This piece originally ran in a similar but better-edited form in The Magazine for iOS. Download the app, subscribe, and read more good stuff.
They warned us that Sandy was coming. They warned us not to be complacent, not to assume that Sandy would, like Irene before it, largely leave our corner of New Jersey unscathed. We slept in the basement for Irene, our kids nervous about the storm and what damage it might bring despite our reassurances. It’s unpleasant to sleep in the basement. We like our beds. In their bedrooms.
But Sandy would be worse than Irene, meteorologists promised. We heeded them—we thought. My wife Lauren and I are over-preparers; they say storm, we say how high—as in, how high should our cases of environmentally-unfriendly water get stacked?
We stocked up. Besides the store-bought water, we filled pitchers and Tupperwares with water from the tap; those help if the water supply runs out, and stuffing the fridge and freezer keeps those devices colder longer if the power goes out. We bought oodles of non-perishables and batteries. We topped up the sump pump’s backup battery’s acid levels, since Uncle Mort talked us through how to do it.
We took out all our flashlights, gathered the candles and matches, and, with annoyance in our hearts, prepared to sleep in the basement again. This time, though, we were smarter about it with our kids: We told them we were having a campout and left it at that. That left the girls giggly instead of panicky. We made a rookie mistake with Irene by focusing on honesty, and we learned from it.
We filled the tubs with water so that we could use them to flush the toilets if necessary. Those tubs subsequently drained themselves well before morning, and it is decidedly not the thought that counts in these situations. Luckily, we never lost water.
We did, however, lose power.
With great power comes great responsibility; with no power comes a house of pain. You use the obvious things, like the lights and the Internet. If you’re someone who reads The Magazine, you probably lose your landline, too—presuming you have one—since it’s likely a VoIP phone that dies with the Internet. When a storm wreaks havoc on the level of Sandy, it turns out that your friendly neighborhood cellphone tower might go offline too. For too long, we were stuck in our home with no direct means of contact to the outside world.
We had a couple battery-powered radios with which we could get news on occasion. The news was, essentially: Sandy is a serious bitch.
But the power doesn’t just take down the obvious stuff when it goes out. Our home uses natural gas for heat, so we hadn’t given it an extra thought. Of course, we quickly learned that the boiler also relies on electricity. It doesn’t have a plug that goes into a socket, though; it’s wired directly into a junction box in the home. My friend Adam broke his open, forked the wires directly into an extension cord, plugged that extension cord into his generator, and then sat and watched the setup for 90 minutes to make sure it didn’t start a fire. It didn’t. His house was warm.
We don’t own a generator. Despite rumors that Sandy could take out power for a week or more, I foolishly didn’t think a generator would be necessary. My father never owned a generator. I’d never used one. I knew nothing about the technology. And besides, we could make do with our flashlights and candles, I’d figured. I was wrong.
But I still feel uninformed about generators. I had no clue how to pick one, what the features to look for are, what a fair price should be, and how much gas I’d need. I didn’t know where to buy the canisters to use for gas, or if there were special things to know about safely transporting same. In short, gas generators were (and are) so far outside my mental wheelhouse that I never seriously entertained the notion of obtaining one before Sandy hit.
The house got very cold. I complained when it was in the mid-60s, and then it dropped to the mid-50s. We bundled the kids and ourselves up in winter clothes and blankets, tried to play games that involved a lot of moving around, and shivered.
I cursed myself for having failed to learn more about generators. Perhaps chauvinistically, I felt that as a father, one of my duties was to keep my family safe, and safe in this case included warm, and I’d failed them. We took walks outside to warm up—in the sense that coming back inside our cold house from the colder outdoors made the house feel a little warmer by comparison.
I hated the situation and bemoaned our family’s poor fate. Then I felt guilty about my self-pity as I reflected on the folks whose homes had suffered far worse fates. Then I kept on feeling sorry for me and my family anyway.
Kids tire of needing flashlights to see. Parents do, too. They tire of having no TV and no hot food. The novelty of eating ice cream straight out of the carton on the night the power died was forgotten; shivering together under blankets in the dark living room became the decidedly un-fun new normal.
When we sold our last house and bought this one, we cheered the new home’s lack of a fireplace; the gas fireplace in the old home had always worried us with our small kids toddling around. Now, we hated Past Lex and Lauren’s naiveté: Our neighbors with wood and gas fireplaces were staying decidedly warmer than we were.
We were jealous of their generators, too. One neighbor used an inverter hooked to his running car’s battery. That connected to an extension cord, into which he’d plugged a power strip with more extension cords. That setup powered a lamp, his HDTV, and a DVD player, which they watched from beside the wood-burning fireplace.
Meanwhile, our house was dark and cold and entirely powerless.
Monday’s blackout stretched until Tuesday, which got colder. Wednesday was colder still. Wednesday night, we tucked the girls together in one room, the baby in his crib, and us in our own bed. I woke up, freezing, again and again, panicked that it was just too damn cold for the kids, and rushing to check on them. I brought the baby into our room so he could share our body warmth. I checked on the girls and added more blankets to their beds on five separate occasions between 2am and 6am.
At 6:30am, I woke my wife and said: “We have to get out of here. This is no longer acceptable to me.”
It turns out that the week of November 5, 2012 is something called NJEA week in New Jersey. It’s a weeklong education event for public school teachers hosted in Atlantic City, during which public schools are closed. We’d planned a family vacation for the latter half of that week, to a Pennsylvania resort called Woodloch Pines. We booked a vacation at the all-inclusive resort during this week because it was running a fairy cost-friendly promotion—discounts for the adults, and no charge at all for the kids.
At 7am, I stepped outside to a spot on my front lawn where my wife’s T-Mobile iPhone worked. (In fact, T-Mobile and AT&T had agreed to share what limited cellular availability they had; her unlocked phone bore the AT&T carrier logo instead of T-Mobile’s.)
Me: “I’m supposed to come next week for NJEA week. I’m in New Jersey, smack-dab in Sandy’s path, and my house is powerless and freezing. Can we come this week instead?”
The kindest woman on planet earth (TKWOPE): “What day would you like to come?”
Me: “If you say I can come now, I’ll go start the car.”
TKWOPE: “Let me see what I have available. I have one room left, and it’s—”
Me: “I’ll take it.”
TKWOPE: “We’re running a special promotional rate for Sandy victims like you. But let me check what rate you were getting for next week. [She does.] Oh, that rate was better. Let me get you that rate for your stay instead.”
Me: “That’s awfully kind of you. Thank you so much.”
TKWOPE: “Well, we certainly don’t want to take advantage of you. This situation is just so terrible. We want you to come here and have your vacation, and if you pay your lower rate for next week, that’s just fine by us.”
Me: “I really appreciate that. And it’s warm there? You have power and heat, you’re not running on generators?”
TKWOPE: “Oh, no. We’re running on full power. You should come now. Oh, and your kids missed Halloween, right? Bring their costumes, because we’re going to go trick-or-treating at 10:30am.”
Me: “Oh, there’s no chance I can get there by 10:30. We’re at least 2.5 hours away, and we still have to pack.”
TKWOPE: “You know, you’re probably not alone. We’ll push it to later in the day. Bring the costumes.”
Me: “You are very kind. I have tears in my eyes now.”
TKWOPE: “Don’t say that! I’ve been trying not to cry this whole call! [She sobs.]”
We packed, we drove, we passed miles-long lines for gas at umpteen gas stations along the way. I felt a bit like we were running away, while our neighbors continued to tough it out. We texted more with our neighbors than we ever had before, offering moral support and getting updates, largely motivated by our selfish desire to find out whether the fucking lights had come back on yet.
The kids, and we, had a great time at Woodloch. Displaced families from Jersey and New York filled up the resort, which had—pre-Sandy—expected maybe forty families for the week. The resort can accomodate 900 guests. As I said, I got the last room.
Now I had new reasons to feel guilty, though, as our neighbors kept toughing things out. They told us about the hours they waited to get more gas for their generators, the new lows on the thermostats, and the false hope of a traffic light springing back to life—which they soon realized was itself powered by a generator.
Despite a signed note on my home’s door asking UPS to leave it with my neighbor next door, the delivery guy didn’t leave my iPad mini. I still don’t have it. Before Sandy struck, I was meant to review the iPad mini for Macworld, a pretty sweet gig. Apple had to reschedule the briefing until after the device’s release, and there was no guarantee I’d get my personally-ordered unit in time—indeed, I didn’t—so the review was wisely reassigned to a colleague instead.
I felt bitter about the unfairness of it all. I looked at photos online using Woodloch’s free Wi-Fi of destroyed homes whose owners had lost everything. Then I felt bitter about the relatively slow download speeds as I ordered a scoop of premise-made cookie dough ice cream.
On Friday, the day before we left the resort, we spent time trying to figure out where we’d go once we left Woodloch. I refused to go home to our cold, dark house.
Woodloch would let us stay for an addition $500; it was a weekend night and the promotional rate from our planned vacation would no longer apply. That seemed like too steep a price, so we called around to hotels.
Me: Do you have power?
Me: Do you have power?
Me: Do you have a room available for tomorrow night for a family of five?
Them: We have a room with a single queen-sized bed. It’s a smoking room.
Me: Do you have power?
Me: Do you have a room available for tomorrow night for a family of five?
Eventually, I found a suite in my hometown in Pennsylvania. It would cost $129 a night. It would be 2.5 hours from home. It was our fallback option.
Some parts of New Jersey started getting power back, so I called hotels much closer to home. Most actually hadn’t gotten power back; the few that did were booked solid by the time I got through. I also had this exchange:
Them: How can I direct your call?
Them: I’m sorry, could you repeat that? How can I direct your call?
Me: Reservations, please.
Them: Sir, this is a catering hall.
Me: … Can I sleep there?
Fortunately, some family friends one town over from our home got their power back. (Their development was surrounded by still-powerless other developments, the luck of the electrical grid draw.) They opened their home to us; it went from a McMansion housing four to a McMansion housing nine, and it held up pretty well.
My girls held a sleepover with their boys in one room, and roughly two hours after bedtime, they finally gave up and fell asleep. The four parents got drunk in the basement on wine, tequila, and rum. Our 20-month-old punished us by waking up screaming at 2am and pretty much refusing to go back to sleep until four. The other kids woke up around 6am.
It was hard to be too miffed, though: This house had power and Internet, a Woodlochian paradise right here in New Jersey. Our township would send email updates relaying information from the power company: “They’re working around the clock. Power will be resorted to 28 percent of town residents by the end of the day tomorrow.” For whatever that’s worth.
We thanked the neighbor who’d tried to collect our deliveries and regularly updated on whether the power was back (“No”) with a crumb cake from the resort. Because of my good manners, I withheld the fact that it surely tasted better warm and fresh out of the hot oven, the way I’d had it that morning for breakfast at the resort.
Sunday afternoon in our friends’ warm home, Lauren’s iPhone buzzed.
“Power just came on!!!”
I rushed home the minute Lauren showed me the message: I wanted to see it with my own eyes, to make sure the heater started up properly, and to take inventory at the homestead. It was 53 degrees in the house. Based on the blinking clocks, I arrived 22 minutes after the electricity did.
I was happy for us—elated, even—but even more joyous for the families next door. When I pushed the button on the garage door opener and the door dutifully lurched upwards, I teared up all over again. Regaining a feeling of power after extended bouts of powerlessness is emotional stuff, whether figurative or literal.
I went through the house, turning off all the lights we’d accidentally flipped up and forgotten during the extended blackout; that muscle memory of flicking a switch when you enter a dark room is nigh on impossible to break. I thought of ringing the neighbor’s doorbell to high-five them, hug them, and celebrate the return of the outlet juice, but I felt too awkward to do it. Maybe if I knew them better.
I returned to my friends’ home; we watched football, made dinner, and ate it, as my home warmed up. After dessert, I loaded up the minivan, and we headed home. My three-year-old daughter fell asleep on the short ride home; waking her again (for tooth-brushing, Pull-Up and pajama dressing, and the like) left her weepy. Lauren started the bedtime prep as I unloaded the minivan’s overstuffed trunk into the house.
I thought about how I’d write this piece, how it might make me look bad at times, and what the point of all it would be. I wondered if there were lessons to be learned, or lessons that I had learned. Beyond “research generators,” I mean.
I grabbed the kids’ blankets, pillows, and the bag of stuffed animals we’d toted to Pennsylvania and the friends’ house and headed towards the stairs. My hands were too burdened to flick off the light in the kitchen. I left it on.
We calmed the three-year-old and made up the beds. I’d left the kids’ toothbrushes downstairs, so I went to get them. This time, I had a free hand left to flick off the lights. I did so. The downstairs was immediately plunged into darkness.
I turned the light back on again so that I could better make my way upstairs, where I put the kids to sleep in their own beds. And I felt guilty about it.