Surviving Sandy: A Few Life Lessons

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by William L. Anderson

Recently by William L. Anderson: Alack and Alas, We Are Undone for Bernanke Has Twist (and QE1, QE2, QE3, and QE Forever)

     

The snow began to fall Monday afternoon, and it continued to fall…and fall. By Monday night, we were in an all-out blizzard — and I was out driving, picking up one of my daughter's friends to have her spend the night at our place, given schools would be closed the next day. After picking up Sasha's friend, we drove through one whiteout after another, which is a most interesting experience after dark (but I have become used to it, living in famously snowy Garrett County, Maryland.)

Hurricane Sandy (which became a tropical storm soon after hitting the New Jersey coast) was flooding the East Coast, but in our county (average elevation of 2,300 feet, which is high for the eastern USA), Sandy's precipitation was snow, heavy, wet, and sticky snow that acted more like falling cement. Three feet of it in places. We knew we would lose our electricity and at about 9 p.m. on Monday night, the lights flickered, and then went out for good.

In fact, the lights would not come on again at our place until about 5 p.m. the following Saturday, November 3. Between those days, I would learn some life lessons about survival and living without the thing that most supports modern life: electricity.

Garrett County, Maryland, is located on the Allegheny Plateau and is famous for snow, lots of it. This place is not what comes to mind when one usually thinks of Maryland, which is more famous for the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and Ocean City.

However, this is my sixth autumn here and we have had snow falling around the end of October for three of them, so having snow at this time of year is not unusual. What is unusual, however, is for there to be three feet of October snow, and while most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, nonetheless few trees, fences, and even some roofs were not able to withstand the heavy white mass that whacked us last week, and the end result was the destruction of electric and telephone lines.

So, on Monday night, we went to bed in the dark and woke up in the dark. Thank goodness, we had somewhat prepared. We had flashlights, a gas grill (with a separate gas burner) in the garage, and large bathtub full of water to enable us to flush toilets. My wife had bought lots of drinking water and we hoped that the lower-lying places like nearby Cumberland would recover quickly enough for new supplies to be made available, if need be. As for heat, we have a wood stove and a large pile of firewood to serve a relatively small and well-insulated house.

It turned out that our preparations still were not enough. We could have made it through two days and even three, but the water in the tub finally ran dry, although we could have melted snow. (We chose to fill up gallon jugs where I work and use them to flush the Johns.) In fact, two days after the lights went out, the problem supposedly was fixed and our power was on — for 20 minutes. A local transformer blew and then 10 houses on our road were in the dark. All of our neighbors had power, but we did not, and would not for another three days.

The lights came on Saturday evening and I could feel my blood pressure dropping. On Sunday morning, I was able to grind the Ethiopian coffee beans I had roasted in my wok and have a real cup of coffee. (OK, I had three cups of coffee, but I was making up for lost time.) Life almost had returned to normal.

All of this made me think about the larger picture. Yes, the lights finally came on, and sooner or later every house in our hard-hit county will have electricity again, but we have to keep in mind that as the political situation deteriorates in this county, we have to be prepared to live weeks and maybe longer without electric power. And at this writing, it looks as though Americans might send Barack Obama back to the White House and there has been no president in modern history who has been more hostile to conventional generation of electricity than Obama. In his rush to relegate demon coal to the historical ash heap, Obama has made it clear that he wants every coal-fired electric plant in this country to be shuttered for good, damn the consequences. (Anyone who believes that wind farms will adequately replace the huge coal-fired electric plants need not read anymore, since that person already is delusional.)

So, what are the lessons I learned, and how can I apply them to the future? The first is that I was somewhat at a disadvantage not having a generator, but even more important was the loss of water. So, what do I do? After all, the last time residents here lost power for this long was during and after the infamous October 2002 ice storm that hit before the leaves had fallen from the trees. Should I purchase thousands of dollars of preventative merchandise in order to deal with a future problem that might not come until 10 years from now?

In the end, you see, this is not necessarily a production problem, but rather an economic one. What should I do to prepare for disaster without going overboard? My first instinct was to look for emergency hand pumps for wells, as I'd be willing to push down a lever a few hundred times to keep the water flowing into my house. Hand pumps do not require fuel. I may go that route.

This week, I will speak to an Amish neighbor who has running water but no electric pump and no windmill. I need to see what he has, given that he and his family were able to handle the storm and the aftermath much more easily than I was able to do. I cannot imagine living a long stretch without electricity, but the Amish have done just that and it is worth it to find out some of the things they do which help make electricity irrelevant to their lives.

Second, I need to purchase a generator, but not necessarily something that will power my house and the rest of my neighborhood. Again, I don't want to go overboard with spending, as do not want to end up shelling out thousands of dollars so that I can live five days in slightly better comfort than my neighbors. A generator certainly is in the future picture, but do I buy a powerful-but-expensive one, or a generator that would keep our essentials running, such as refrigerators, freezers and, perhaps, our water pump.

Third, living precariously in the aftermath of a natural disaster calls to our attention the importance of community and that is something that government at all levels has destroyed. It is true that Garrett County is not New York or New Jersey, as the local culture is not the at-your-throat-all-the-time existence that characterizes that part of the country. Unions are not strong here, which means that after a disaster like what we experienced, people who try to help are not asked to show their union cards, as was the case in the hard-hit areas on the coast.

But the problem is much deeper than just unions, although they are joined at the hip with the worst elements of the State. For all of the "liberal" talk about government and community, in reality, government as it exists now is the very antithesis of community. In a place where community mattered, a post-disaster scenario would see people quickly coming together to pool their resources and talents, assess damage, and work together.

However, the modern scenario is for people not only to wait for government agents (i.e. FEMA) to arrive before they did anything, but also for taking orders and getting supplies. This is not community by any stretch; instead, it is comparable to how people lived in the U.S.S.R. when the communists ruled.

In the 1970s, a large hotel in Moscow caught fire, and the reaction of the residents who came from western countries versus the Soviet Union is eye-catching. Japanese tourists staying there got out by tying sheets together into a life-rope. Americans soaked towels in water to aid them in breathing as they crawled to the exits. All of the "foreigners" escaped and survived.

Russian guests, however, waited for instructions and many of them died. (Logan Robinson recounts this event in his 1982 book, An American in Leningrad.)

What happened in Moscow more than 30 years ago is not much different than what happens in this country after a disaster. Governments at all levels step in, send troops or other people with badges who bark orders and make threats and, after several days, bring supplies for which people must stand in line for hours to receive. Price controls guarantee misallocation of resources, and, not surprisingly, people are at each other's throats.

To make things worse, politicians swoop in for photo-ops and political operatives such as Paul Krugman tout the wonders of government (as long as people who "believe in government" are in charge), or newspapers like the New York Times insist that only massive, authoritarian government intervention is appropriate after a disaster. Yet, the actual effect of this outright invasion is much different than what the "experts" claim it to be.

While some people do receive needed supplies in the process, we forget that the people furthest from the sources of needed information are the ones with the most authority to make important decisions. Not surprisingly, the decision-makers engage in behavior designed to make themselves look good. People who actually are victims of the disaster are treated as political pawns and are made subject to arbitrary arrest and denied any role in helping themselves.

That clearly was not the case in Garrett County, where there was not a FEMA worker to be seen. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who wants to run for president in four years, dropped in to promise "resources" to people whom he knows did not vote for him, but most people here understood his goal was to look good, not do good.

The real heroes here were not government agents, but electric utility workers from other states, including Florida and Georgia, who worked in terrible conditions to restore electricity. Unlike New York and New Jersey, where non-union linesmen were ordered to stay away, the line workers were welcome in a county where nearly everyone lost power.

Furthermore, there was a sense of community here. People in church congregations assessed needs and helped each other. Members of our own church fed us and let us come to their place to take showers and get some respite. (Because of our aging dog, we elected to sleep at our place and cook some meals on our grill, and as long as we had water, we were OK.) Local road crews plowed our county road, so we were not closed in.

(Three winters ago, we had about 20 feet of snow, yet there was not one day in which our road was not passable, even when we had two consecutive blizzards which piled more than five feet of snow in a little more than two weeks. The county road crews are dedicated and, to be honest, seem to enjoy their role when times are tough.)

What I have found through this affair is that as individuals, we need to be prepared, and that means redirecting some of our present consumption to things that might be relevant only in an emergency, and when we will have such an event, no one knows. But we also have to realize that we are part of a community, which means reaching out to neighbors, getting to know them, finding out their needs, and not living our lives in hermetically-sealed containers.

On the other hand, we also see that large-scale government disaster relief tends to make things worse and exists mostly to make politicians look good and to give people with badges and guns the authority to boss others around and make threats. Unfortunately, the latter is what our "elites" believe to be best for all of us.

Furthermore, if the present trend of government to eliminate the burning of coal and natural gas to generate electricity continues, we can expect more of these blackout episodes, and we won't need a natural disaster for that to occur. Time to prepare for what seems to be inevitable.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.

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