In 2003 an ice storm paralyzed the city where I still live, taking down power lines, leaving Lexington cold and dark.
At Briarwood, the government-subsidized housing complex I called home, branches bent under the weight of so much winter weather, trees seemed to hang their icy heads in shame, sorry for the light-less, tea-less inconvenience of it all.
The storm moved through the night of February 15th, so we woke up Sunday the 16th with 2 inches of ice coating sidewalks, streets, and trees. Eventually, most of Lexington was without power, as the storm unexpectedly intensified as it moved through the state, leaving utility companies scrambling to repair power lines downed by fallen trees–trees that, in some instances, smashed cars and damaged roofs.
When I woke up in the wee hours of Sunday morning (2:30 according to my journal), the power was already out in my apartment. At the time I lamented not having enough light to read or write by, not anticipating then that I would be without for 6 long days and nights to come.
Admittedly, this comes nowhere near the 13 day stretch we went without power in Haiti last summer, but at least in Port-au-Prince I’d grown accustomed to going without. There we rarely had electricity for more than 8 hours a day, and many Haitians never have any. They really deal with darkness at night, every night.
However, in the winter of 2003, I hadn’t been to Haiti; I was a newbie when it came to power outages. And since I had only an electric stove, I had no means of even boiling water, no hot water for those strong cups of hot tea I used to keep me going, ones I could have used to keep me warm, as well.
With no electricity, it was also difficult to get news—no T.V.—no radio. Eventually, I rounded up enough batteries to power my boom box and began hearing predictions that we might be without utilities for 3 to 7 additional days.
Officially, then, Briarwood was to have been evacuated—residents sent to shelters nearby that generated enough power to keep the heat going and lights on. Some residents went to stay with family, but for most Lexingtonians, local relatives were also doing without, unless they had managed to secure an hotel room, all of which were booked in the city and surrounding areas once it became clear Lexington could remain cold and dark for days, if not weeks to come.
However, unofficially, many residents remained at Briarwood, especially those with pets, as no animals were welcome at shelters. To accommodate these folks, the management, maintenance staff, and younger, able-bodied neighbors like myself pitched in, making sandwiches and coffee, which we delivered door to door. I don’t remember how we made the coffee, especially for so many people, but I have some vague recollection of Terry, the maintenance supervisor securing a small generator that produced enough power to fuel a few of these endeavors.
The second floor craft room in the building where I lived (one I’ve written about before) was a hub of activity carried out in semi-darkness, even during daylight hours, since the room had only one small window. There we gathered in a spirit of strong, if dimly lit, camaraderie, sharing food we knew we’d lose without refrigeration. Some residents with grills on their balconies even managed to roast meats that began thawing in freezers—meat that would definitely rot if not eaten—hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, more and more a carnivore’s delight as the week wore on.
However, with no means of producing heat, our apartments became colder and colder. Thawing meat meant increasingly freezing temperatures in my living room, until on day four of our ordeal, I was wearing five shirts, three pair of sweat pants, and three pair of socks. By day five, I was officially miserable. With no natural light in my bathroom, I struggled to brush my light by candle light and began to crave a long hot bath—not to mention a decent cup of tea. I lament in my journal about being unable to boil water, even to heat it warm enough so tea would steep before cooling in my increasingly cold, dark kitchen.
But just as the dim half-light was becoming a way of life, power returned late on our 6th day of doing without.
And even if the local utility companies had taken longer than we liked to get things up and going, even if I hadn’t had a single cup of tea, we residents of Briarwood had gotten along.
We’d played board games—Monopoly and Clue. We’d fed one another, helped one another, drank coffee instead of tea.
We emerged a stronger community than we’d been before the storm stranded us together on those dark and icy February nights.
We cared. We shared. We became neighbors all over again.