August 11, 2014 at 1:59 pm #21583
The Northeast Blackout of 2003 was when I “woke up”. In my home state of Michigan we don’t have hurricanes or regular severe weather threats, and I thought Blackouts only happened in places like New York City. This what I experienced, and I hope it gives a little insight into how completely clueless people react. This is by NO means a Survival story, it is just how I figured out it was time to take a look at the bigger picture.
When the Blackout occurred I was 25 years old. It was Thursday August 14th, and I had taken the next day off work for a weekend-long celebration of my 26th birthday. Plans were in place for that evening: two friends were coming over to my apartment that night at 5:30pm for some pre-dinner cocktails, and then we’d head out to dinner to meet up with a few more friends.
I was at the office, finishing up a few last-minute details before my long weekend. During that entire week we had a construction crew working in a lot behind our building, and several times they had knocked out the power to our office. Shortly after 4pm the lights went out again, accompanied by the now-familiar howling of profanities from people who forgot to save whatever computer program they were working on. I laughed and began the trek out to the lot behind our building to inform the workers. Upon my arrival, the foreman told me “Ma’am, our dispatch says the entire state just lost power.” My first reaction? “You guys managed to cut power to the entire STATE?!” That was my thinking: there had to be a reason this happened, and someone who was blamed would fix it immediately.
I walked back to the office and my cell phone was already ringing. First lesson: some landlines still had power, but our office had an internet-based phone service that went out immediately. Cell providers were working only sporadically. The lines were extremely overloaded with people making calls, so if you were able to make or receive a call, you learned to stay on the line until you said what you needed to. My brother was calling to tell me he was at my Grandparent’s house and would stay there until their power was restored. He also said the water was also off, but they had some bottled jugs and he could use water from the rain barrels to flush the toilet. The next call was from my mother, who was on a trip with my aunts in part of Michigan not affected by the blackout, so they were safe and staying put until it was over. After I hung up with my mother I decided to leave work go back to my apartment. Our office was in a semi-rural town, and my apartment complex was only five miles away down a practically unused road. Should be a piece of cake, right? Yeah…
Lesson two: when a lot of people heard the power was out (a few local radio and news stations had backup generators and people driving were able to tune in), they for some reason abandoned the highways to take the “back roads”. In the half-hour that passed after the blackout, that five mile stretch with one lane in each direction turned into absolute gridlock. It was reasonably orderly, since there was nothing we could do but wait. It was 95 degrees outside, and sitting in the air conditioned car wasn’t THAT bad. However, cars low on gas when they started the trip were left on the side of the road. Since we weren’t moving but a few inches at a time these people (I saw about twenty) were all able to hitch a ride with another driver: score one for Human Kindness! (After it was all over I asked anyone who mentioned they also left the expressway to take “back roads” why they did it, and the answer was the same each time: “It felt safer.”).
During the entire drive I was trying to call my two friends who were supposed to be meeting at my apartment at 5:30pm, and kept getting error messages. Most of the people I tried to reach in that first 12-hour block were not able to get service. Cellular towers had no power, and a phone “roaming” for a signal drains power twice as fast it would in normal conditions. Most of us turned our phones completely off when we weren’t using them.
One thing that stood out was the fact that no one really appeared to be concerned with WHY this happened. Everyone assumed it was a terrorist attack, myself included. It seemed like the most logical conclusion, based on the scale of the outage.
After over three hours I made it to the “Center” of town, a quarter-mile from my apartment: there is a gas station, an old hotel that was converted into a restaurant, a small grocery store, and a pharmacy. The cause of a lot of the backups became evident when I saw people were holding up traffic trying to get into the single joined parking lot of these places, which was packed. The gas station had hand-lettered signs taped to cones blocking the two entrances reading “PUMPS DOWN – NO GAS”. I knew the owners of the grocery store, so I pulled into the driveway of their houses, located next to their store.
Walking up to the store I saw that they were only letting in people two at a time, and only if there was cash they could show to pay for their purchases. I could hear a LOT of arguing from those without cash, and they all had a “why I’m important and you need to let me in” story. There was no violence at that point, just a lot of postulating. People with children (either there or at home) were the loudest in their protests, with some even offering to leave their credit card with the owners if they could make purchases. That was when I first started to feel fear: watching some of the woman in the crowd working themselves into sobbing hysterics because they were unable to even get a gallon of water for their kids. There were many unknowns at this point, the primary one being just how long this would last.
I went to the back of the building where the daughter of one of the owners was standing watch at the door leading to the garbage dumpsters. Thankfully she recognized me and quietly called to her sister, who was just inside that entrance. Before her sister approached the door I saw her set down a shotgun, and the reality of the situation hit me hard: they were prepared for anything. Being very careful not to let anyone see what we were doing (we were out of any immediate line of sight from the front), I gave them my cash, and they grabbed me a few packs of cigarettes. I made it a point only to get what I could put in my purse, and quickly left, not even waiting to get my change back.
I walked back to my car and finished the ride home. Pulling into my parking spot I noticed how quiet it was without the sound of air conditioners running. That was my first realization that my third-floor apartment was in for one heck of a warm-up if the electricity didn’t come back on soon. When I got up to my apartment door I saw my two friends who were supposed to be meeting me. Rather than try to fight traffic to get home they opted to just come to my house for the night as originally planned.
The first thing I did upon entering the apartment was RUN for the bathroom; after sitting in the car for four hours I really had to go! I had heard on the car radio that the Detroit water supply feeding most of the surrounding communities was either compromised or had no pressure, and anyone who still had water should boil it first. My thought was that I had one flush left in the toilet if I had no water, so we needed to make it count. The first thing I did was turn on the sink faucet, and the comforting sound of water pouring out made me realized I was one of the lucky few who still had it, as the lines were fed off of an independent township supply that had backup generators. There were several air-bursts in the line as it ran (which meant the pressure had been compromised), but at that moment I was still better off than 95% of the Northeast. My two friends who were patiently waiting to use the bathroom decided they would be staying for the duration for the outage, since they had well water fed by an electric pump that wouldn’t be working. We were SO lucky to have water.
The apartment was slightly warming up, and the thermometer I had on my balcony was hovering just over the 95 degree mark. The internal temperature was still cooler, so we kept the windows shut. Like most 20something females I had many decorative candles around the apartment that were finally put into use. Lesson 3: Burning many different types of scented candles will give anyone with allergies (or those sensitive to perfumed smells) a pretty severe headache.
We checked the gas on the stovetop, and found it would work when lit with a lighter. Since heating the apartment was a concern we opted instead to open the refrigerator and eat sandwiches for dinner, keeping the freezer closed. Any apartment in Michigan with more than 1 story is forbidden to allow residents to own grills (smaller Hibachis are allowed, but must be used at least 40 feet from the structure), so that wasn’t an option for us. I also had a fully stocked wine rack with twenty bottles (SCORE!), so we popped opened a few and settled in.
When the sun went down we could see there was a huge bonfire in the backyard of the closest house to the apartment complex and about fifty people were hanging around. Being curious (and quite frankly, a little intoxicated at that point), we locked up the apartment and walked over. It turned out to be a mix of people from both the surrounding neighborhood and the apartments having what they called a “No Power Party”, all sharing whatever alcohol they had on hand and cooking a lot of different meats from their rapidly defrosting freezers on several grills. We walked back to the apartment to get a couple of bottles of wine (my mom taught me to never walk into a party empty handed!), and the events of that first night get a little fuzzy after that. The only time reality really came crashing in was when my brother called me in a panic, convinced our grandfather was going to burn them all alive with his antique kerosene lamps (the wicks were really old and kept popping with sparks). The situation was quickly solved when I told him to remind my grandmother that the beautiful glass paraffin candles I got her for Christmas the year before weren’t just decorative, and she could actually light them. Crisis averted.
DAY 2, Friday:
We all woke up just before 7am with mild hangovers. I looked longingly at the coffee machine and whispered “I miss you…”. Since we weren’t sure if the water was entirely safe, it dawned on us that we were going to have to boil some and let it cool for drinking. I had a half-full bottle of soda in the now slightly cool fridge, so that was our only real option for rehydration unless we wanted to drink newly boiled hot water (which no one did). The other thing we quickly noticed was that the apartment was no longer cooler than outside, and we were all sweating. The windows were opened, but it was little relief as there was no breeze and the humidity was very high.
We walked down to my car to sit in the air conditioning for a few minutes and see if the news was reporting anything new. I had a little over 1/8 of a tank of gas left (and my friends had coasted in on fumes), so I didn’t want to run the car for long; the closest gas station was the one I passed the afternoon before, and I already knew no power = no pumps. The news was reporting that almost no communities had power yet, and those with extensive damage would take longer to restore (there were reports of transformers blowing in a domino effect). Any call to Detroit Electric was automatically routed to a message that said “No estimates are being given at this time”.
We got out of the car, not sure what to do. We had running water, a decent amount of food (though cooking it would be a miserably hot experience), and absolutely no idea what to do from there. It was at that moment I felt the first real panic starting to creep in: what were we supposed to do once our food ran out? What if the water suddenly stopped working?
While we were standing in the creepy silence we were all startled by the sound of many air conditioners whirring into life. My little town was now one of the few with actual power! The three of us started shrieking in delight, jumping up and down. After that initial reaction we made a beeline for the apartment to close windows, turn on the A/C, and use the still-hot boiled water to make a pot of coffee. That is still to this day the best damn cup of coffee I’ve ever had in my life: the one I wasn’t sure was coming again.
I called my brother and two other close friends to let them know I had water AND power. My brother was the only one with good news: my grandparents also had power and water. My two other friends were still in the dark without water, and their responses were the same: we’re coming to your place. They both showed up a few hours later (the gridlock streets from yesterday were now mostly abandoned), carrying duffel bags and two coolers full of items from their defrosting freezers. My brother called me to tell me he was on his way over as well. He showed up with four of his friends and two more coolers full of freezer food, and all of them were begging to use the shower (or in the case of one woefully embarrassed looking buddy, “Can I please poop here?”).
With ten people now in the apartment we set about making the crowded situation work: meats that were still decently frozen were put in the freezer, and everything else was kept in coolers while the fridge chilled back down. A couple of the girls and I inventoried what we now had (people had brought over a LOT of chicken and ground beef that were getting close to room temperature), and put an assortment of bone-in chicken cuts into the oven to bake. Not knowing how long this would last (and having ten mouths to feed using only what we had on hand), I put together a list of meals that I could make by stretching what we inventoried and what was in the cupboards. Thankfully I was a decent cook and had fairly well stocked cupboards, so as that first chicken meal cooked I came up with two meals every day for seven days. It wasn’t going to be gourmet fare and there wasn’t going to be enough for seconds, but everyone would eat. Simple and preferably one(or at max, two) dish meals: macaroni and cheese mixed with browned ground beef and seasonings (the guys loved that one and called it “Blackout Hamburger Helper”), diced chicken and canned vegetables in gravy poured over Bisquick biscuits, BBQ meat, “Everything Soup” (where I just kept putting whatever meats were in single/small packages in the pot with canned vegetables and seasonings), etc. Seasonings got low pretty quickly cooking in bulk, and we had to boil a LOT of water for ten people. Soups/Stews were the easiest, as I could keep tossing in ingredients and it was a very effective way to feed everyone. Potatoes and rice were great for bulking up any meal to make it stretch, but we unfortunately ran out of those pretty quickly.
We mostly watched news reports the first two days: there were only two stations reporting from locations that had power, and they were showing chaos at gas stations and grocery stores that had gotten power back. It was widely reported that water was impossible to find at stores, propane was gone, and if you were looking for a grill or a generator you were out of luck. There was a lot of urging to stay calm, and repeated warnings for everyone to boil water coming back out of the taps. That evening we watched some DVDs, and it was amusing trying to get halfway comfortable sleeping situations for nine extra people. A coin toss narrowed down who got the big couch to sleep on (my brother’s friend won, and was promptly rolled off onto the floor by my brother), only one of my friends was short enough to comfortably sleep on the loveseat, two of my girlfriends slept in my King Size bed with me, and everyone else slept on the carpeted floor. All of my towels, extra sheets, and bulky winter clothes were used as pillows or blankets. Also, in close quarters all modesty pretty much goes out the window, and you get to know the hygiene/toilet habits of those around your pretty quickly.
Day 3, Saturday:
Three of my female friends and two male friends had power restored by that evening and went back home. That left one female friend and three men (including my brother) at the apartment. We ran out of toilet paper, but had plenty of paper towels left. Laundry detergent was getting low (compounded by my brother’s less-than-genius friends bringing only food and no changes of clothes). Having less people there meant more food for the rest of us, but we didn’t know exactly when they would be able to go home so we didn’t want to get crazy with eating. All three local news stations had full power back, and it looked like everyone was calming down a bit, though most stores were still showing huge crowds. I decided not to risk it after seeing reports of gas price gouging and some people being arrested after getting into fights at grocery stores.
I also noticed this was the day that annoyances started to run higher. The two female friends who had joined us on Friday and two of my brother’s friends were more like casual acquaintances instead of good friends, and were less than willing to conserve what we had (the females were the reason the toilet paper was gone so fast, and the guys were now NOT happy about only being able to get one serving of food). Had this been a true SHTF situation I would not have wanted them with us long term. It was already a stressful enough situation even without their inability to adapt adding to the aggravation. Since that event, we are no longer friends with any of those four.
Day 4, Sunday:
The power was restored for all three guys, leaving only one female friend at my apartment. That afternoon more and more locations were reporting power back on, so after stopping to gas up my car (the corner gas station was open and wasn’t busy as only locals were stopping) we drove 45 minutes north and found a grocery store that was open. It was very busy, but a “regular” busy. Nothing like the panic I saw only a few hours after the lights went out (or the aggressive way some people were still acting on Saturday). The grocery store my friends owned had a sign out front reading “Temporarily Closed”, and I later found out that a lot of stores had simply been bought out of almost everything they had in stock.
My last remaining female friend ended up staying with me for nine days total – her neighborhood power was that badly damaged. She was able to go home to get clothes and personal items to make the stay easier. My offices were closed on Monday, but by Tuesday we were back up and running.
Comparing stories later, my town was definitely one of the safest places to be (and we were very comfortable, compared to the rest of those affected). Every recounting was the same: stores were chaos, and there was an undercurrent of panic that was being held back only because there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. If it had lasted much longer I know in my heart that civility would have evaporated completely. Most people banded together in groups, joining those with basic services (and you found out pretty fast who was like-minded in trying to make the best out of the situation, and who regressed into petty immaturity and wastefulness). Neighborhoods used it as an excuse to finally meet the people living around them, but in doing so also exposed in plain sight every resource they had, which would have created problems when people ran out of basic necessities.
I definitely learned a lot of lessons in the first four days, and vowed not to be caught unprepared ever again.August 11, 2014 at 3:23 pm #21603
I moved here in 2004. I quickly found that I was the end of both the food chain and electricity line. Storms downed trees/limbs into the lines. Snow/ice made getting to the store impossible. I started my prepping then. Later made friends of some of the volunteers here and found they prepped. Things took off from there.
RobinAugust 11, 2014 at 4:37 pm #21608
Its always interesting to see how some people react and respond to bad situations.
Friends and acquaintances quickly begin to rub people wrong, depending on their level of knowledge and experience. And very few think anout what to bring beyond the first 24 hours. Your TP experience being a perfect example.
Make notes about what you remember, the little things just as much as the big ones, as the little things will nag at you and make things even more miserable.
Great story and learning experience. Thanks for relating it.August 11, 2014 at 5:41 pm #21611
Amanda I am glad you came through your ordeal ok and were enlightened by your experience. What you described reminds me a lot of what happens in coastal areas when a hurricane hits. I’m sure you have learned many things since this happened and some of my suggestions you may already know.
1. If you still have running water fill your bathtub.(you never know when water may quit working). They also sell collapsible plastic tub liners you can fill. http://beprepared.com/aquapodkit-emergency-water-storage.html
2. Never let your gas tank get below a quarter of a tank. I would also suggest taking a gas can with gas in it and driving your car from a quarter of a tank till it runs out of gas and noting the mileage. This way you will know more precisely how far you can go in an emergency on 1/4 tank. Learn how to change your fuel filter and keep a spare in your vehicle. Running your car out of gas can suck trash from the bottom of the tank and clog your filter cutting off fuel to the engine.
3. Get with family members/friends and have a plan in place for future events. Being that you live in a small apartment you might even work out a plan of who brings what in an emergency. That would help you only keep the absolute necessities in your limited space.August 11, 2014 at 5:45 pm #21612
Oh I forgot to add, Always keep some cash hidden in your car. Find some door panel or in the spring frame of your seat cushions to hide it. That way even if your car gets broken into its not in the normal hiding places and is less likely to be found.August 11, 2014 at 7:03 pm #21617
Hello Matt76! Those are all great ideas I actually have in practice now, I was actually just retelling the story so anyone who hasn’t ever been in a situation where a person is caught off guard (like I was then) could read some of the things I experienced.
The blackout was over ten years ago, and since then I’ve made a complete turnaround from the way I was living. The trendy third-floor apartment is long gone, replaced with our permanent home that is better hidden and well packed with supplies. I’m still working on the network of people, but I’m hopeful I’ll be able to fill that gap. The clueless chick from that story definitely learned her lesson that in a true SHTF scenario there is no one coming to save the day. And also, you can never have enough toilet paper and wine.August 12, 2014 at 12:01 am #21665
Great story, and well told. I wish we would have a similar event around here, of a magnitude that does not spiral out of control, but is a great primer for the participants. One can never have too much preparation, unless it is unbalanced…
"ROGUE ELECTRICIAN" Hoping to be around to re-energize the New World.....
Cogito, ergo armatus sumAugust 12, 2014 at 12:03 am #21666
PS: As you may have noted, I am an electrician.
People DO blame every blip on an electrician when they are AROUND!
I have a few experiences like that
Most times it is hilariously NOT our fault, but if it is, we warn people ahead of time
"ROGUE ELECTRICIAN" Hoping to be around to re-energize the New World.....
Cogito, ergo armatus sumAugust 12, 2014 at 5:16 am #21679
Excellent story, well written too. I am glad that you learned a lesson from this! I have had my power go out, but never more than 6-7 hours at a time.
I wish this would happen around here, my girlfriend’s family really needs a lesson! They are the biggest problem in my bug out plans!August 12, 2014 at 8:25 am #21683
Yes Indeed, White Knight!
A medium to small scale, short term blackout would be an excellent opportunity to get some sheeple to
"ROGUE ELECTRICIAN" Hoping to be around to re-energize the New World.....
Cogito, ergo armatus sumAugust 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm #21691
I’m sure you’ve been assigned responsibility for more than your fair share of outages, undeR, since we always look for the easiest to blame!!
The incredibly frustrating part was that even after this experience not ONE of the people staying with me gained any knowledge from it. I’ve often wondered if the experience was too easy on them, and they weren’t truly affected because they were “safe” in my apartment, so it was like a little adventure to them instead of being an eye-opening experience.
There will always be people who will simply expect to be saved. From what I experienced these will be the fastest depletion of your resources because they are unable or unwilling to adapt to a new reality around them. Looking back I can see that announcing what I had was a serious mistake: if it had continued much longer we would have had a serious problem on our hands. Not only with the lack of resources, but also a group that was only half loyal.August 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm #21733
Great story. I remember that day too, though fortunately where I lived in MA at the time, the power just flickered a couple times and then stayed on. The amazing part if that most the 50 million or so people that lost power are no better prepared today than they were back then. Some people can’t be helped.August 13, 2014 at 12:18 am #21800
I’m sure you’ve been assigned responsibility for more than your fair share of outages, RGR, since we always look for the easiest to blame!!
Yes, I have felt that…
I was once accused (or my shop was) of trying to rip off an older lady, I had bought 2 baseboard heaters to replace the two that she had told me had quit working. 1 had worked great and had quit, the other one had worked sporadically and now not at all. So I was prepared to replace BOTH. The house was way out in the hills. A good Boy Scout is PREPARED!
Once I tore into the first heater, (it had worked normally then quit) I found it to be BAD. But the second heater was wired to it in such a way that it only came on when the first one called for heat. Hence the sporadic operation (the second one could not turn on unless both rooms were cold). These should NEVER be connected this way. So I fixed the connections, and told the elderly lady that it was Good News, she only needed 1 heater.
By the time I got back to the shop, the lady’s son had called up and chewed out my boss, assuming that someone had tried to pull a fast one. He must have misunderstood what had actually happened, or was just stupid. If we were trying to rip her off, why would I have just replaced one???
Sometimes the good deed does not go unpunished, but I wished it would have! LOL
"ROGUE ELECTRICIAN" Hoping to be around to re-energize the New World.....
Cogito, ergo armatus sumAugust 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm #21839
I hear you there undeR, honest work is hard to find (as we’ve learned as we renovate our home), but once you find those quality people you do NOT let them go. Same goes on the opposite hand for customers: there will always be some dishonest ones who will do whatever they can to score something for free or have quality work discounted because they feel they are entitled.
This is part of the frustration I’m experiencing with trying to find a network of like-minded people: it is really hard to trust people nowadays. People feel they are simply entitled to their way of life, and don’t feel it is necessary to learn new skills or prepare because there will always be someone to swoop in and fix the situation.August 13, 2014 at 12:32 pm #21840
Something that I do to make myself a preferred customer with local contractors is I pay them the day I get their bill. The other thing is I don’t nickel and dime them.
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