Diary of a disaster: Living off the grid after Superstorm Sandy

How a tech writer and his family kept heat, lights and computers going during 10 days without utility power

I live in Pelham, N.Y., a sleepy suburb about half an hour north of New York City that was torn apart by the superstorm Sandy in late October and early November. While my wife, my son and I remained high and dry, we did lose power -- and it didn't return for more than 10 days.

We're not survivalists by any means, but we did prepare for what we thought would be the worst. A day before the storm was forecast to arrive, I collected bottled water, gassed up the family station wagon, got cash and gathered all the flashlights along with spare batteries.

It was a start, but as it turns out, not nearly enough. Here's our day-to-day story of living off the grid.

Monday, Oct. 29: Lights out

Just as the storm's winds hit their peak, our lights go out at 9:30 p.m. We dutifully grab flashlights and extra blankets for the cold night ahead, hoping the lights will be back on in the morning. We're not alone -- something like 8 million people are without power on the East Coast.

Tuesday, Oct. 30: Assessing the situation
downed tree on power lines
A tree toppled during the storm rests on downed power lines.

A quick walk around the neighborhood in the morning shows dozens of hundred-year old trees hanging on power lines and many live wires in the streets. But we were lucky -- the scenes of devastation on the Jersey Shore and Staten Island make our plight seem like a mild inconvenience.

We hunker down, get a fire going in the fireplace and try to carry on as if we really don't need electricity. While we don't have power and heat, we do have Internet service, thanks to a handy Samsung SCH-LC11 mobile hotspot. It connects with Verizon's LTE 4G mobile data network and transmits a Wi-Fi signal. Unfortunately, Verizon's network coverage is often spotty due to lots of blacked-out cell towers combined with the onslaught of phone and Internet traffic from people trying to connect with family, friends and colleagues.

One of the things we do during the day is look at the website for Consolidated Edison, our power utility. The site has a map of the storm damage, and at first it doesn't even acknowledge that we are off the grid. Later it notes that our outage is "pending." With many trees still on the power lines all around us and no sight of repair trucks, it's hard to say what's pending.

Wednesday, Oct. 31: No tricks, no treats

To no one's surprise, there isn't any trick-or-treating for this year's Halloween, which leaves bags of candy for us to eat. We're getting the power-free lifestyle down at this point. With lanterns and flashlights everywhere, it feels like camping out at home.

We have our phones and the Internet, but the batteries for the hotspot and phones don't last forever. We do, however, know a digital survival trick: Most new laptops have the ability to power a USB device, like a phone or hotspot, while being turned off themselves. Fortunately, our Sony Vaio T13 ultrabook was fully charged when the storm hit. I start it up, enable the USB Sleep Charge feature and turn the system off. It has enough juice to charge our devices one at a time for three days.

TrippLite PV-375 power inverter
A power inverter like the TrippLite PV-375 can provide AC power from a car's cigarette lighter.

That takes care of the phones and hotspot for now, but all three of us have laptops that need charging. I connect a TrippLite PV-375 power inverter to the cigarette lighter outlet on my car and let the engine idle.

The PV-375 has two 110-volt outlets and, as the name implies, it can pump out 375 watts of continuous power and up to 600 watts for brief periods. It's protected with a 40-amp fuse should something go wrong.

Finally, I snake a 50-foot extension cord from the car to the living room, where we plug in our computers to charge up. It also is able to power our cable modem and Wi-Fi router for Internet access. The setup looks like a cross between Rube Goldberg and MacGyver, but it works. We use it for about three hours, then shut it down when the room starts getting cold from having the window open for the cord.

Thursday, Nov. 1: Power hungry

My wife goes back to work, and my son and I go to the New Rochelle Public Library, which has power. We charge up our notebooks and get some work done using the library's Wi-Fi. While he connects with friends on Facebook, I work on a website that I oversee and try not to fall too far behind on writing assignments.

We're not alone. It seems that everyone for miles around is here. There are dozens of people trolling the floor looking for an unoccupied AC outlet. As soon as we leave, our spots -- and outlets -- are taken.

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