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

November 12, 2012 06:00 AM ET

We get some good news in the afternoon: Con Ed's site now says that restoration of power is estimated for November 8th at 11 p.m., a day sooner than anticipated. I'll believe it when I see the lights go on.

But just as I'm reading this update, the doorbell rings. (Yes, we decided we couldn't do without that bell.) A Con Ed worker is at the door. I'm hopeful until he asks if we have power. As odd as it sounds, he's driving around the neighborhood asking who has power and who doesn't. Surreal and funny, but I'm not laughing.

Wednesday, Nov. 7: Second storm coming

As if Sandy's impact wasn't enough, there's another storm bearing down on us: a nor'easter that promises to bring snow, sleet and colder weather. Adding insult to injury, it could throw a monkey wrench into keeping the lights on.

To get ready, I swing back into storm prep mode, making sure my gasoline jugs are filled and that the generator is sheltered from the snow by an old tarp. I also try to buy more batteries for our flashlights but run into a snag: I can't get the D batteries that most of our flashlights run on for love or money. The people at the local Home Depot say they sold out faster than generators or lanterns.

Thursday, Nov. 8: Winter wonderland

I awake to a white world, with trees weighed down by a coating of wet snow. There are another 100,000 power users blacked out in the area. I hope we stay at or near the front of the line for repairs. Although Con Ed's site hasn't changed our estimated power restoration time of 11:00 p.m. tonight, it seems in danger of being just a pipe dream.

After filling up the generator's fuel tank, I shovel snow and get back to work. We get a stroke of meteorological good luck: It's a sunny day and the temperature rises to 50 degrees. By noon a good deal of the snow has already melted.

Con Ed worker in bucket
A Con Ed worker repairs power lines.

It's 1 p.m. and I might be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. There are now two Con Ed bucket trucks working on the downed power line near the house.

The linemen are stringing new cables while avoiding falling snowballs from the trees swaying in the wind.

Friday, Nov. 9: Back on the grid at last

I'm up at dawn. The good news is that most of the block now has power. The bad news is that there are still six or seven houses that are dark -- and we're one of them. It seems that my hopes were a tad premature.

Then, at 7:45 a.m. a line crew from Northern Louisiana shows up in an Entergy pickup truck. They play with the transformer down the street and five minutes later we're finally back online.

My work isn't done, though, because I need to safely disconnect the generator. To keep from electrocuting myself or burning down the house, I start by turning off its dedicated circuit breaker. Next, I turn off the generator and then unplug it from the house. Finally, one at a time, I turn all the circuit breakers on.

What a relief to have full power again.

Lessons learned

Sandy taught me several valuable lessons about preparing for and recovering from a disaster. To start, you need to consider every scenario if you have the luxury of knowing a disaster like a megastorm is coming. And you always need to be prepared for unpredictable things like earthquakes.

Figure that the power will go off. Create a plan to maintain your lifestyle.

In this day and age, you can't count on Con Ed or any utility to do what it's supposed to do: provide reliable power. Yes, the utility had hundreds of thousands of customers without power, many worse off than we were. Nevertheless, nearly ten and a half days is a long time to be off the grid -- and after Wednesday's nor'easter, there were still 761,000 people without power in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The bigger realization is that having power is key to a 21st century lifestyle, plain and simple. While we didn't shiver in the dark, it only left me wishing we had more juice. When the lights go out, you need to find a way to replace the electricity, whether that means using your laptop to charge your phone, going to a library to charge your laptop, or even getting a generator.

As part of a home renovation, we're getting a permanent generator that will give us between 17 and 20 kilowatts of power during a blackout. That's between twice and three times the output of the portable generator and roughly what we use in everyday life. We figure with the wiring and installation, it will cost us about $10,000.

We'll fuel it from the natural gas line that we use for heating and cooking. It'll not only start automatically when the lights go out, but will not require prodigious amounts of gasoline and will cost less to use.

So the next time the lights dim, we'll be ready. I hope.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about Disaster Recovery in Computerworld's Disaster Recovery Topic Center.

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