When the power goes out, a flurry of texts and Facebook posts follows: “Yours too? Anybody know why?” If it stays out long enough, phones and social media go quiet too – like the old days, I’m reminded by those with more years than I’ve lived. The delay has to do with the time it takes the cell tower batteries to lose their charge – something I never think to investigate until its happening, and while it’s happening, I can’t investigate it. Fleeting crises don’t hold attention for long.
On New Year’s Day in McKinley Village, outside Denali Park, about four hours passed before we switched to stopping by each others’ houses instead of texting, and another 32 hours before the lights came back on. The length of time would have felt manageable if not for the 20-below temperatures and wind gusting to 70 mph, making each trip to load a traveling neighbor’s wood stove or refuel a generator a high-stakes journey.
We’ve all felt the way gusting winds at 20 below find even the tiniest gap in clothing or doorframes; I imagine each weather factor as another exposed gap, each adding exponential challenge. The wind would have felt manageable if not for the previous month’s 75-inch snow accumulation, drifting across barely cleared driveways and burying trails, generators and woodpiles. November’s record-setting cold required more firewood than some bargained for. If not for the disorienting flash of lightning and roll of thunder the morning after Christmas as I opened the door to let the dog in from the sideways-blowing sleet, I might have been a little less on edge in recent days. And we had it easier than a lot of the Interior. If that saying about Jan. 1 setting the tone for the year to come has any truth to it, 2022 is going to be a wild ride.
My partner, a heavy equipment mechanic whose personal plow rigs were two of only a handful of vehicles in the neighborhood able to handle day after day of snow preceding the outage, said as we collapsed onto the couch still halfway dressed for -75º wind chill on the second night, “I hope people talk about this for a long time. If they stop talking about it, that means it’s becoming normal.”
Without internet, I recounted from memory what Alaska climatologists said throughout December about these extreme events being consistent with a warming planet, about how we’re likely to see more freezing rain, wet heavy snow, mid-winter windstorms and dramatic temperature swings. We were too tired to say much more than that, and fell asleep soon after.
As I write this, the temperature has dropped to -32º F, but without the winds of recent days, it feels almost balmy by comparison. The power is out again; in the window before phones and internet died, word was that this outage was necessary to fix a larger problem. As far as I’m concerned, after working overnight through the windstorm to restore our power, this Golden Valley Electric Association crew can do anything. We recently installed solar, including a battery backup system and inverter, and the fridge and monitor heater are humming away. The plow truck just busted its last spare tire, and my partner’s called it a day or a week or a year and fallen asleep. I trust my friends and neighbors to know what they need to do to stay warm, to check in on each other, to care for each other’s homes the way we would our own.
I also know how many decades of planning, skill-building and budgeting went into our home’s preparedness -- plus the simple luck of living in one of the few homes built here before the power grid arrived, leaving us equipped with propane lights and an ancient diesel generator to back up the new batteries. I know how exhausted we all are from these weeks of shoveling, plowing, repairing, fire-keeping and shuttling gear from house to house.
I worry that if we stop talking about the holiday storms of 2021/22, it will be because we’re telling worse stories of losses to hypothermia in rental cabins with no backup heat source, of fires or carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe attempts to stay warm, or of those emergency medical services personnel were unable to reach because of unseasonably flooded creeks or other impassable trail or road conditions, and/or downed communications networks. It’s unsettling to be among the more prepared for this new normal and yet still feel so precarious, as we tip further into a crisis we’re still learning to comprehend, and that our infrastructure is clearly unable to handle.
I am overwhelmed and inspired daily by the power of community in action. I want to see policymakers address the climate crisis with the urgency and care of volunteer firefighters rushing to a neighbor’s chimney fire, or someone scrubbing clean her friend’s bathroom floor after a frozen pipe overflowed the toilet while she is away. For the most part, Alaskans are pretty damn good in a crisis. But we know that we can’t stay there forever. This crisis is not fleeting. Our solutions shouldn’t be either.
Erica Watson lives and writes on Ahtna lands on the boundary of Denali National Park.
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