10 Lessons from the Big Power Outage of 2011

Enlightening thoughts from a former devotee to all things tech.

Unless you were hiding in a cave somewhere in the mountains, you are now all too familiar about The Big Power Outage of 2011.

Almost 5 million people were in the dark on Thursday. Although the darkness was initially off-putting and grossly inconvenient, it shed some light on certain aspects of our lives.

Here are my top 10 lessons learned:

 1.    Emergency kits aren’t like Tupperware – don’t put them off until tomorrow.

You know how you always see that really cool Tupperware container that transforms into a bowl, pitcher and robot servant, and think, “I really need to buy that. Someday….”

That’s how my husband and I approached our emergency kit. We knew we really needed to get one together, but we figured tomorrow would be plenty enough time, whenever that would be.

Thankfully, I freaked out one day and got half of the kit together, which meant we had enough water and granola bars on Thursday. But left the flashlights for every person in the house for “tomorrow,” which meant we were creeping up and down the stairs with only our cell phones to guide the way.

 2.    Sometimes Grandma really does know best.

My mom knows what it’s like to be without electricity. At 77, she also knows what it’s like to be without a TV, computer and digital phone.

When the blackout occurred, she quickly gathered candles, including two tapered ones for the dining room table.

I shooed them away, thinking the fat candles in my fancy shabby chic lantern were good enough.

Who’d have thought those two tapered candles would wind up providing more light than three fancy fat candles together?

My mom knew. Good thing she left the candles despite my refusal to use them right away. She also immediately filled containers of water, pulled out the canned goods and reminded us that we needed to start conserving water before any city official made such a formal announcement.

She more than earned her Grandparents Day brunch Thursday – she earned the kind of respect I usually reserve for that guy on “Man vs. Wild.”

 3.    Neighbors. Can’t live with ‘em, but you can’t grill without ‘em.

Everyone I know had barbecue for dinner. For some people, that meant joining forces with the people next door. One of my friends said she and her boyfriend had the food and her neighbor had the grill. “We needed each other,” she said with a laugh.

It’s not a bad idea to do this again, even with the lights on. A familiarity with our neighbors is something we’ve sacrificed for increased privacy and isolated living.

 “Something positive came out of the blackout,” said another friend, whose family gathered with neighbors to listen to the football game. “We made a lot of new friends.”

 4.    Desperation breeds gourmet meals.

My husband, Derek, said he learned how versatile a gas grill could be on Thursday. He’s not kidding – he actually made instant ramen on our grill. He also, however, grilled salmon to go with blueberries and bread drizzled with honey.

As we sat around the table enjoying our dinner, we were surprised by how good everything tasted. Who knew we were so spoiled by our stove and microwave?

 5.    Unplug.

There’ve been many nights spent on the couch with my husband surfing the ‘net, my daughter playing with the iPad and me zoning out on mindless TV.

Thursday night forced us to step away from our usual toys and spend the night together, with just the radio on to keep us informed.

I admit – our forced quality time was pretty great. We’ve since agreed to spend one day a week unplugged and turned off. And although my husband only acquiesced after football nights were taken off the table, I think we’re excited for this return to innocence.

6.    Husbands don’t die without football.

As you may have learned from his negotiating tactic above, my husband is a football fanatic. He’ll watch a good high school game, a game involving our college alma mater, or any NFL game on TV.

Thursday night left him without game. That night, Derek’s fantasy football quarterback, Drew Brees, threw for three touchdowns, and still lost to the Green Bay Packers 42-34.

While he may have felt sick to miss the big NFL season kickoff, he didn’t die. And that's good to know when choosing between time with family or fantasy football stats.

 7.    Cell phones aren’t always so smart.

When the power first shut off, my office mate and I tried to call our families. Our cell phone service was spotty at best. She finally gave up, vowing to throw her smartphone into the next state.

Having grown up in Hawaii, I know the importance of a landline. During hurricane season, landline telephones still function in a blackout. We were glad to have our office landline available to call out and check on our loved ones. After this experience, I'm convinced everyone should have a landline in addition to a cell phone.

 8.    Take a daily shower.

While we should all work to conserve water, a daily shower is a sound idea. I thought about taking a shower the morning of the blackout, but figured I’d have time to do it when I got home. That night I sat there and worried my family would now detect my questionable hygiene with what had to be their now-heightened olfactory senses.

Thank heavens for deodorant. 

9.    There are stars outside of Hollywood.

One of my neighbors said the power outage was a nice change, because “you could see more stars in the sky with the lights from the city gone.” It’s sad to think we’ve become so power-dependent that we’re missing the stars. Seeing them again Thursday night reminded me of the vastness of a universe I still don’t really understand.

Humility isn’t a bad thing, humanity. We need to try it more often.

10. Sometimes it’s okay to just be.

After we ate our grilled gourmet meal and listened to the radio, we sat there and tried to enjoy the night, lit only by candles. We couldn’t correspond with clients, write stories or research online.

I forgot how nice quiet could be. The break from life as we know it in 2011 was a welcome reprieve.

While I may not want another power outage like the one we had on Thursday, I’m definitely going to apply some of those lessons to my newly electrified life.

Elizabeth September 12, 2011 at 02:37 AM
I learned that my husband and I are a good team. He panics just enough that he made me buy tons of water (our neighborhood was without water; we're just ending a 3-day Boil Order), but I stay calm enough to keep the kids (esp. the 7-year-old) from freaking out. While he was the one who practically ordered me to hang up the phone and go buy water, I -- on my own -- thought to throw a cooler into the trunk before buying ice; to stop first at an ATM for cash (the ATM at Union Bank still worked, even though the bank itself was without power) and to try local mom-and-pop stores that would likely continue to operate on a cash-only basis rather than close (got a great deal on some Ben and Jerry's ice cream at a liquor store on Lake Murray Blvd.). My husband had just smoked several slabs of meat over Labor Day weekend, so we opened the freezer just long enough to grab a tri tip (and some frozen margaritas) to take over to the neighbors' house. We were also reminded that we have awesome neighbors. Fortunately, it didn't take a blackout to get to know them, but it was a great opportunity to hang out with them for a few hours.
Genevieve Suzuki September 12, 2011 at 06:04 AM
Thanks, Elizabeth, for sharing this! You were clearly smarter than us - we neglected to purchase ice or to keep cash on hand, something we should all keep in mind, if possible.
Linkat September 12, 2011 at 11:19 AM
Luckily my husband and I were at home when the blackout occurred. Since we had just been camping a couple of weeks previous, we had lanterns and flashlights handy. I always have plenty of candles and went through the neighborhood handing them out to those who needed them. That evening, hubby and I drank wine and played bridge by moonlight and lanterns then took a soak in the jacuzzi before heading to bed in the mattresses we had waiting to be picked up the next day by the guys who were bringing our new mattresses. What an adventure we had!
Linkat September 12, 2011 at 11:25 AM
Now all we have to do to be prepared for another emergency is to go through our emergency clothes and replace them with items that are not too old or small. I know I have a pair of shocking pink sweats and a few tops that I would have to be homeless to wear. Oooops! I guess I would be homeless if I had to dig in to that pile of old clothes.


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