and hot water? I was told water heaters and boilers must all be thrown out. I need to know if replacing the gas valve/control and cleaning the burner tray is enough until water heaters and boilers are back in stock. What is safe and workable for an interim period, even if these people will replace everything when the insurance money comes through?”
And a Jersey contractor, a guy who is in the thick of this as well, answers, “Nothing is safe. Everything must be replaced. Insurance or FEMA will cover the cost. Boilers are expensive, but how much does a new family cost?”
How’s that for blunt?
The first guy comes back with, “There are not enough water heaters or boilers out there. It takes a lot longer to replace the boiler than it does to replace all controls. The boiler is a cast-iron pot. If you tell me the cast iron will get a hole in it in three months because of the saltwater, instead of in 20 years, well, at least one family and maybe their neighbors can have heat instead of me telling everyone that they have to wait for me to install a new boiler. I'm talking about survival here. Manufacturers can condemn everything to save their liability. I'm talking about facts. Please explain why the boiler itself and piping must be replaced. I'm talking complete rewiring and all new controls. Just leaving the boiler and piping for temporary use.”
What can you say to that?
The power of nature, the power of knowledge, the power of inventory at hand, and the power of caring for each other all came together when Sandy sent that vicious left hook our way last October. We will rebuild and there will be a lot of work for contractors who haven’t seen much work in a very long time. But as it was with September 11, we will never again be quite as innocent as we once were.
And I can only hope that we have learned something from all of this.