Straight line winds, powerful as a hurricane, knocked out electricity in much of West Virginia June 29. More than a week later, residents without well water, toilets or, in some cases, food, turned to each other to resuscitate old skills at survival.
Saturday morning I got to listen to the radio for the first time since a hurricane-strength wind storm knocked out power to most of the state of West Virginia on June 29th (eight days before, if you’re counting). I was curious about how the national media had been covering our disaster and its aftermath, so I listened closely to the 8 am newscast: Syria, Wimbledon, oh yes, there it was at the end: “Millions in West Virginia are still without air conditioning….” Oh, dear.
Clearly, urban journalists, you have no idea. Air conditioning is the least of our worries right now. I realize that in the city when power goes out in a heat wave, air conditioning is the big concern: older folks, especially, can succumb to heatstroke without adequate cooling. But people around here have hardly noticed the lack of air conditioning.
That’s because in our part of the country, these days nearly everyone depends on a well for water. Modern wells depend on electric pumps. So, no power? No water. No water? No dish washing, no showers — and no toilet. Think on that one for a minute.
Another thing: no power? No gas pumps. No gas pumps? No going anywhere. When you live 15, 20, or even 30 miles from the nearest town, you can’t just walk down the street and buy a quart of milk. Oh, and that quart of milk? Gone sour — in the dumpster. The grocery store, 20 or 30 miles away, doesn’t have power either. So no power? No food. None to buy, anyway.
Speaking of food, people in the country rely on their freezers. Animals (deer, cattle, hogs) generally go in the freezer in the fall and feed the family for the rest of the year. No power? No freezer. No freezer? No meat. As my teenage neighbor pointed out, “If the meat in the freezer goes bad, we’ll be very, very vegetarian until the next calf is grown.”
This is not a part of the world where people tend to have paid time off for things like natural disasters. Most people work hourly jobs that don’t pay you if you don’t show up, or they run small-to-tiny farms and businesses that stand to lose big or even fold in the face of a week or more without water or transportation.
So say you’re stranded 30 miles from town with tiny kids begging for milk (I am not exaggerating — toddlers can’t have milk if there’s no refrigeration and no cow), you’re losing at least a quarter of your income this month, all of the food in your fridge and freezer is rotting, your toilet doesn’t work, and you have to ration your last couple of gallons of gas to haul drinking water from the nearest spring (or church or firehouse doing relief work). Sure it’s hot, but you’re not worried about the air conditioning.
We weren’t always so helpless. Just a generation or two ago, people in our area were pretty self-sufficient. Quite a few of my friends have told the world (in quick car-battery-powered facebook sessions on their cellphones) how thankful they are that they neglected to tear down that old outhouse in the corner of the yard.
My childhood friend Angelena Ryder of Huntersville said her dad was joking that the storm took us back to the 19th century in a matter of minutes. “He said he thought it was funny that the younger generation was worried about the elders, when the elders were in fact the ones worried about the younger generation because they had no idea how to live off the land and without modern tech.”
People are talking about self-sufficiency now: neighbors wondering about wind (or solar) powered well pumps, facebook friends swearing to ask their grandmothers to teach them to can. West Virginians are used to finding a way to get by. But it’s also not lost on West Virginians that we provide power for the cities. Between coal, natural gas, and now wind power, we certainly keep the lights on. Isn’t it ironic that we can’t seem to depend on that power ourselves? Are our hills somehow too steep for the 21st century?
This afternoon at Bootstraps Farm in Renick, Michael Buttrill and Caroline Smith hauled their dishes down to the creek to wash them. On the opposite bank, at the base of a forested hill, an electric line hung in a thick tangle of trees. There’s no road leading to that line, just a barely-used footpath. It must be one of the lines the power company says were “set by mules” back in the 1940s. We all look at the line and wonder how in the world the power company will get to that to fix it. We doubt they have mules now. Michael shakes his head. “We could do it back then when we had nothing. Now we have everything, what can we do?”
Rebecca Hartman Huenink is a native of Lobelia, West Virginia. Her thoughts about people and places can sometimes be found at Comforts and Pleasantness.