Maybe it was the fact that I tied the knot with my beautiful wife, Laura. Or maybe it was the blustery entrance of Hurricane Irene the following day. Let’s just say it was an unforgettable weekend.
That’s right, mere hours after a simple but beautiful wedding ceremony in New York City on Friday (August 26), our downtown honeymoon was cut short as we cleared out Saturday morning ahead of public transportation closures and mandatory evacuations. Returning to our northern New Jersey apartment, my wife, daughter and I were lucky to find that my wonderful in-laws had kindly stocked with emergency goods like canned food and bottled water.
The winds picked up as the day progressed, with a deluge of rain coming later that night. On Sunday morning at approximately 2am our electricity went out. I know because I was up with our daughter who was awake all night as the storm raged. Powerful gusts started early Sunday morning and lasted most of the day with heavy rain squalls off and on. We were relieved that there was no flooding in our immediate area, but we realized that it would probably be a while before we had power again.
The novelty soon wore off and we started craving luxuries like music and cold beer and we soon found ourselves cursing our lack of electricity. But our experience was nothing compared to that of many in surrounding regions.
Not only were we without power but, later that day, we learned that flooding had caused short-circuited control panels at our local water treatment plant, causing it to go offline and as a result, our tap water had become unsafe. Our taps were still flowing, the plant just wasn’t able to treat it. So, for over four days after the storm, we had neither electricity nor clean drinking water. (Take a photo tour to see what happened to shut down this specific water treatment facility.)
That Monday evening, in the process of tossing close to $200 worth of food from the rapidly thawing fridge, I thought, “What a waste!” After all, what do you do with large amounts of spoiled food (when composting isn’t an option)? I can only imagine how many thousands of dollars' worth of food was thrown out by other residents and restaurants in the nearby town of Millburn, where we saw restaurant employees unloading compromised food from their swamped basements and storage spaces.
For the first few nights it was fun to live in a more “rustic” way, reading by candlelight and flashlight and even having time to start a thick sociology volume that was on my reading list. Fumbling in the dark for the can opener or my toothbrush gave everyday domestic tasks an adventurous air. The neighborhood filled with the sound of kids playing, and laughing and whole families ventured outside, leading us to introductions and conversations we hadn’t had previously. The shared experience of braving the storm and losing power was its own connection and one that united us in ways mere proximity hadn’t. Fading with the daylight, bedtime came early for all of us – 9pm – and we slept soundly.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses—being modern people and liking our technology, the novelty soon wore off and we started craving luxuries like music and cold beer from the fridge. We soon found ourselves cursing our lack of electricity. But our experience (though more severe than that of many New Yorkers), was nothing compared to that of those in surrounding regions.
Flooded basements and downed trees and limbs led our county to receive a declaration of FEMA disaster assistance but despite the incommodious circumstances, we were lucky because our neighborhood experienced no major flooding or storm damage. Many others around New Jersey and the Northeast were not so fortunate.
Up and down the eastern seaboard many places are still dealing with the ravages of Irene. In northern New Jersey, towns like Denville (will the great Italian deli, Sergio’s reopen?), Wayne, Cranford, Wallington and Fairfield, along with larger cities like Paterson along the swollen Passaic River, are cleaning up post-flood or are still contending with receding flood waters. Some families were evacuated to shelters and, like my family, millions went without power, some waiting over a week for the lights to go on.
In hard-hit Connecticut, where inland flooding was widespread, at one point over 600,000 residents– 17 percent of its population – were without power. An astounding 40 percent of Rhode Islanders lost their power due to the storm, although severe storm damage mostly bypassedthe state. While it seemed that most of the towns and villages on Long Island dodged a direct hit, the region still had one of the largest power outages in its history. Although the major urban centers of New York City, Washington D.C. and Boston escaped relatively unscathed, the storm was disastrous for many.
In the Northeast, Hurricane Irene’s impact was largely inland—flash floods from rising streams, creeks and rivers, rather than the usual coastal storm surge and flooding (coastal flooding was a major problem further south, especially in the Carolinas, Virginia and southern New Jersey). The shocker for many observers was that Vermont, a completely landlocked state, experienced Irene as one of the worst storms in its history, especially in the southern part of the state where flooding wiped out entire towns and left others, like Brattleboro and Bennington, underwater. Likewise, small mountain towns in New York’s Catskill region were destroyed because of overwhelming heavy rains.
When one’s health, safety and even survival are at risk because of natural disasters, everyday objections to things like bottled water and processed food easily fall away to considerations like the safety of yourself and your family, having food that won’t spoil without refrigeration and having plenty of drinking water stored away, bottled or not.
In many states, farms incurred serious damage and were, in some cases, completely devastated when wind gusts and floodwaters appeared in the middle of the harvest season. Many crops were washed away or left in standing water (everything from corn to blueberries to tobacco) and it was a sad sight from the Carolinas to Vermont. Even worse, many of the small scale, sustainable farms don’t have Federal crop insurance since that program is geared towards big growers. Because of crop decimation and its impact on farmers' incomes, the call to buy local at farmers' markets has stepped up and in New York City, restaurants have gotten involved through “Dine Out Irene,” where participating restaurants will donate up to 10 percent of sales to affected farmers on September 25—click here to see who’s participating. For more Hurricane relief in the NYC region, look to Just Food’s Let Us Eat initiative where you can help network-affiliated farmers by volunteering or donating in a few different ways.
As an Ecocentric blogger, there was no mistaking Irene’s perfect encapsulation of “fwenergy”—our made up word for the nexus between Food, Water and Energy. When you look closely you see the reliance that each has on the other. For instance, rapidly rising floodwaters curtailed electricity at the water treatment plant leaving us without clean water. The lack of electricity also ruined the perishable food in our fridge, causing us to consume canned and processed food that we wouldn’t otherwise. Also, it was flash floods and inundation of fields that killed crops throughout the East.
When one’s health, safety and even survival are at risk because of natural (or even human-caused) disasters, being prepared is paramount and everyday objections to things like bottled water and processed food easily fall away to considerations like the safety of yourself and your family, having food that won’t spoil without refrigeration and having plenty of drinking water stored away, bottled or not.
In the end, Irene was a very costly reminder that we can’t deny or ignore natural events, particularly water-related ones. As we know from observable and verifiable climate science data and resultant climate modeling, extreme precipitation events (and droughts, for that matter) will continue to intensify (PDF). In the Northeast, the Upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, heavy water deluges will likely become more frequent, causing more inundation and flooding. Prior to the 5-11 inches of rain that Irene poured onto New Jersey, August 2011 was already one of the wettest on record. Of course, for New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the U.S., and one that is both low-lying and wetland-rich, large amounts of paved surfaces that leave no room for natural water absorption or recharge is a planning disaster that cries out for a remedy. Just a few weeks later, we are being reminded again as heavy rains from Tropical Storm Lee’s remnants produced heavy rains and has caused flooding in the Susquehanna River Valley in already-waterlogged New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
We were thankful when the power and water were restored. It meant we could eat warm food we prepared ourselves, we could give our daughter her favorite organic yogurt snack and we could once more sip from the faucet. The return of electricity and clean drinking water meant a return to normalcy. And though Irene cut short our honeymoon and dampened our celebratory weekend, she also left us a little wiser about the things we take for granted, perhaps a little more prepared, and that’s not a bad way to start off a marriage.