Friday, October 8, 2010

Still Life With Robin: Blackout Lessons

by Peggy Robin

Last Friday much of Cleveland Park was in blackout, which meant I had from 11am that day until 5am on Saturday* to mull over what happened and think up ways that could be used to improve the situation next time around.**

* 1:  Okay, I was asleep a lot of that time, but I think I was still dreaming of solutions at least some of the time. And when the lights blazed back on at 5am, you can bet I was thinking #13 on the list.

** 2: Yes, there will be a next time, unless we successfully push for “undergrounding” our power lines.  If we think Washington is a world-class city, then I say it’s time to do as other world-class cities have done and get started on this long-term project.  End of editorial.

Once the blackout was over, I compiled my musings into a list.  It’s neither a Letterman-style backwards list nor a top-to-bottom list, which is to say, it’s in no particular order.

1.  Battery backups are worse than useless if they beep continuously to let you know the power is out.  We already know the power is out.  All the beeping does is force us to turn the backup off to save our sanity.

2.  Humdrum appliances like coffeemakers and toaster ovens have no business acting like clocks. It’s just another setting to be restored once the power’s back on.  From now on I will boycott any clock-infested appliance unless the device is one of those self-setting atomic clocks that never needs to be adjusted.

3.  Your freezer, if fully stocked, is sufficiently well insulated to keep food safe for 48 hours.  That’s according to, and it’s only if you don’t mess with it by opening the door.  Your refrigerated food is okay if, when you finally open the door after you have power, your thermometer shows it has remained at 40 degrees or below.  (So now you know to keep a thermometer in the fridge.)  But not opening the door can result in some unappealing food choices. For example, Peanut butter sandwiches for lunch?  What about jelly? (It’s in the fridge.) It seemed worth it to me to open a new, three-dollar jar of strawberry jam and throw it away afterward, rather than consume a PB sandwich without the J.

4.  A high-powered flashlight gives off way more light than any number of candles.  And it’s not a fire hazard if it happens to fall over.

5.  If anyone ever gives you a house gift of a set of battery operated candles (like these: http://www.batteryoperatedcand -- they’re pretty, and from a distance they look just like decorative wax candles and give off a dim romantic light), here’s my best advice:  Save them for a candlelit patio dinner, and forget about them during a blackout.  That flicker is just too annoying for the puny light they shed.

6.  If you happen to have a bag of chemical glow sticks left over from a child’s birthday party (because you bought way too many to give out as party favors), you are in luck!  These sticks last for hours and hours, they give off a fair-to-good amount of light, and you can simply toss them out when the blackout is over. They’re especially good to place on stair-steps.

7.  There’s one downside to those chemical glow sticks:  If one happens to leak, it leaves a sticky, oily, smelly, residue all over the place, which is hard to clean up, especially when you can’t see all that well in the semi-darkness.

8.  Reading by flashlight under the covers may have been fun when you were a kid at summer camp but it quickly loses its appeal when you are a middle aged adult who wears bifocals.

9.  No matter how many times you remind yourself that the power is out, you will still flick on the light switch as you enter a room and feel that momentary surprise when nothing happens.

10.Blackouts are better than block parties when it comes to getting neighbors together.  So often throughout the day and evening I saw neighbors out strolling past the Pepco work zones, checking on the progress of the downed tree cleanup, keeping each other informed, and chatting and offering each other help.  Some random overheard snatches of  conversation: "Would you like me to watch your child for you?” “Of course, just bring your dog over to my house.” “Yes, if the police will let you get to your car, just move it to my house.” 

11.When you see a downed live wire sparking, setting grass aflame, buzzing and popping and dancing as surges of electricity jolt through it, it reminds you of the awesomeness of electric power and how amazing it is that we manage to keep it so tightly controlled that we seldom have to give it a second thought.

12.You will learn which rooms in your house would be easiest to convert into a darkroom (no natural light leaks at all) -- that is, if anyone still has any use for a darkroom these days.

13.When you wake up at 5am as all the lights blaze back on, you will realize that before you went to bed, you should have gone around from room to room flicking all the light switches to off.
14.If you call Pepco’s automated power outage reporting line, you will be able to enter your phone number and hear an automated prediction of when the power will be back on.  Some neighbors heard “6pm” and in fact had their power restored around 6pm.  We heard 6pm and in fact had our power restored about 11 hours later.

15.If you have a cell phone with a short battery life (iPhone, you know we mean you!), remember that a car charger works almost as well as an electric wall charger to bring it back to full strength.

16.If you go out to dinner on the night of a blackout and it’s a fine clear night, you can eat at any of a number of restaurants with outdoor tables and find many of your neighbors out with the same idea.  This is the bright spot of a blackout, especially one in which the downed tree mercifully has destroyed no one’s house, and Pepco is able to get crews to the scene quickly, and have them working through the night until power is restored.

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