Lights Off in Westchester

Just as with the stock market, weather forecasting is a tricky business. Thanks to one too many inaccurate forecasts, most people seem to be aware of this and usually cast doubts on what weather people tell us, specially when storms of any kind are heading our way. In the Northern Hemisphere, weather talk is also one of the most used ice-breakers to initiative conversations with strangers and acquaintances. And when forecasts are completely off, these informal conversations turn even more lively and, why not, intimate.

The Butterfly Effect

Weather systems are known to be “chaotic” (i.e., non-linear). Chaos theory, initially developed in the late 19th century and formalized as we know it today in the (19)80s, is used to explain such systems. In a nutshell, such systems depend on initial conditions; and small changes within them can lead to enormous variations. This is known as the “Butterfly Effect”: one single wing flap of a beautiful butterfly can be sufficient to create a dreadful catastrophe.

I worked with chaos theory when I studied economics in NYC. The theory back then has hot, so hot that a couple of economists went on to win the Economics Noble Prize in the (19)90s when they proposed a model that could predict, according to them, stock market variations. Today, after the recent global economic crisis, we know well that this is not at all possible. I do not think Mr. Noble is very happy about this though. At any rate, all this ended up making me even more skeptic about both weather and stock market predictions.

So when I heard the forecast for last Saturday I did not pay that much attention. I knew I had to be in the City most of the day, indoors. And when I left the house in the morning it was not even raining. “Wrong again”, I mumbled to myself and grinned as got into the car. I also know that forecasters tend to pick worse case scenarios which not only ends up diminishing their credibility overtime, but also injects a bit of fear into public opinion -thus fostering the so-called Culture of Fear (see the book by Barry Glassner).

My indoor activities ended just after 8:30pm. As I walked out of the warm venue I could see that it was not raining as heavily as predicted. However, the winds were pretty intense. The rain was coming at us horizontally. Umbrellas are useless in such cases. All one needs is a water-resistant jacket with an adjustable hood -which is exactly what I was wearing. As I walked the five blocks that separated me from where the car was parked, I felt the wrath of the wind. And the streets had become a graveyard for umbrellas. This being New York however, life seemed to be going on as usual. About 100 meters before I reached the car, I got a call from home. We have just lost power and the whole ‘hood was in the dark. “Here we go again”, I shouted to the wind knowing that no one will hear me.

By the time I got into the car I was soaking wet -so much for my smart jacket. Amazingly, I got home relatively fast as traffic was very light. As I entered Westchester County, I did not see too many cars on the road either. But darkness was already pervasive. It was still raining but the winds up here felt much stronger that in the City. The house was dark but still warm so we could attempt have a more or less normal evening with a few non-romantic candles, the fireplace at full capacity, and a frugal dinner.

I woke up early the next morning. The house now felt a bit colder but still bearable for hosting us. I decided to drive around to check the situation in the surroundings. I have a crank-up radio which was the only functioning electronic device in the house. Our smart cell phones were already dead -as they are only smart if they can be charged everyday. The radio had already told us that the impact of the storm was much worse than initially expected. “Hmm, the Butterfly Effect was around”, I thought to myself.

Dead End
Sorry, dead end!

This is not the first time we lose power at home. And past experience had showed me that trouble spots are usually North of the house. So I decided to drive in that direction. But just 100 meters ahead I hit a dead end created by nature. This was an old, large and beautiful tree very familiar to me that somehow collapsed onto the road during the night, missing the house across the street by a couple of meters. I had to do a U-turn and find an alternate route to continue with my crisis assessment mission.

No quick fixes for this one

I must admit I was shocked when I saw the extent of the damage. My now supersmart radio was more than right but seeing it with my own eyes made a huge difference. Could this be happening in Westchester where Beyonce, the Clinton’s and the owners of the NY Times, among many others, live (including me!)? Later in the week I learned that in my ‘hood alone almost 200 trees came down and a record of over 150 thousand people in Westchester where without power -including 80% of utility customers in my town.

A web of wires, tress and utility poles

In one street alone, about 1 kilometer from the house, six trees feel overnight damaging both cars and houses. The NY Times published a picture of this on Sunday’s edition of the paper (see here). I even saw live power wires on the ground sparkling just like low power fireworks. After almost an hour, I decided to end my mission and report back to base. “We are in a mess”, I enlightened my family. “It will take quite a bit to get our power back. And that will not happen before Wednesday at the earliest”, I predicted, trying to sound positive. They were not convinced though.

No power until furher notice

We were also lucky at home. Our relatively smallish backyard and garden face a small forest where we have at least 100 trees, may of them old and a few even rotten. None of them fell or even lost any of those large branches that I know are half-broken and about to fall. However, two of our next door neighbors lost their front yard trees. And in a few houses nearby, it seemed like Gulliver had visited in one of his worse moods, uprooted some of the trees with his large hands and smashed them into nearby houses.

Can we fix this soon?

In situations like this, hope becomes an absolute priority, hope that power will come back as soon as feasible. Our hopes were rapidly dashed though when on Monday morning, at the office, I was able to check the power utility wed site. It said, in that typical neutral tone they use when they convey bad news, that electricity will only be restored on Friday. The forecast on the other hand called for slightly warmer weather starting Tuesday. Still, the temperature in the house continued to fall in spite of the fireplace 24/7 duties. So other than sleeping, which entail using multiple blankets and wearing many layers of clothes, it was not really possible to be in the house. Needless to say, the food in the fridge was on a slow but sure death path.

By coincidence, I had a meeting with the top head on my agency on Tuesday which meant wearing a suit and a tie. That morning, when I opened the closet to get my clothes, I felt as I was instead opening the refrigerator. I had no choice but to go to the kitchen, turn on the oven (which uses gas, same as our stove), hang the clothes next to it, wait until they got warm and get dressed right there! -hoping also to minimize my intake of carbon monoxide. I repeated this procedure every morning of the blackout.

By Wednesday evening most of our neighbors had already power in their houses. I could now see that the house right behind us, just after the small forest where the old trees now stood proud and tall, had electricity. It is just 50 meters away. I guess we learned the hard way how the electrical network is deployed in the ‘hood. So next time we know what to expect.

Power came back 24 hours later. And life went back to normal in ten minutes or so. And yes, my initial prediction was inaccurate too – but very close (off by just 50 meters!) to the actual power restoration.

Not having power also has some amazing positive impacts. As the powerless days dragged on in super slow motion, community life in the block, usually non-existent, became alive. The last time we lost power was a few years ago in the Summer. Then, my family was away on holidays, schools were already closed for the year and the ‘hood was almost empty. I spent three long nights alone -mostly cleaning the fridge. This time around is was just the opposite.

Starting at 6pm or so, just before dusk and once those who work return from their jobs, people started to come out of their homes, seeking other neighbors to talk about the situation. Our new German neighbors, who live just across the street and moved in a couple of months ago, were amazed that this could be happening in Westchester. “This will never happen in Germany. And if it does, it will be fixed in 5 minutes, not 5 days”, they let us know in no uncertain terms. Indeed, NY’s infrastructure is old. And in Westchester power cables (as well as those for cable TV and fiber optic connections) are not underground but rather directly exposed to nature.

Another neighbor, whose basement was flooded thanks to the 12.5 centimeters of rain that fell on Saturday, told us that she lost most of her furniture and many other valuables. She was visibly upset about the whole situation. She then concluded: “This is all Obama’s fault!”. Tea anyone?

For some, the lights will remain off for a long time, I suppose. Never mind the butterflies.

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