Saturday, January 05, 2008

Electricity is my friend

Like thousands of other north state residents, we lost power in the second of three winter storms that swept through the state. There were hurricane force winds on Friday that closed Tony's office in Chico, city halls in nearly every city north of Sacramento (at least), and shut down I-5 for some time.

Power went off here at about 7 a.m. Friday and came back on about 12:45 p.m. today.

We were warm, thanks to the wood stove. I could cook, thanks to the gas stove. We had bottled water, and I'd filled tubs and a deep sink with water on Thursday evening, fully expecting that we'd lose power, so we could flush and at least wash our faces (we're in the country and our well pump works on electricity -- so no electricity, no water). We have a pair of oil lamps and lots of candles. Tony made coffee in the motor home using its generator, so we had good, hot coffee.

But this storm was longer and harder than anything we've experienced here so far. The wind had the kitties stalking nervously from living room to bedroom, from door to door, and they didn't settle in until it calmed down around noon or so. It rained more than an inch and a half on our land -- we've got a rain gauge. The sliding door in the office was vibrating from the wind, and the tarp covering the woodpile nearly blew off although it's well strapped down with bungee cords. The wrought iron swing outside the office door blew over.

We were lucky. We didn't lose trees, nothing blew off the house except the drain pipe for the swamp cooler -- but I heard of a house in town that lost the swamp cooler along with a signficiant portion of the roof. Trees blocked roadways and hit power lines and fell onto homes.

When we drove into town yesterday afternoon in quest of batteries, everything on the south end was dark including the venerable WalMart. Raleys had generators that allowed them to open for business. The True Value was dark but open, accepting cash or checks only, and staff greeted you at the door at Tractor Supply, asking what you needed. Shops downtown all had lights on and power, as did another shopping center towards the Interstate, but east of I-5 was completely shut down -- McDonalds, gas stations, businesses, and all -- except for one or two which clearly had generators.

We listened to the radio last night and heard about the hundreds of thousands who had lost power and the snows that were closing highways through the mountains. We listened to NPR's "This American Life" and felt a little like we were back in the '40s or '50s when families gathered around the radio to hear their favorite shows.

It was not a relaxing day, however. The winds were unsettling, and every thump startled us as we hoped it wasn't something damaging. In the back of our minds were the freezers full of our summer garden produce and the good Tehama county beef we'd bought last summer, now without power to keep them frozen. We worried about the various electronic devices that drive our business and leisure: were they damaged by the brownouts that occurred as the electricity went off? How long would the outage last?

We called PG&E, of course, to report the outage, and at regular intervals during the day and evening, speaking optimistically when an automated call informed us that power would be restored between 8 and 10 last night, and then a later update said betwen midnight and 2 a.m. Neither happened. Another call this morning got Tony on the line with a real person who basically said she had no idea when we'd get it, and we were beginning to think about taking frozen food into town to put it in a friend-with-power's freezer -- and maybe grabbing a shower there as well (we're used to showering daily, and were beginning to feel a little grungy around the edges).

And then it was on again. And nearly everything worked -- the internet is not quite what it was yet, but it's there. We're clean and our food is safe.

I'd have made a lousy pioneer.

I tried to read last night by oil and candlelight, and found it hard on my eyes, and tiring. I missed hot water and showers, and clean hair. I missed the easy access to the Internet and its vast library of information.

I'm very grateful for PG&E crews who worked long hard hours in the rain and wind and cold to restore power to 30-some thousand homes in Tehama County, not to mention the others throughout the area. Yeah, their communication was full of glitches and not terribly helpful, but they tried -- at least you could get through to the report line and even to a real person: they didn't simply shut everything off.

We learned something from this storm: we did not prepare enough. I think a portable generator may be in our future. Definitely battery-powered lanterns and some big collapsible water containers are on my list, as well as plenty of batteries in assorted sizes. I bought more lamp oil this afternoon. This was a once-in-10-years storm according to the forecasters and a couple of long-time residents. We've lost electricity before, but only for hours -- maybe 6-8 at most -- and not recently. I'm grateful we came through this as easily as we did.

We'll sleep better tonight.

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