The Great Halloween storm of 2011 has come through the Northeast and gone, leaving over 2 million homes without power and hundreds of thousands of homes without power for extended periods of time. We were among the more fortunate ones, having gone without power for just over 2 days. Half of my street still doesn’t have power back. Many of my co-workers are dealing with life without water, heat, light, refrigeration and many of the basic services that we take for granted. I’m not the only one who has reportedly experienced that for a while after the power returned it was a little thrill to have something actually happen when a switch was flipped.
What was really striking to me though was the fact that people seemed to be most upset about losing connectivity to the phone and internet networks! I live in a town that reportedly has the fastest residential internet speeds in the nation. (see the NY Times article “For Idaho and the Internet, Life in the slow lane.”) We are used to instant gratification when it comes to all-things-digital. But with the power out, and telephone and internet service disrupted, we were stripped of our information connection. Smart phones either ran out completely or had to be powered off to save what little battery was left. Laptops searched constantly for a not-to-be-found wireless network signal. Even with UPS battery-based power supplies, PCs couldn’t get a signal from the wire.
It seemed to be the younger generations who were most at-a-loss. We had to resort to things like reading the paper to get news, playing scrabble for entertainment, and walking to a friend’s house to check in, connecting by offering to share food and warmth with a neighbor.
I sat with a friend last night and recalled a childhood less connected. If we got to watch an hour of television a day – eg a news program followed by a sit-com on a 13” fuzzy black-and-white screen, we were lucky. We couldn’t use the phone because it cost money. We ran out the back yard to join the neighborhood street hockey game. We sat in the tree fort to have a private chat. We hung out at the store to get the gossip. Mom called us in for dinner by ringing the bell hanging on the back porch. We warmed up by the wood-stove in the kitchen.
If we gained something from our experiences in the Halloween storm, it was a reminder of how dependent we now are on our digital communications.