On August 10, my state of Iowa was hit by a derecho. This is a type of storm with destructive straight-line winds. In this particular case, winds topped out at 140 mph. The city of Cedar Rapids, a dozen miles north of me, was devastated. I’m writing this article ten days after the storm, and quite a few people still don’t have power, and even more don’t have internet access. The road to recovery is going to be a long one. The city has lost half its tree canopy, and already 22,000 tons of debris have been removed.
The early forecasts weren’t particularly concerning to me. There was going to be a storm with high windows in the afternoon, with the possibility of people losing power. That’s not particularly rare – it’s not unusual for storms to briefly knock out power. My neighborhood has buried power lines, so we’re generally less affected than other people.
My wife and I are both working from home, due to COVID-19. She works upstairs, and I have a desk downstairs, in the finished basement. As the storm approached, she and the kids came downstairs. I continued to work, updating documentation in Jira. I was working right up to the point where we lost power and internet access.
My wife and kids went back upstairs after the storm passed. I attempted to continue working. I tried using my cell phone as a hot spot. This didn’t work the best, but I was able to sporadically get connected. Eventually, I stopped trying, and just did some work offline.
I expected the power to be back within the hour (as it usually is), but a few hours had passed and still no electricity.
The FDA recommends discarding refrigerated food if you lose power for 4 hours and frozen food if you lose power for 48 hours. This assumes that you have left the doors closed to prevent warm air from getting inside. As the four-hour mark approached, we ate an early supper. Anything that didn’t get eaten was going to get thrown away.
Later, we went through the process of taking everything out of the fridge, cataloging it, and throwing it out. Luckily, the next day was trash day. Many homeowner’s policies have coverage for refrigerated contents. In our case, there was no deductible. We turned in a claim for $300, and it was promptly paid. $300 might sound high, but there’s a lot of stuff in your fridge. We had 75 unique items on our list.
We chatted outside with the neighbors. The main topic was the power outage – when would we have power back? Hopefully by morning. The local news stations had been knocked off the air, so nobody was really sure what was going on.
We had plenty of flashlights around the house, but not many spare batteries. I went onto Amazon and ordered a bunch of D batteries since we didn’t know how long this might last.[Editor’s Note: We lost power the week before for about 4 hours. We have a ton of AA and AAA batteries for kids toys, which work well in some of our smaller flashlights. I didn’t plan it this way, but it worked out.]
I used my work laptop to top off my phone’s battery. Then I remembered that the battery charging packs for the car had a 12V port. The battery packs didn’t have much battery left, as it has been about a month since I had last charged them. Still, they had plenty of juice to charge a couple of phones. We also had quite a few portage power packs for the phones. We’d be able to keep our phones charged for a while.
My wife ordered a couple of battery-powered fans. Days later, I realized that we actually had a couple of them. I’d ordered some a couple years ago when my daughter’s Girl Scout camp occurred during a heatwave. Unfortunately, they got put with the camping stuff and forgotten.
I was able to take a hot, albeit dark, shower. Unless you have a well, you don’t need electricity to have water. We have a gas water heater, meaning that we also don’t need electricity to have hot water.
Around 1:30 AM, we got power back. Hooray! The joy lasted about 90 seconds before the power cut out again. Finally, around 4 AM, the power returned for good.
The next day, we saw the extent of the damage. Our town had been hit with winds of about 80 MPH, meaning that we were spared the brunt of the storm. Almost all of my coworkers were without power, and most of them would be without power for days.
In Cedar Rapids, it looked like a war zone. Power lines were down all over down, and trees had been uprooted and had landed everywhere, including on houses. Each batch of pictures looked worse than the last. It was – and still is – sickening.
Near Des Moines, one of the grocery stores disposed of 800 gallons of spoiled milk by dumping it down a storm drain. That causes a fish kill and they had to pay for the Department of Natural Resources to prevent the water from reaching a river. If it’s not rainwater, it doesn’t belong in a storm drain.
How did we do?
Although my family had fairly minimal impact, it seemed like a good time to see how we fared in terms of disaster preparedness.
We don’t have a generator. We almost never lose power for more than a trivial amount of time. Also, I know quite a few people with generators, and in most cases could probably borrow from them. Unfortunately, in this case, the destruction was so widespread that all generators were in use.
Honestly, I doubt that we’ll get a generator. I’m not sure that the risk of this happening again is enough to justify the cost. But I’m definitely giving it more consideration than I had in the past.
In terms of batteries, we were in OK shape. Our cell phones would have lasted for several days on the power we had. I did go ahead and buy some solar-powered battery packs so that we can produce our own power next time. My kids don’t know it, but if we were still without power the next day, I’d have confiscated their chrome books and bled the batteries dry to charge phones.
We wouldn’t have starved. We had peanut butter, cereal, summer sausage, crackers, fruit cups, and some canned goods. Our propane grill could have generated some heat for cooking.
We do have a landline phone and a low-tech non-electric phone. This worked fine. Our cell phone service was spotty, but we were able to stay in contact.
We weren’t forced from our home like some people. We do have a six-person tent. At this point, we’ve only used it for cub scout camping events. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable place to sleep, but it would work in a pinch.
How did we do?
Overall, I think we were reasonably well prepared. We should have had more options for power, but we’d have been OK for several days. We may want to look into the best ways to cook various shelf-stable foods on a grill, and maybe buy some extra grill accessories to make it easier.
Have you been through a natural disaster? How did you fare?