September 8, 2011
Ten days ago, I, like everyone else, joined the throngs streaming into the parking lot of the local Giant in a last ditch effort to stock the shelves at home in anticipation of up to a week with no water or electricity. Despite the expectation of extended power outages, we were planning to stock our refrigerators with food in the hope that the power will be back on within a day or two, or with the intention to run one of the small gas-powered generators that fly off the shelves of local hardware stores in the aftermath of the storm. Compared to some, like citizens of Chester, Vermont, located in one of several counties where FEMA has been called in to provide assistance to individuals and families whose homes were severely damaged by flooding, we were lucky. We only lost power for a few days.
As I made my way through the store, no bottled water or bread remained on the shelves. I purchased a gallon of milk, knowing my two young children would polish it off before it went bad. As I stood in the alarmingly bare aisles, I wracked my brain for ideas, items no one else may have considered buying that didn’t require refrigeration or water to prepare. But, as they say, where there is a will there is a way.
Rather than purchase bottled water, I decided to fill several containers with tap water. Out came every possible pitcher we owned, even some more decorative ones usually reserved for company. I even filled several large soup pots with water since we are fortunate to have a gas stove and would be able to heat the water to wash dishes in the coming days. A colleague had a great suggestion: fill the bathtub with water that can then be used for non-drinking water purposes. In the end we did not lose our access to water, but it was actually nice to have a pitcher of water around to quickly fill a glass in the days after the storm had passed through.
The loss of power presented two challenges: getting by without a refrigerator and keeping the house cool. To tackle the latter of those problems, we opened our windows during the least hot hours of the day to create a cross breeze. During parts of the day when the sunlight into the windows was direct, we closed the windows and pulled the shades tight, keeping the air inside cool. I enjoyed the sounds of the outdoors floating in the windows when they were open. Ironically, it was when the windows were closed that we could hear the low rumble of generators running all around us—it was the only noise loud enough to penetrate the walls.
I worried at first about how we would get by without a refrigerator. With a toddler in the house, I like to have milk in the house, so we set up a cooler with ice for just a few essentials. The rest ended up being easier than I thought. We found ourselves snacking on roasted nuts and granola bars. For snacks for the kids, I served fresh fruit and whole wheat crackers. Our CSA [community-supported agriculture] share arrived midway through the week, which provided the fixin’s for a great salad that we dressed with oil and vinegar from the pantry. It struck me that in the absence of the refrigerator, we found ourselves eating a diet low in meat and high in fresh vegetables and whole grain. By not using a generator, we were reducing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but, in addition, our diet itself was more friendly to the environment given the contribution of meat production to greenhouse gas production, especially from beef.
Fortunately I tend to buy in small quantities, so we did not end up with a large amount of food waste from the unpowered refrigerator. I’ve found from past experience that the “value pack” can be tempting because the per unit price is lower, but in the end I’m more likely to throw food away when I buy large amounts, even when there isn’t a hurricane. I can by a smaller amount of food and even end up spending less because I buy only what I need. We ate what we could of the frozen vegetables before they thawed and went bad, then sent what was left to our compost bin, which amazingly stayed put amid the strong winds of the storm.
Last Thursday night we sat down to our first dinner with power since the storm arrived. Although we had gone only three days with no power, already the lights seemed unnecessarily bright, and we opted for the natural evening light. After observing how easy it was to keep the house cool by pulling the shades, we had left the air conditioning off for the day, and now a gentle breeze was wafting through the house. We served the last of the CSA share with our dinner and finished off our store of fresh fruit from the storm. As I sat with my family, I determined that I would apply the lessons learned during Hurricane Irene, not just when the next big storm arrives, but throughout the year.