Surviving Sandy or How did NJ insult Mother Nature


Mother Nature seems to be retaliating against New Jersey for some forgotten insult.  When did we “dis” her (more than the rest of the US and developed world)? In 2011 we were hit with the remnants of Hurricane Irene causing a lot of coastal and inland flooding and then on Halloween we were hit with an early, heavy, wet snow that broke many tree limbs and cause wide spread power outages.  Then in the fall of 2012 we got Hurricane Sandy combining with a nor'easter and a Canadian cold air mass to give us FrankenStorm; then nine days later another nor'easter/winter storm combo with several inches of snow while still recovering from Sandy.  Clearly She is retaliating against us for something.  


They are still arguing about whether Sandy was a true category one hurricane when it hit the NJ shore, whether the maximum sustained wind speed was over 74 mph.  I guess some insurance policies have different coverage (or none) for hurricanes vs tropical or subtropical storms.  But it made little difference to us.  I guess the sustained wind was a factor in the record tidal surges that did so much damage at the shore, but for the rest of us the sustained wind was not the problem.  The gusts were indisputably 85-90 mph or more in many areas.  And it was those gusts that devastated the rest of the state – thousands of trees broken or blown over and 85% of subscribers without electricity.  We lose electricity often from thunderstorms and snow but usually for only a few hours or a day, but after Sandy most of the state lost power for over a week, many for over two weeks and a few still did not have power after three weeks. 


Since nearly all also lost heat, it was fortunate that this was not mid-winter.  During the first week we had highs in 40's or low 50's every day and only down to low 30's at night (one night to 26).  Most towns had high schools, YMCAs, libraries or other public buildings on generators as warming centers or even with cots for those that could not keep warm enough.  Many also offered showers or mobile phone charging stations.  Bernardsville offered the library for warming and charging and the high school for cots and showers using generators – no electricity for 10 days (missing 9 days of school, using all our “snow days” and optional vacation days and are still deciding how to make up the rest).


We were fortunate compared to many in the state.  Up to 10 inches of rain was predicted but we got less than one inch, so there was no flooding in our area – well we did have a river running down our street due to a water main break, more about that later.  There were several hundred trees down in our borough and many of these brought down power, phone and cable lines. The borough was 100% without electricity for a week and many residential and arterial streets were blocked for days by downed trees and power lines – at least 300 trees broke or fell.  The major arterial two blocks from us was blocked for nine days with our street used as the bypass and another nearby was blocked for over two weeks, because a whole row of nine or ten trees fell across the road taking down lines, breaking five or six poles and one fallen transformer burned and melted a large hole in the pavement so it required multiple services to repair it.  So many minor roads were blocked that for several days there were pockets of houses with no way out.


Jan and I were supposed to be in Florida.  I had a conference in Melbourne Tuesday through Friday where I was supposed to chair four sessions and other business and we were scheduled to fly Monday afternoon.  But by Saturday it was clear that the storm would be hitting the NJ coast right at that time and there was no way our plane would fly.  I was able to reschedule our flight  but the earliest I could get was 8 PM Sunday and United started canceling all flights starting at 5 PM due to increasing winds (they canceled inbound flights first to reduce the number of planes that would have to ride out the storm). The earliest flight I could get after the storm was after most of my conference sessions would be over, so we canceled the trip and hunkered down to ride out the storm.


We filled containers with about 10 gallons of drinking water.  They recommended one gallon per person per day and warned it could be a week.  They also recommended filling bathtubs with water for washing and flushing, but we knew our tubs leaked slowly and so only held water for a few hours, and we did not expect loss of water to be an issue.  Sometimes flooding causes contamination of our water supply and we get a “boil water” notice so we only prepared for that.  We had never had a power failure of longer than 36 hours but we prepared for longer.  We made sure we had lots of batteries, candles and canned food.


Sunday evening the wind began to pick up but no rain.  Monday my lab was open but since I was originally supposed to be starting travel and I didn't want to have to commute home during the storm I stayed home (they closed my lab at noon and it didn't reopen until the next week since it lost power).  During the day the wind continued to increase, but none of the predicted rain came until evening and then it was light.  We lost power once for a few seconds and then again for ten minutes, but about five o'clock we lost it for good.  The wind was now howling at 30 or 40 mph and knew it was above the limit for repair trucks.  I prepared myself for missing Jeopardy.


Our block had less damage than most – no wires down, no trees blocking the street – but an 80 foot oak across the street from our house fell about 10 PM.  It fell the other way into an empty lot.  Had it fallen our way it would have demolished the front of our house including the living room we were sitting/shivering in (several people did die in NJ from trees falling on houses or cars).  Oddly, we heard nothing when the huge tree hit only 30 feet away apparently due to the howling wind, but noticed a few minutes later that we had no water – the tree’s roots had pulled up and broken the water main running down the street and replaced it with a small river.  We worried about how we would flush toilets until we realized that we could get all the flushing water we needed using buckets from the new river.  We were only without water for 24 hrs.  Our only damage was loss of our TV antenna from the roof.


Walking after the storm, I found the tree damage patterns interesting.  Nice to find something to take my mind off the shivering. Few of the trees I had thought vulnerable, dry brittle older maples, fell.  The majority of downed trees were evergreen and oak. Most were blown over, root ball pulled from ground, rather than broken.  The evergreens had shallow root systems as did the oaks and even the smaller rainfall still softened the ground.  But many of the other trees also had shallow roots.  It appeared that the primary difference was that the maples and many others had already lost most of their leaves while the oaks do not lose theirs until January most years so they and the evergreens offered far more resistance to the wind (but the wind won).


We survived our week without power.  Our neighbor had a generator and shared a little electricity a few hours a day to keep our refrigerator cool and our mobile phones charged.  But we had no heat. The temperature in our house was down in the low 50’s most nights but our body heat and a few (carefully monitored) candles would usually get the living room up to nearly 60 by afternoon.  The down comforters on our bed and a few extra layers on our bodies made the nights more comfortable and I heated water on the outdoor grill and filled a Nalgene bottle that Jan used as a bed warmer.  We spent our time walking around to see the damage and reading.  Jan read her Kindle by candle or LED headlamp and my Android tablet allowed me to read Kindle books by its own light.  We ate cold food from what was left in our refrigerator. We made coffee and tea and heated soup or canned foods using our outdoor grill.  By the end of the week cold sponge baths were getting very tiring and we longed for a bath or shower.  My lab got power and opened one day before our home did and I was glad to be able to shower at the lab.


Modern Cyber Society has become too dependent on electricity.  Much of modern technology is inherently electronic but older technology need not be so dependent.  There are other forms of energy, but they all seem to have become dependent on electricity.  During Sandy, gas stations with petrol in their tanks could not distribute it because their pumps were electric (and they had no generators that could have used a little petrol to pump the rest of it).  We have fuel oil heat and our neighbor has natural gas, yet neither could be used without electricity.  Combustion doesn't require electricity, yet cyber society has allowed it to become dependent on it.  Why don't combustion furnaces have a manual mode?  Sure the thermostats will not work, but I am willing to turn them on and off with a switch in order to have a little heat.


Ironically some of the most modern technology advances did keep working.  We had no heat and our landline phones were out (ours is over fiber and the backup batteries to the modem were down in about 18 hour and the lines were down), but our mobile smart phones worked continuously.  We had voice, email and web access and only had to borrow a little electricity or use the car to keep them charged. Many towns in NJ have a “reverse 911” system that lets the town send recorded messages to all residents, so our mobile phones let us keep up to date on local recovery efforts (and tell us that they were still not yet working on power in our area).  If we allow ourselves to become so dependent on electricity, you would think we would try to ensure the security of the grid.


In thousands of cases, falling trees hit power lines that were attached to poles so strongly that they broke the tops off the poles, downing both lines and transformers (there were at least 200 broken poles just in Bernardsville) -- in many cases strongly enough to hold the trees up at crazy angles.  Why do we make them so strong and attach them so well?  Surely, it's easier to replace or reattach a wire than to install a new pole.  I wouldn't want the wires to come loose simply in the wind, but shouldn't they be “break away”, detaching before the pole breaks?


NJ loves its trees (and that should please Mother Nature) so cutting them all down to protect electric lines will never happen, but if we choose to be so dependent on electricity we must improve reliability some way.  It seems obvious that lines should be buried, at least in new developments and the main trunks (when not on metal towers above the trees).  But even burying the local street lines and lines to houses would seem to pay for itself in the long run.  Other areas of the country with fewer trees do this.  When will we wake up?


There were some blessings from this storm.  I found a nice use for a sweater that I had bought years ago on a trip to Ireland but found too warm to wear anywhere (until now).  I got a week’s extra vacation (but would not have chosen to spend it shivering).  I read several books that I had not found time for previously.  Without the oak, we’ll get more afternoon sun in winter (but more heat in summer) and fewer leaves to rake each January.


Our year had more pleasant adventures as well.  In June, I had a meeting in Brussels and as usual Jan tagged along and we added pleasure to both ends.  We flew into Paris and spent four days visiting areas that we had not gotten to two years ago.  We stayed in nice quiet hotel on Rue du  Dragon in the St Germain district, with easy walks to the Invalides, Cathédrale du Dôme (where Napoleon is buried), the Latin Quarter and areas around the Sorbonne and the le Panthéon.  We rode the metro out to Basilique du Sacré-Coeur – beautiful church and view overlooking Paris.


We did have one excitement in Newark before catching our flight.  We arrived at the airport with generous time before our flight, but after sitting in the lounge for nearly an hour, I realized that I had left the folder with our itinerary at home on my desk.  It had all the info about the hotels we’d reserved and our train tickets.  We still had about 90 min before our flight.  We could have gotten along without it (most of the information was in my computer) and gotten the tickets re-issued, but it would have been a lot of trouble and delays, so I decided to make a mad dash for home and try to make it back before our flight.  We’d come by limo, so I got a cab in the line and explained to the driver my need to hurry (I didn’t actually use the phrase you always hear in the movies “and step on it”) and that it would be a round trip.  Of course a fifty mile round trip in heavy traffic and a dash into and out of my house and another trip through security at the airport would be tight in the time left.  The taxi driver seemed to catch the urgency. I’ve never had quite such an exciting ride through traffic.  Of course, this would not be cheap and then I realized I was not carrying enough US cash (we were leaving the country) to pay for the trip, so we’d also have to stop by an ATM. As we approached the terminal, police activity delayed my drop-off another five minutes and so I arrived just as the plane should start loading. I ran every step (while keeping Jan informed of my progress by mobile phone).  Fortunately the security line was modest but seemed to move at a snail’s pace.  As I got through and began to run again, Jan informed me that the plane loading was nearly complete and the agent said that if I did not arrive in 3 min they’d have to close the doors. I could see, her and the agent alone at the door as I was running down the concourse.  I managed to get through the door as she was closing it and get to my seat without a heart attack (but just). After that the rest of our trip including rushing for train connections in Paris seemed trivial.


After our time in Paris, we took the train to Brussels where I had my meetings and Jan found some areas not explored on our previous trips.  We enjoyed several dinners in the Grand-Place.  Brussels in a lovely city but after five visits there was not much new.


After my meetings were over, we took the train to Venice.  We had to change trains in Paris and since they used different stations, had a slightly rushed transfer by metro, but made the connection.  We’d considered a night-train, since we’d never ridden on a sleeper, but found that all the berths were for three and if you did not fill one, they would force couples to split and stay in single-gender berths.  That didn’t sound nearly as interesting and since the trip would go through the French Alps, it seemed a daylight trip would be more rewarding.  The only train would have arrived in Venice inconveniently late so we broke the trip with an overnight stay in Milano and had a little time to see the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.


The next afternoon we were on to Venice for seven days.  We’d been to Venice twice before but only for a single day each time and so only saw highlights.  This trip we got the week pass to the Vaporetto (water bus) and rode and walked everywhere including a trip out to Isola San Michele (the Venetian cemetery island), Murano (the glassworks island) and of course, Isoli di San Giorgio and della Giudecca.  The Accademia has fantastic paintings and all of the churches were wonderful, but it was HOT (it was July by time we got there).  I wore pants/shorts with zip off legs, so I could zip them on for the churches that did not allow shorts.  And of course we gained a few pounds (in spite of all the walking) on the wonderful food. 


We stopped for one day in Verona on the train trip back to Milano for the flight home.  We would have loved to have had another week.


This fall after shivering through Sandy, we decided to take a long weekend and visit New Orleans.  We’ve always wanted to visit, it would be a lot warmer and maybe we could compare recovery from Katrina with what NJ was doing for Sandy.  We spent a wonderful three days in the French Quarter, photographing the buildings, taking a mule cart ride (horses cannot take the summer heat there) around the Quarter, shopping the French Market and riding paddlewheel steamer down the river.  We learned that the “French Quarter” architecture is actually Spanish, since it burned to the ground and was rebuilt during the time the French had ceded Louisiana to the Spanish; that the old Catholic cemetery has a Protestant section for prominent, non-Catholic citizens, but the New Orleans Voodoo Queen of the 1830s, Marie Laveau, is buried in the Catholic section because she married a Catholic; and that Storyville (the old red-light district where Jazz was born) was created to clean up the French Quarter but closed by the Army during WW I because it was a half-mile closer to the base than permitted by Federal law and soldiers were arriving in France with Syphilis and unfit to fight.  We found nearly no jazz left on Bourbon Street. Most have now moved to Frenchmen Street just outside the French Quarter.  There is still great traditional jazz at Preservation Hall just off Bourbon St, but it is a tiny room – only 30 seated on benches and standing room for 70 and one must stand in line at least 45 min to get even standing room. We’ll have to go again to explore the Garden District, swamp and nearby plantations.


Terry L Anderson, Dec 2012.


Link to my photos of Sandy damage in Bernardsville:


Jan’s perspective: Getting Back to Normal

Dear friends...some of you may know some of this, so I apologize if it seems repetitive...


Our Sandy ordeal ended Monday afternoon November 6, a week to the day when the power was restored to our neighborhood at 1:30pm.  By the time we went to bed at 11 that night the house had warmed up, so the first time in a week it didn't feel like everything we touched and sat on was a cube of ice.  Another luxury!  Terry really had no trouble staying warm when the power was off as he has the metabolism of an internal combustion engine.  For me, it was more of a challenge.  But by wearing layers and layers and down coats I was able to be warm as well.  I also used the vintage raccoon coat I bought a few years ago to keep me warm when going to the city in freezing temps.  I didn't wear it because it is so very heavy and bulky, but I sat on it on the couch with the fur acting as a wonderful insulator from the cold furniture.  Then, when it came time to go to bed, I would lay it down, fur side up, on the mattress and slept on top of it.  It was already warmed up from my body heat so I didn't

have to endure the endless time to warm up a cold bed!  I was thinking of heating bricks on our grill and wrapping them in towels to take to bed, but Terry said water would hold the heat better, so we heated some on the grill instead, then filled an empty V-8 bottle (a real water bottle).  Then our down comforters were all I needed to keep warm through the night.  I went to bed with more layers on than most, he would wear a t-shirt.  I swear he has a few polar bears in his family tree, and I've inherited my metabolism from a long line of reptiles.


Our neighbors were wonderful by allowing us to plug into their generator when it was running, and they could get more heat in their house from a gas stove and a gas fireplace, so they invited us to use their house as a warming station.  On the Tues. night right after the storm, we had a neighborhood potluck barbeque as several families needed to grill meat before it went bad.  So we had a feast of lamb, ribs, and chicken along with mashed potatoes and several sides of veggies.  We used our outdoor grill, which has a gas burner, to boil water and heat soup, etc. because we have an electric stove.  We were fortunate in our area that we got very little rain with the storm, so fewer roadways and basements flooded, so fewer people needed to be rescued from flooding.  Of course that was not the case by the shore.  In any event, our house is on the top of a hill, so we don't have to worry about basement flooding.  It may seep a little water dampness if the ground is completely saturated, but we don't have to worry about our house floating away.


Terry was checking for water during the storm, and when we discovered we had no water, we were very concerned about being without water to flush toilets.  However, when we could see what happened Tues. morning, there was a gush of water running down the street from the hole left by the root ball.  So, I dashed over with several buckets and filled them, so our flushing problem was solved.  Soon more people from our neighborhood came with their buckets and it shortly became like the village well with people gathering to get water and share stories.  The water company came as soon as they could and when I went outside to thank them for coming so soon, the workers apologized for not responding as soon as they got the call in the middle of the hurricane!  We were so grateful to get that fixed!  Getting power was another matter, and when Terry found a web site showing power outages across the state county by county and township by township, Bernardsville was the worst town in the state with 100% power outage.  That figure remained until sometime late Sunday night.  The power workers working here in Bernardsville are from PIKE, a North Carolina power company. 


Today we got two out of four gas stations in town pumping gas again and the lines are long.  Getting gas is the remaining problem for us and the state is on a mandatory rationing schedule using odd/even days to get gas and then limiting the amount pumped to $40, which is about 10 gals.  There for the first few days after the storm, they were only letting emergency vehicles get gas.  Now commercial vehicles are not limited to the rationing restrictions.  Last Sat. when our collective gas cans for the generator were depleted, Terry and I made a gas run by driving out I 78 west about 20 miles to a small town, and were able to get gas and the wait was only about 3 blocks long and it took only 30 minutes of waiting.  We were fortunate.  Many of my friends tell of waiting in gas line for 2 or more hours.  You have probably heard of the gas stations that required police on the premises to control aggression.  We haven't encountered that.  When we got gas, the station workers were very efficient and organized, so no outside help was needed.  In new Jersey it is against the law for motorists to pump gas, but at the station where we were, they ignored that and everyone pumped their own, so the turnover was quick.  Part of the reason gas lines are so long, is that people have to continually refill gas cans for their generators.  Some stations have a line for gas cans and another one for cars.  (Claude and Betty, you were wise to get the back-up generator you did because, not only would you have to keep refilling your generator, you would have to compete with everyone else at the gas stations trying to get more gas for their generators and run the risk that the station either couldn't pump gas because they had no

electricity to run the pumps...a huge problem here...or that the station would run out of gas before you got to the pump...another problem here, too.)  And, it should be a great asset for selling the house.


Lessons learned?  Of course, the obvious about non-perishable food and drinkable water.  You don't have to run to the store to buy water.  Just fill up containers you have at home as long as you have enough for one gallon per person per day - include more if you have pets.  Those headband lights so popular with wonderful when without lights.  They are my newest best thing!!  (All you campers can roll your eyes when reading this, as you already know all about how great they are.)  Without them I could not have read anything, and reading was a good stay-warm way to pass the time.  I also found that some physical activity, even mild, can increase body heat when one starts to feel a chill.  (Again, you campers and active people know this.) Get a good generator that can power several appliances, not just the refrigerator.  Our neighbor says he is going to get a new generator that can run on 3 different kinds of fuel, more expensive but a good idea; have a gas stove, have a gas fireplace so you can cook and have heat.  Do fill up as many buckets as you have with water for flushing toilets, both our tubs can retain water for a 30 minute bath, but they both drain out overnight.  As soon as the storm is predicted, start filling up several gas containers with gas (you can always use leftover gas in your car or lawnmowers). 


Get many hundreds as you can withdraw because if the electricity is out, no cash machines can work (and you can't rely on stores being able to process credit cards if their cash registers lack electricity.)  And, if some cash machines are working, they run out of $$ because everyone is trying to get cash at the same time.  If you have to reshingle your roof, get the shingles with the highest rating.  Many houses in our neighborhood and town lost shingles during the storm and had water damage. They were frantic to get them reshingled. They only had two days before the next expected storm.  Our roof came through perfectly.  We had replaced it 10 years ago with the highest rated shingle on the market.  Only our TV antenna blew over.  Old-school construction is better than new flimsy cheaper vinyl siding.  Build with strong quality materials.  A newer home across the street from us has several problems from wind damage including shingles that blew off and vinyl siding that buckled in the wind. 


Don't plant singleton evergreen trees.  By far the most trees down were evergreens.  Hardly any trees broke, evergreen or deciduous, 95% have been uprooted including the huge oak across the street from us.  Evergreens, as you know, have shallow root systems and they have evolved to live enmass ...strength in numbers kind of thing.  And, as you know from experience on Whidbey, they fall over at a high rate.  And, CHECK YOUR INSURANCE POLICY CAREFULLY.  I can't remember the exact terminology, but some policies have a clause about linked damage, like wind and water, so if one occurs, the other is invalidated...or something like that.  Also, most policies have a higher deductible for hurricane damage than if the storm is categorized as a tropical storm.  So make sure you have a policy that will actually pay for all types of damage.  I know that this storm has people rethinking building codes...for instance, don't put hospital back-up generators in the basement as once the basement floods, that's it for power. 


NY city is debating putting flood gates at the entries into subways to prevent surface water from flooding them and FINALLY people here are beginning to talk about putting electrical wires in the ground.  Where I grew up in Iowa, they did this 40-50 years ago!!!!! We feel very fortunate to have weathered the storm with no damage and were able to stay warm without our furnace.  We have many reasons to give thanks during thisChristmas season.


Happy Holidays to all and Hoping you have a wonderful 2013 – Jan & Terry