The Grid and the Village

Photograph | Christopher Morris/Corbis

EARLY MORNING, January 1998. In Potsdam, New York, the power was out and the freezing rain was intensifying. Our roof, like all our neighbors’ roofs, lay insulated beneath a creamy gray-white icing, rounding off the edges and dripping down every wall. Power and phone lines sagged deeply. Bushes and shrubs bowed gracefully down, embedded in glass. A gently undulating, pebbly white sheet stretched across yards and fields from the western horizon down to the frozen flat expanse of the Raquette River to the east. The only sound I could hear was the constant chattering of ice pellets punctuated by the intermittent gunshots of breaking branches. Tree limbs were snapping all around me.

One of our dogs was sniffing around my feet when I saw an orange flash on the horizon, a fiery flare somewhere in the village. A moment later a brilliant blue explosion lit up the entire dome of the sky: one of the major power circuits supplying energy to our entire town had just blown. Startled, I ducked involuntarily and the dog skittered away from me. A mile away, on the other side of the river, my neighbor’s son, Mike Warden, had just opened his eyes when the world outside his bedroom window was suddenly revealed in that silent flash of light. For a moment he could see as clearly as if it were midday, but under a sickly green sun. His wife, Marge, slept on, the baby due in little more than a week.

For the first two days of the ice storm, my family and neighbors were so cut off from the world that we had no concept of the severity of the problem. The storm had arrived with little warning; we didn’t know that it had knocked out power grids from the Great Lakes to the North Atlantic, or that thousands of people were already fleeing to makeshift shelters. We didn’t know that national emergencies were being declared on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border and utility crews from across both countries were steadily parading into this vast zone of darkness. We simply expected the lights to come back on at any moment.

It was chillingly cold, and so dark at night that the ice seemed to glow. By the third day without power my wife, Kath, and I had begun working with our neighbors, the Centofantis and the Wardens. We needed warmth, in at least one of our houses, and we needed water from at least one of our wells. The only way we could succeed in either of these was to run a generator – and to do that we needed gasoline. As an essential ingredient for all those who had not taken refuge in one of the emergency shelters, finding gas was nearly impossible.

A plan to get some gasoline to us was on the mind of my brother-in-law, Steve, who called us several days into the disaster from one of his service stations downstate. He knew far more about the scale of the storm than we did. He said that he’d be willing to sell a fifty-five gallon drum with gasoline and drive it and a generator to our house. Kath and I were somewhat taken aback by this proposal. It couldn’t be that bad, I thought. You can’t just wake up one morning and have to live off of a generator for the foreseeable future. That doesn’t happen.

But within a day we realized that not only could it happen, it had. We decided to take Steve up on his offer. And when he and Kath’s father, Bob, arrived, they told us of a sharp line they had crossed as they descended out of the Adirondack mountains and into the St. Lawrence River valley. After that point, Bob said, the utter destruction of the trees reminded him of photos of European forests that had been shelled in World War II – for as far as he could see there were just tall sticks with craggy, broken branches drooping down. Kath and her father wired the generator into our furnace and water pump, and then set it up so that it could be disengaged and carried over to our neighbor’s house intermittently to keep their pipes from freezing, too.

With this it had become clear that the power wasn’t just about to come back. We were in the middle of a major storm and we were all starting to realize that we’d better be prepared to take care of ourselves. We emptied the refrigerator and set up a makeshift one on our back deck, which had the effect of putting all our perishables in a freezer. Then we decided to join our neighbors in cooking supper each night at the Wardens’ house. The families would pool some key resources.

With a baby due any day, Marge and Mike moved in with their parents. The houses had all become public places; no one needed to knock, and we all moved freely in and out of each other’s homes. I heard myself saying things like, “Let’s see, with that fifty-five gallons of gas, the twenty-five you have in those cans, the other fifty or sixty gallons we have left in the tanks of all our vehicles, we’ll be alright.” Twenty-four hours earlier the storm was merely an annoyance that was keeping me from finishing my course syllabi for the coming semester. Suddenly I’m talking about siphoning off gas tanks so we don’t freeze; suddenly we’re making decisions like having the kids stay in the Wardens’ rec room because that’s the warmest spot of all our houses.

THIS WAS AN IRONIC and deserved fate for me. A couple of years before I had written a book that touted local life while warning people of the potential dangers of global networks. Yet all the while I was continually connected to these networks, participating in global discussions about the importance of protecting local communities. Now my network extended across one yard to the Wardens’ house and across one road to the Centofantis’ house. No matter how often I had preached about the importance of geophysical place before, I had never in my adult life been so totally consumed for so long by such a limited here and now. It was a moment-by-moment existence devoted to the people and property around me.

Life was focused on keeping generators running, and moving them between our houses. One day when several of us drove a generator over to Mike and Marge’s now-abandoned house so that we could pump out its flooded basement, a woman appeared suddenly in the middle of the street and asked me if I knew of anyone who could spare a generator. She was nearly in tears. I hesitated. She said that there was a farm outside of town where the cows were threatened because they couldn’t be milked. I didn’t know what to say. Our little generator certainly couldn’t handle that job. We suggested she contact the police or fire departments. Good Lord, I thought, are we going to find ourselves choosing between keeping our kids warm and fed or helping our neighbors save their livelihoods?

But events quickly pulled us back to our own situation. In the middle of our fourth night without power, Marge went into labor and had to be rushed to the hospital, which itself was operating in emergency mode under generator power. Then, as the temperatures dropped into the single digits, our generators started to falter. Mine had begun to run ragged and stall out under the strain of cold and overuse.

On the morning of the fifth day I awoke to discover that Mike and Marge had a new baby boy and the Wardens’ generator was silent and sitting in a pool of oil. Our genuine happiness was tinged with concern. Without some source of heat and water, we, too, might end up at the shelter. So the day was spent working on generators and with the expert help of a friend of the Wardens, we were able to get both of them back online for the moment.

AFTER NEARLY A WEEK without power, with Mike, Marge, and baby safely ensconced in the hospital, and with two generators barely limping along, we all decided that we should treat ourselves by going to the shelter for supper. We had heard that they offered free food to anyone who could make it there, and although we hesitated to join what we considered a “refugee camp,” we realized that we needed help, too.

The building that night had evolved into a kind of place that has largely disappeared, even in small towns and villages; it became a public commons, a place where people met by chance and talked about whatever was on their minds. On this night, of course, conversations were focused. As we pushed our trays along the buffet line, the common question was “how are you doing?” – not the polite and empty how-are-you-doing but one that meant, What kind of heat do you have? How are you holding up? Who are you with? What have you seen? What do you know? The stories spilled out. Some people had generators; some had fireplaces or woodstoves. Those who had were sharing with those who didn’t. Multigenerational families far flung across the region were coalescing at one location. Others, like us, found themselves throwing in with small neighborhood groups. Whole households were living in one room, the rest of the house closed off and abandoned to the cold. Some were enjoying the company, others were suffocating. For young kids it was fun while teenagers were getting bored and difficult.

There were stories about unexpected predicaments and amazing sights. There was grapevine information about the state of the power grid and who was going to get power first. People stood between tables holding trays of hot food getting cold and just kept talking. Or they were leaning back in their chairs and talking over their shoulders to someone behind them. Attitudes ranged from a resigned relaxation to a kind of subdued, exhausted agitation. All were shocked by the state of the trees. At one point I realized that each of the adults around our table was turned away talking to a different person whom we may or may not have known before. Talk was easy when everyone was bound by the same necessities. For me it was a simple but powerful night.

ON THE NIGHT OF OUR SIXTH DAY without power, a light over the stove in our kitchen suddenly came on. It stayed on. Later I would learn that we were among the first thirty percent to get power back in St. Lawrence County. After that, every day brought more people back online. It would take two more weeks to restore power to everyone in New York. It took until February 8, nearly five weeks after the storm hit, for the complete restoration of power in Quebec’s “triangle of darkness” south of Montreal.

A few days after power had been restored to our road, I was home trying to bring myself to begin preparing again for the upcoming semester. At that time there were still large chunks of the north country without electricity, and the word at Clarkson was that the semester’s start would be pushed back by a week or more. Even so I had little else to do but to get back at it. The trouble was, I had zero interest in doing so. The job seemed so distant to me. It was almost as if I had changed careers over the course of two weeks from teacher to home handyman – klutzy, semi-clueless, but coachable, very willing to learn new skills like how to run and maintain a two-cycle generator engine.

Suddenly the power went out again. I got up quickly and looked out the window to see if there was evidence of power anywhere in sight. I got on the phone and started calling people. Power seemed to be out across the village. I was alive – it was as if the power left the grid and poured into me. I started to check for essential materials throughout the house: candles, flashlights, et cetera. I turned on the radio. Was it a story yet? I was smiling and excited. But I knew there was something perverse about that. “This is nuts,” I told myself. “Calm down. It can’t last.”

It didn’t, of course. About an hour later power was restored and the reality of pre-storm living continued to loom over me. A week or so later I heard a weather forecaster predict that we might be getting hit by another ice storm. That same day I heard the panicky voice of a local caller to North Country Public Radio who was clearly unnerved by the forecast. She said her husband was immobilized by fear of another ice storm. “We have to do something,” she said, “to help each other handle all this.” A wave of guilt washed over me. No one who lived through it – including myself – wants to live under those conditions. But why was I, like many others I knew, so unsettled by the prospect of returning to the energized grid?

Late that afternoon, outside the door to the Wardens’ house, I stood holding one of their gas cans that had found its way to my garage. I didn’t just open the door and walk in. I knocked instead.

IN THE END, AS IN ALL MAJOR DISASTERS, the ice storm numbers were big. In the U.S. alone, the storm damaged about eighteen million acres of rural and urban forests. In New York over one thousand power transmission towers were damaged; power companies replaced over eight thousand poles, 1,800 transformers, and five hundred miles of wires. In Canada over 1,300 steel towers were damaged; power companies replaced over 35,000 poles and five thousand transformers. Dairy farmers in both countries lost millions of dollars in livestock and income. At least thirty-five people were killed by storm-related house fires, falling ice, carbon monoxide poisoning, or hypothermia. The Worldwatch Institute reported that the cost of the damage on both sides of the border totaled 2.5 billion dollars, about half of the cost inflicted by Hurricane Mitch ten months later.

But the impact of this experience goes beyond these quantifiable items. Consider for a moment one more statistic – one small, local, seemingly insignificant item: during the week in which the village of Potsdam was without any type of traffic signals or traffic control, only one minor fender-bender was reported. Only one. Under normal circumstances accidents happen every day around here. Yes, Potsdam is a small town, but as in any active community, urban, suburban, or rural, there is just the right combination of traffic and tricky intersections to bring about a number of serious and sometimes fatal accidents. There were fewer cars on the road, thereby reducing the chance of an accident, but I drove through a few of the most dangerous intersections enough times in the early days of the storm to know that there were plenty of chances for serious accidents to happen.

There was more going on than just fewer drivers on the road. I think drivers were more mindful of the act of driving during that experience. And it was this exercise of storm-induced mindfulness that may have the most lasting impact of the entire event. Like most people before the storm I lived as if electricity came from light switches and power outlets. The storm changed that. It’s as if I’ve started to trace electricity back along the lines from my house to the pole on the road to the local substation to the transmission lines to one of the sources of that bulk power: the massive hydropower dam twenty-five miles away on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

From there I can go a number of places. I can examine the environmental impact of the Seaway to illustrate the price we pay for power. I can explore in depth that growing worldwide movement to oppose the building of large dams, most notably the gargantuan Three Gorges project in China, as a way to gauge power’s costs. I can follow the changes in the power industry nationwide as state after state is moving to deregulate its utilities. Or I can delve into the newly resurgent world of alternate energy sources, especially the recent advances in home power stations that promise to further atomize the home by removing it from the power grid without sacrificing any electronic convenience. But, ultimately, what I find particularly compelling is the way that community came to the fore in the absence of the grid that under normal conditions enables us to live and work quite independently from one another.

Although all disasters have their unique dangers, in many ways the impact of the ice storm was less a sudden catastrophe than an unforeseen change in the way we had to live. Many other types of disasters leave relatively clear boundaries between destruction and normality. For those who are fortunate enough to emerge safely from the mayhem of, say, an earthquake or tornado, escape is possible. The path of destruction is narrow and capricious. One person’s world may be destroyed while a neighbor’s goes untouched. Or in the case of all but the largest of hurricanes, a section of a town may be obliterated while others survive largely intact. There is some level of destruction and some level of normal living, and the distinction is clear. In contrast, the ice storm was far less violent, far less lethal, but far more democratic; it afflicted everyone within its vast boundaries. For most of the five million of us who lived through it, there was no escape. The only options were to adapt and endure.

And during that process a fascinating phenomenon evolved: as the power grid failed, in its place arose a vibrant grid of social ties – formal and informal, organized and serendipitous, public and private, official and ad hoc. While national news media reported on the standard three Ds of disaster news – deaths, destruction, and disorder – a spontaneous, ever-shifting group of citizen volunteers, public officials, corporate decision-makers, and neighbors helping neighbors pulled together to weather the storm.

By the time we all returned to the safety of the electrified grid, we had come to realize that there existed in this place at this time a web of support that many people thought had long since withered away from disuse. While the fruits of the power grid may make it seem as though each of us can live an autonomous life, we learned that that is an illusion. It is family and community, not global networks, that truly sustain us.

Stephen Doheny-Farina, professor of technical communications at Clarkson University, is the author of The Wired Neighborhood. He is a frequent commentator on media communications in newspapers, magazines, radio, and websites. His essay in this issue is adapted from his new book, The Grid and the Village, published in October 2001 by Yale University Press.