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Surviving a Long Power Outage During the Semester

ice storm: power lineLast week, Sam Gray launched a new site, A Week Without (via Minimal Mac), which is a sort of exercise in learning what’s truly essential in your life, and what you could safely let go.

By coincidence, Connecticut Light & Power decided to implement this exercise across the entire state, by taking a week or more to restore power to people across the state after a weird October snowstorm. As I write, there are still more than 20,000 people who can’t expect restoration until tomorrow–some 11 days after losing it! It’s been an amazing exercise in corporate malfeasance and incompetence. (How bad has it been? Halloween was mostly canceled for the kids, and according to the New York Times, Mia Farrow was reduced to using a dog crate as a refrigerator.)

My campus was even without power, except for emergency power to the dorms and cafeteria, for around six days, which was pretty disorienting since many folks tend to think, “oh, if the power goes out, I can go to campus and get something done, or at least charge my stuff.” Dean Dad has posted some “Notes from an Emergency” that captures some of the baffling, infuriating nature of a storm that knocks so much of the grid offline. (Key point: Even online assignments/courses can’t save you when none of your students or faculty have power–or you can’t predict who does.) In my case, we’ve spent 14 days out of the past 60 with no power, thanks to CL&P’s inability to respond to storms. (It’s probably time to start thinking about a generator.) Here are some further, practical-minded points:

  • As Natalie once pointed out, it’s helpful to have one or more catch-up days built into your syllabus, because in an emergency such as this one, there’s no way to stick to the syllabus. Building a little flex into your courses can save your bacon.
  • If you have power when most of your colleagues don’t, by all means reach out with offers of showers, or even a couch to crash on. And, by all means use the downtime from campus to get caught up on committee work, or even your writing. But I would keep it to yourself–i.e., don’t cycle thoughts on the latest committee report past people–until the situation has stabilized. Not only is every e-mail a pebble, but in situations when charged devices are a scarce commodity, you’re making triage all the more difficult. Plus, by the time power *is* restored, your thoughts will probably be lost in a backlog of e-mail several screens back. Save your message as a draft, or schedule it to be delivered later.
  • If you have a smartphone, don’t forget to maximize battery life: you can usually turn off the GPS and notifications, both of which drain battery life. If your phone multitasks, close down apps that are in the background. At least on AT&T, you can have your phone access the “Edge” network instead of 3G–it’s slower, but you save on battery life. Leave your phone in airplane mode, or even off, as much as possible. Get a charger that plugs into your car, if your car doesn’t have a regular electric outlet.
  • Be sure to check your flashlight batteries regularly–or get a flashlight that plugs into a wall. When you have power, it charges; when you don’t, it comes on. We have one, and it lasted the entire 8+ days we were without power. (Um, obviously not the whole time!) Also, don’t forget your phone can be a flashlight. Even if you don’t have an app, the screen’s probably bright enough for simple late-night navigation.
  • If you asked my 8yo, I think he would say that his LEGO-style iPod speaker was the indispensable gadget. It uses your iPod’s battery for power, and he was able to get days-and-days out of the family’s iPod Classic. (No touchscreen draining the battery there!)
  • *Everything* will take longer than you think when just about everybody’s power is out. Addicted to caffeine? If there’s only one Dunkin Donuts open, then there are going to be lines out the door. Only a handful of restaurants? An hour or more for takeout. Gas? Good luck, especially if you don’t pay cash. It’s pretty stressful, so it’s important not to over-estimate how much you can do. You’ll just punish yourself.
  • That said, there are real opportunities for sleep, especially during late-fall power outages! It’s dark by 7, and it’s important to save batteries, so you can in fact go to bed. You’ll probably want to, anyway, after battling lines all day, and dealing with yard-cleanup and other problems.

There’s no real way to prepare for an in-semester statewide emergency. Even if you’re prepared to live off the grid with no impact on your productivity, that won’t be the case for everyone. But preparing to be flexible, and showing, over the course of the semester, that you’re prepared to work with students to make sure that they get done what needs to get done, will get you a long way.

Do you have tips for coping with long outages? Please share in comments!

Photo “ice storm: power line” by Flickr user qwrrty / Creative Commons licensed

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