Friday, February 8, 2008

Chapter Seven

Revisiting the issues of municipal utilities, Scott and Sissy have had their own share of scares. The family's main water supply is by a residential well. During the planning and prepping phase they became very concerned about having a secure water supply. There was no way for them to store 12 months of drinking and cooking water for their family of 7; that would have been a bare minimum of 2500 gallons. They looked at securing their well, but for many different reasons in their situation that wasn't feasible - too deep a well for a well bucket, too vulnerable to e. coli for a hand pump, to expensive for a big enough generator that required a constant supply of fuel to run.

They settled on stocking as much water and other drinkables as they could and creating a water catchment system. This catchment system uses food grade barrels and buckets and takes advantage of their existing gutter system and steep-pitched roof and valleys.

About three and a half weeks into the pandemic the power went out with no warning. As Scott and Sissy scrambled to see what was wrong they found that the entire neighborhood was without power, even radio stations with transmitters in other areas of the county were off the air. Scott and Sissy scrambled to put their water catchment system in place, all the while lamenting that they hadn't filled all the empty containers that they had been saving for just this eventuality. What had they been thinking? If they had filled the containers right away, and kept them re-filled as they were emptied, there would have been much less need for panic now.

When the power went out, they had yet to re-try their deep cell solar energy system. Last time they had tried to test the system they were able to power their battery charger, lamps, and a couple of the smaller appliances, but they couldn’t run the well motor. Scott decided that he would tinker with it more, but now was not the time.

They counted and re-counted all of the drinkables that they still had and calculated how long their supply would last. Sissy shed some tears where the kids couldn't see or hear her, then got out the solar-powered and hand-cranked lanterns and radios and set up the solar battery re-charger. They hadn't yet figured out how Rose was going to continue her college courses when the laptop batteries ran out if their solar recharging system didn’t work, but by this time the whole family was exhausted and they made an early night of it.

The next morning Sissy was jerked from sleep by the alarm clock going off. Then she realized she heard the TV that they failed to switch off the day before. She quickly woke Scott and listened to the morning new reports to discover that the power had been restored by the Herculean efforts of the local electric supplier and community volunteers some time while they slept. This time the kids did see Sissy cry, but it was tears of relief.

James later told his dad, as they worked outside, that seeing his mom cry told him how bad things really were more than any TV or radio show could.

Local news outlets reported the story of several main pieces of equipment giving out at the same time causing a cascade effect that resulted in a multi-county black out. There were areas where the power still had not been restored because wires and breakers had been fried. Work teams were being dispatched as quickly as possible on a priority basis, but it would be several days before all repairs were completed.

Scott and Sissy decided then and there never to be caught out again. Everyone began filling every empty container in the house that they could find. They filled up two of their black barrels, all of the empty two-liter bottles, and all of the collapsible containers. They only filled up one of the water bobs in the tub so that they would still have one tub for indoor bathing. The other three they set up in very large storage bins, the kind large artificial Christmas trees are stored in. It gave them over a month’s worth of drinking and cooking water should the power go out again. They figured they would rotate the water out of the containers as needed.

While they were busy doing this, they listened to a spokesperson from the utility company explain that it was likely, to maintain some service, that rolling black outs would occur. Households were encouraged to immediately begin planning ahead for this likelihood and to begin conserving energy where possible. The spokesperson continued on by saying that as soon as arrangements and schedules were finalized, everyone would be notified.

In the end there was no official notification. Rolling black outs begin happening without a set schedule. The black outs were determined by maintenance issues and absenteeism and not by an approved plan from the boardroom. The rolling black outs become part of the Chapman's new normal. When the power is on they fill water containers, charge batteries, and keep up to date with family and friends via the Internet.

When the power is off they make use of their stored water, the water catchment system, lanterns, a Coleman stove and gas grill, and water from their pool for the toilets. Their laptops allow them to access the Internet, but local routing stations aren’t always up and running. When the power is on they bathe regularly and keep up with laundry. When the power is off, they wash as best they can ... body and clothes ... and use a clothesline to air out bedding and dry wet garments.

Lucky for our family the power in Tampa is on more often than it is off. That can't be said in some cities and states that haven't planned as well. Cities suffering from civil unrest, cities suffering from unmitigated attack rates and CFRs, are also suffering from exaggerated utility interruptions. If those places weren't bad before, they are now on their way to horrific trials.

Even with the power off, our family still has some luxuries that their neighbors do not. The biggest one is the ability to get the news on their solar powered radio. Even when the days are cloudy they can still charge it because it also has a crank feature. Their understanding of the overall picture of the pandemic is less impaired by rumor, though they do have to weed through the hearsay and innuendo.

Tonight’s radio broadcast isn’t the usual fare of public service announcements followed by community mitigation rules and a running commentary on the shocking fatality counts. Tonight a reporter named Devon McLoud is introduced and Scott has a feeling they will be hearing more from this guy as long as he doesn’t get himself killed. His angle is good, but not necessarily unusual. It is more his voice and way of sharing his journey that really catches the listener’s attention. McLoud seems to have charisma by the bucketful, but doesn’t abuse it, which is unique in most media outlets.

McLoud opens his piece by explaining he was between assignments at the beginning of the pandemic. As air travel ground to a halt, he had little choice but to make his own way back to his home base using whatever means possible. Along the way he decided to interview people for a "man on the street" perspective of the pandemic.

Not too many people were feeling disposed to speak honestly to the media. Some because they were still in shock, some because their anger overcame their ability to communicate rationally. Some were suspicious and some blamed the mainstream media for not giving the public more information about a potential pandemic, and of only being concerned with their ratings and advertising dollars generated by reporting on the foibles and breakdowns of celebrities and other public personalities.

It seemed like nobody wanted to talk to reporters about the terrible thing that was affecting us all. People seemed more comfortable forgetting what they’d seen, or maybe even what they’d done. I’d come across some who wondered if the world was coming to an end, or if perhaps God was punishing us for something we did or didn’t do. And for many, I guess the world was ending, at least as they knew it to be after watching several family members die before their eyes in a most grisly way.

One of the most tragic things that I heard tell of or saw myself, was the number of folks who’d taken their own lives or that of a loved one for fear of dying in such a way. And then there were those who had to face it all alone. No one to care for them, or even to grieve when they passed on to the next world.

I ran into a couple of men two days ago about sixty miles South of Fairbridge that were blocking the roadway because they had a busted wheel. They needed help changing it, and since I couldn’t pass by them any other way, I put on my mask and stopped to help. We talked for a while afterwards once they learned I was a news reporter.

"Mary Joe didn’t have any kin folks that we know of," one of the men told me.

"We took an buried her out in back a the barn by the big oak tree, jest like she said she wanted in her note."

When I asked about the note he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled piece of old cloth with writing on it and handed it to me.

"Is it okay to touch that thing?" I asked before taking it.

"Well sir, me an Carl been holdin’ on to it a lot an we ain’t got sick yet."

Carl nodded in agreement as I cautiously took it from his hand and unfolded it to read what Mary Joe had written.

"To whom it might concern. My name is Mary Joe Tanner and I is dyin from this dam flu what’s been goin round. I’ve tried to liv by the good book, but it wasunt allways easy after my sweet Moses past on bout a yar a go. Theys nobody hear but me an my mule Pusser what I set free a bout three days ago. My house an all my world paseshuns I wants to go to the cherch down on First stret. If anyone is so enclined I’d preshate it if I could be bury’t out back under my favrite oak tree. Thar’s ten dollars on the kitchun table fer yer troubels an I thank ya kindly fer em. In

Gods hands, Mary Joe Tanner."

It was a difficult read. Nobody should be alone on their way out of this world. I stood there quietly staring at the cloth after reading it, trying hard to maintain a strong face in front of the strangers while fighting to keep the moisture in my eyes from streaming out.

"We buried her out back just like she asked and then sent word to the Parsonage on First Street about the house an property," Carl told me.

I offered to return the old woman’s note, but they told me to keep it for my story, which I did. I still have it and every now and again l retrieve it from my back pack and read it. Perhaps it’s my way of keeping the old woman from being alone, or maybe it’s to remind myself that I don’t want to be in such a state when my own time comes due.

"And so ends the first installment from investigative reporter Devon McLoud. We at the station wish him luck and safe travels. A program announcement will be made when we receive his next report. A transcript of this story is available at the NPR website."

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