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Monday, December 29, 2008

Using a Prius as an Emergency Generator:

Ice storm tests mettle of Harvard residents

A tree brought down power lines on Blanchard Road. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz) MORE PHOTOS
A tree brought down power lines on Blanchard Road. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

After four days without power, the LeBlancs of Candleberry Lane might have been weary of living without heat, water, and electricity. But on Monday evening, and facing another chilly night, the family of four revealed a hardy good humor and a streak of resiliency in describing how they were coping in the aftermath of Thursday night’s ice storm. At first they were caught off-guard in the pitch-black of Friday morning, and found themselves searching their back porch by tiki-torch-light for leftover jack-o-lantern candles. Thereafter, the family quickly adjusted to the storm’s imposition.

Sleeping arrangements were dictated by the location of a fireplace in the master bedroom. The whole family could fall asleep while that room was still warm, alongside their cats and a pair of birds, which had to be moved to the bedroom or risk freezing their tropical feathers.

“The cats are learning to love each other from all the togetherness,” said Elizabeth LeBlanc.

Peter LeBlanc said the temperature in the room dipped to about 42 degrees on the coldest night, encouraging spirited burrowing behavior amongst the four cats.

“They are sleeping under the covers. Aggressively, at times” he noted wryly.

LeBlanc also found humor in his neighbor’s lament about having to start his generator back up in the morning, after the temperature had fallen to 59 degrees.

“He just couldn’t believe how long it took for the temperature to come back up from the 59-degree mark,” LeBlanc chuckled.

The group showed ingenuity at mealtime too, boiling water in a sterno-powered fondue pot and powering the coffee grinder from the car adaptor. Ten-year-old Julia LeBlanc used her Girl Scout training and some aluminum foil to grill ham-and-cheese sandwiches in the fire, though she found that bagels tended to burn. Their frozen food was saved by the next-door neighbors, whose home had some power from a powerful generator. To power their plumbing, the LeBlanc family tapped the five-gallon drums of water that Peter had stashed in his basement some three years ago for just such emergencies. A healthy supply of firewood kept the fireplaces burning, and Peter LeBlanc even took the time to rent a log-splitter and share it with his neighbors.

“We’ve done very well!” said Elizabeth.

Anne Hentz also declined to flee her home, but then again, she had no reason to seek shelter. At her home on Ann Lee Road, electricity was uninterrupted, though phone and Internet were down for a few days. Anne instead offered shelter, taking in two of her children’s friends, several of her friends’ pets—including a Chinese flying fish and an English setter—and storing perishables. In driving her twins and their teammates to Acton for indoor soccer games, Hentz was struck by the devastation of Harvard relative to Acton, where it was business as usual.

“Unless you are living in primitive conditions yourself,” she noted, “you don’t fathom the importance of the situation.”

A friend from Florida, however, was concerned enough to contact Hentz after reading about Harvard’s plight in Tuesday’s Boston Globe.

The Still River household headed by Katie and Dewey Brown is a lively but well-ordered one, consisting as it does of six children ranging in age from 2 to 12. On Tuesday, their home brimmed with holiday cheer and playmates for the Brown youngsters. Oldest daughter Sarah practiced her Schumann, while the youngest, Ivy, toddled around the kitchen.

People pulled together with a remarkable lack of fear and a profound sense of responsiblility.

—Adam Horowitz,
The General Store

The scene was quite different last Friday morning, however, explained Katie. “It was eerily quiet, which gave me the feeling that we were alone and strangely isolated,” she said. Husband Dewey had headed for work in Boston, only to return about 30 minutes later, an experience repeated by commuters all over town that morning.

“At that point, all routes out of town were blocked by downed lines or branches,” recounted Katie. The energetic, easy-going woman—who frequently takes seven-mile runs pushing a double stroller—knew that circumstances had conspired against her natural ability to take events in stride. Common sense and a burning fever—brought on by a soon-to-be-diagnosed case of strep throat—told her to arrange for a hotel room. The family fish, Fish ’n’ Chips, came along in his old-fashioned bowl, sloshing water on an already chilly Sarah as the car bumped out of Harvard that evening. A worried Dewey stayed with the ship on Saturday night, worried that the antique home’s pipes would freeze. When power was restored to Still River on Sunday, Brown was elated, despite his evident exhaustion. Their only loss was a maple tree.

“But we have absolutely nothing to complain about,” Katie emphasized. “The Fire Department was outstanding. Our friends and neighbors checked on us. Our pipes didn’t freeze. It makes me want to write a letter to the editor,” she concluded.

Around the corner at Madigan Lane, John Sweeney, a member of the town’s conservation-minded Heat Advisory Committee, took a characteristically green approach to powering his home during the storm. He reported his achievement in an e-mail, saying it was no big deal, but that his wife thought it an impressive tale worth sharing: Sweeney ran his refrigerator, freezer, TV, woodstove fan, and several lights through his Prius, for three days, on roughly five gallons of gas.

“When it looked like we were going to be without power for awhile, I dug out an inverter (which takes 12v DC and creates 120v AC from it) and wired it into our Prius…These inverters are available for about $100 many places online,” he wrote.

The device allowed the engine to run every half hour, automatically charging the car battery and indirectly supplying the required power.

Helly Swartwood of Fairbank Street described a similar approach designed by her husband Malcolm Carley. They used that system until they could borrow a generator from a family member.

Adam Horowitz, owner with his wife Lyn of the General Store, also focused on the storm’s silver lining. “The first thing we had to do was stabilize this old building, and Fate stepped in to help us,” he said. A call from Harvard resident Dan Justicz tipped Horowitz off to an industrial generator available from Toreku Tractor. Horowitz snapped it up, averting what he was sure would have been unthinkable damage to the newly restored building.

Horowitz said that daily deliveries of newspapers, bread, and pastry were diverted from the store to the shelter, where Chef Paul was looking for breads to fill in the meals he prepared three times a day for shelter residents and drop-ins. Horowitz wasn’t happy to have lost four days worth of business, but he was heartened by the spirit of his adoptive community.

“Harvard shone through this storm,” he said Tuesday. “People pulled together with a remarkable lack of fear and a profound sense of responsibility.”

At Westward Orchards Farm Stand, which was without power as of Wednesday morning, co-owner Karen Green said their building was secure, but that losing nearly a week of business was difficult, especially since the store closes after the new year. “I hope people will think of us for their holiday shopping once we can reopen, which I also hope will be soon,” she said.

Green noted that she and her family enjoy hosting a holiday open house for shoppers in the weekends before Christmas, and was sorry to have lost a full weekend to the weather. People can buy trees now, by dropping by and calling the phone number affixed to a sign near the conifers, she said.