Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NYSEG Vs. Us Vs. NYSEG, Part 1 of 2

SUNDAY, March 6
Nobody anticipated how bad the storm would be. Sunday morning I heard we’d get heavy rain, turning into perhaps an inch of snow around midnight. After this winter, that didn’t sound bad. In hindsight, the local authorities and NYSEG likely thought the same.

The winds grew heavier after dark. I could hear branches snapping and torrential rain pelting my windows. The power went out for the first time at about 9:30. I sat in the dark for less than ten minutes before everything popped back on. When it went out for the second time, I shut down my computer and simply went to bed.

MONDAY, March 7
I woke to the sounds of chainsaws. The lights were still off. It was so cold that I put on several layers of clothing just to head downstairs. My neighbor Rick and four other men were buzzing fallen trees near the road outside my house. It turned out that the rains had loosened tree roots, then froze to the branches as the temperature dropped. Between the weight of the ice and the high winds, trees fell into the road and froze to the pavement. It had all ended as an ice storm, so that while our winter snows had melted, they froze back into craggy ice. Only the biggest truck could four-wheel its way up our road. I couldn't even walk it.

This birch was straight upright on Saturday.

We phoned NYSEG. Their automated system informed me that at least 7,600 homes in the “Mechanicville Division” were without power, including 944 in my immediate area. This was much worse than anyone had expected, but at least if so many people were reporting outages then NYSEG would now know to send extra crews. I was surprised when the recording said we’d have power back by that afternoon.

Two years ago I was stranded powerless in an ice storm here and it had been over three days before they got around to our hill. Maybe NYSEG had drawn up a more efficient plan to counter that.

With the chill coming through our walls, I got to work. I pulled out a propane stove to make coffee and cocoa. As the freezer thawed, I put new bags in the garbage cans and filled them with all our goods, then deposited them in the snow banks on our deck. When the living room hit meat locker temperatures, I dug out my old fat-pants and put those on over my existing layers.

When the power didn’t come back that afternoon, I called again. Now the system said 11:00 PM, which was still admirably fast. I got out candles and readied dinner. I made tacos on the propane stove by flashlight. Just like the pioneers, I joked.

I went to bed early, leaving one light switch on to alert when we got power back.

TUESDAY, March 8
Instead of electric lights, I woke up to the sun shining between my curtains. We didn't have power. I dialed with my gloves on and learned that there were at least 6800 without power that Tuesday morning, including 944 in my area. The lack of progress was odd. Why would they have expected us to have power back yesterday if they’d done so little that not one house was back online?

Our branch of roads has its share of problems. One neighbor at the end of my road has sleep apnea and relies on a machine to get through the night. On our adjoining road lives a woman who is dying of cancer. I have myriad health problems, including a neuromuscular syndrome that intensifies in pain with the more stress I endure. Soaking in a bath is one of the few effective ways to reduce my muscle spasms. Already my right hand was trembling. I can only imagine what being without power was like for my neighbors.

I called a local handyman for help with the road. The ice on the road was melted too low for his plow to scrape, but he brought a mixture of salt and sand. He shoveled the mixture over my driveway and up the road, moving a few inches at a time. As he tossed shovelfuls, he relayed his experience. The ice storm had knocked over trees and telephones polls, sheering some clean through. He described a local thoroughfare as looking "like a bomb went off." He'd only lost power for a night, but people in his network said the branch roads, like this one, might not see electricity for a week. I thanked him, paid and told him to stay warm, and headed for the phone.

Now the system said we'd have power back by 11:00 PM tonight. That didn't instill confidence. But Mom didn't want to leave the covers; her back hurt and it felt safer under the blankets. After assuring her I wouldn't be gone long, I went to test the roads.

Our area is full of woodlands, and every tree out there was encased in ice. They looked like bark bones under diamond skin. Many were dismembered, thousands of branches littering the roads. It got stranger when I crossed the flooded zones; it was cold enough for still water to freeze, but the ground tables had filled up on Sunday, leaving several areas overrun. Roads alternated between clean, tracks of ice, and flowing streams.

Geese discussing global warming in what is normally a field.

The Red Cross set up a warming station at the local high school. A police officer smirked at me as I came through the doors in all my layers and thermal hood, as though to say, "I know what you're here for." Everyone was cordial. They had bottled water, coffee and bagged snacks. The rep who helped me offered whatever I needed and even went to the back to scrounge leftover soup from their lunch. She recommended I return with my family tonight, since they were closing up tomorrow at 8 AM. I asked if that was when the power was expected. She got nervous and insisted that she didn't know anything.

I checked for news at the library. It was a worldly thing to do. Also, it was heated.

Reports conflicted. Some people were saying the crisis was already over - likely some of the thousand people who had it restored, or had never lost it. There were more estimates about when all the ice would melt than there were for NYSEG finishing the job.

I also browsed the national news, curious to see if we were being covered. The top story was that Obama was considering military intervention in Libya, which I immediately conceded was more prescient than this. Scrolling down I saw ensuing stories about Charlie Sheen and Mike Huckabee's opinion of Natalie Portman. Nothing about thousands of people without power in freezing weather.

Parking lot of the warming shelter.

The roads weren’t reliable enough to stay out too long, and my syndrome was picking up.  I passed three downed wires on the way, including one sparking in a large puddle. There were no NYSEG trucks on these roads. Not a single cherrypicker or electric utility van.

At 5:00 PM NYSEG’s automated voice estimated our area would see power by 10 AM Wednesday morning. We still had 944 people in our area without electricity, out of 4,900 homes. I slept in my jacket.

Click here to continue to Part 2.


  1. This is intense, and I'm glad you wrote it to share the experience. Although I feel like a terrible person because every time I wanted to comment about this on twitter, it just turned into a horrible pun.

    "This chilling account of the New York Ice Storm..." No.

    "@Wiswell's telling of an ice storm really freezes the blood..." No.

    "That's no way to spend a week..." No.

    So, let's just leave it that you're a powerful writer, I hope the news feeds pick this up, and that it's way too easy to make horrible puns about cold weather.

  2. WOW I had no idea it was that bad. I'm glad it's over for you.

  3. You might as well stop calling for the report. When we had the hurricanes through here back in 2005, I was without electricity for 8 days. Luckily I wasn't freezing but it had its own level of discomfort I can assure you. Anyway, I called Progress Energy for updates just like you are doing. It was always later today or tomorrow. I think it’s akin to the airlines telling you that they should be ready for departure in about 20 minutes...for like 3 hours. If I'd had any clue that all those tomorrow projections were going to turn into 8 days I would have damn well drove up to Jacksonville and crashed on my brother’s couch. Good thinking with the propane stove, I set up camp in my house too. Good that you still had your sense of humor on taco night. I hope it carries you all the way through. Hang in there J.W.

  4. I'm glad you are safe but I wish you you were warm. that looks like quite an ordeal. Hope everything is back to normal soon.

  5. This is absolutely incredible, John. The photos are unbelievable, not to mention the lack of response by NYSEG. It's insane to think that people can be out of power so long in this day and age. Obviously repairs take time and mass amounts of repairs take longer, but you would think they could have called in reinforcements of some sort.

    I'm really glad you're posting your story and I look forward to part two.


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