Irene in Hurley
Sunday, August 28 2011
At some point in the wee hours of the morning, the downpour from the tropical weather system known as Irene was joined by strong winds and it wasn't long before a tree fell across a powerline somewhere along those many miles of wire between our house and whatever magical place electricity comes from. I woke up at about this point; I probably would have serenely slept through the howling winds and rain, but the chirping of the dying smoke detectors alerted the night watchman in my head. Simultaneous with all of this, Eleanor leapt into bed. She was shivering from terror at the alien weather outside. Nothing in her nine years of being a dog had prepared her for nature taking such a sudden turn for the cruel and inhospitable.
I could no longer sleep. The weather was now too unusual to sleep through. I didn't want to miss out on such a rare phenomenon; I wanted to be a participant. So I got up and raised the shade to look out into the inky blackness of the starless night. Not only was it starless, it was also devoid of the usual electrically-powered constellations arcing across the Esopus Valley and beyond. Evidently the power outage we were experiencing was much bigger than the kind that happens when a tree falls across a wire.
I decided to walk around the house to see if the storm had caused any damage. For all I knew, Eleanor had been justifiably terrified by the sound of a White Pine crashing through the roof and LCD monitors of the laboratory. But no, the house was intact. There weren't even any carelessly-left-open windows admitting an unforeseen deluge. So now my survey became one of checking for the sorts of problems that only occur in extreme weather situations. I was mostly interested in leaks. Was water coming though the wall where the east deck meets the house? Had any new cracks appeared in the masonry holding back the fill on the western (uphill) side of the house? All of this checked out okay, meaning they will probably never trouble me again so long as I live in this house. But then I heard a loud trickle coming from the boiler room.
From the doorway I could see that the boiler room had a sheet of water as much as a half inch deep over parts of its floor. Water was coming in, but from where? I followed the sound of the trickling until I located its source: the pressure switch for the pump. But the water wasn't coming from a plumbing system, it was coming out of an electrical conduit. Evidently, somewhere underground between the house and the well, there was a place so waterlogged that it was allowing water into the conduit. This implied, of course, that the conduit was imperfectly sealed. I didn't know what any of this meant for the safety or integrity of the wires that deliver 240 volts to the well pump, but it was clear that the electrical conduit was also serving as a conduit for water that was doing its part to make our basment that much more miserable. None of this would have been a problem had the bozos who built our house included a floor drain in the boiler room, but they didn't. Any waste water that appears there has to be collected and dumped elsewhere, usually into the toilet down the hall. But there is a hole in the floor through which the telephone and electical cables pass through the slab and into the gravel beneath it. This is also a handy place to dispose of water; it's vast and well-drained. If I could just catch the leak coming out of the electrical conduit, I could route it through a hose and down through that hole.
The chief difficulty with getting systems to work in the real world is just getting things to stay in place while you are trying to get other things to stay in place. This is why soldering is such an important skill in electronics; once you solder a connection, you can move on to the next step in your project without wondering about the reliability of the connection you just made. The problem with hydrodynamic systems (of which my makeshift leak collector was a part) is orienting components spatially so that one can drain into the other. In my case, I just wanted to put a funnel beneath the drips and have it stay there while I ran the hose to the hole in the floor some six feet away. But I go to move the hose and then the funnel would fall down, and the water it had collected would spill out. I tried several different funnels (in the process destroying one I'd made specifically to introduce antifreeze into the top of my solar panels) until I got one to work.
I thought I had the problem fixed, but I kept finding new water pouring onto the floor from somewhere. After some investigation, I found that the electrical conduit was leaking from a second place, soon after penetrating the foundation wall and entering the boiler room. At this point I only had a tiny funnel to work with and a length of vinyl tubing, and I had to somehow poisition the funnel precisely beneath a leak that I could barely even see, let alone reach. So I took some time and made a little stand for the funnel out of two pieces of wood screwed together, to which I solidly attached the funnel. With a few pokes and prods, I managed to position it perfectly under the second leak. Before long, I'd sponged up most of the water and no new water seemed to be coming from anywhere. I took this as a evidence for declaring mission accomplished.
By now daylight had arrived. I made myself some coffee and went out to experience the hurricane. Its chief attribute at this point was water, which was flowing across or pooling on just about every surface. There was also wind, but not too much to use an umbrella. Oddly, given the power of the storm, there was almost no thunder or lightning.
I could see ripples from the water washing down Dug Hill Road, so I went there to have a better look. Seeing hand-sized chunks of rock strewn across the asphalt, I could tell that it was experiencing strong erosive forces. Most of the runoff was in the form of a river pouring down the farm road (which runs along the western (uphill) side of our property. This was the force responsible for hurling chunks of rock into Hurley Mountain Road and also for pealing back a few slabs of pavement along its edge. From the power of the water, I thought the farm road was going to need a complete overhaul, although when I went to look at it later in the day it was still mostly drivable, although there were some bad patches and long swaths had been cleared down to glacier-striated bluestone bedrock.
It was unnerving to see so much water careening down the farm road given that only a small ridge in the landscape was keeping it up on a terrace above our yard. Had there been a break in that hump, the river would have been pointed directly at our house. There is a place further up the farm road (upstream on this river) where a channel has actually been cut through this hump, allowing the water (all of it under normal situations) to leave the farm road and fall down an escarpment onto the Stick Trail's terrace. This place is a couple hundred feet from our house and the water being diverted never gets near us. I went to that diversion channel today to see what the water was doing. I found that about 10% of it was taking the channel through the hump and the rest of it was continuing down the farm road. Since all the water was going to be meeting up again somewhere downslope in the Chamomile gulch somewhere, all that runoff was effectively treating our house and five or six acres around it as an island.
Given the enormous amount of rain falling so quickly, it didn't take much of a watershed to generate appreciable flows of water. The farm road was a raging river just draining a watershed of perhaps a five acres in size. Even the small watershed to the east of farm road hump, a watershed that included a narrow strip of woods and parts of our yard, was generating a substantial flow, though it may have only been a half acre in size. In the water from that watershed all used to flow towards our house, which served as something of a dam in its path. But then I installed a series of overlapping drainage systems designed to intercept that water. As an outer defence, this summer I went through the trouble of building a low ridge in our yard, effectively cleaving off the part of the yard nearest our house from the rest of that half acre watershed. Even as I'd built it, I'd found myself thinking it was overkill. But today as I waded through the ankle-deep water being diverted away from the house by that ridge, I had to give credit to the paranoid homunculus that had been at the controls when I built it. Mind you, even with that diversion, there was enough surface water approaching the house to form a stream down the bluestone walkway and across the parking area. This walkway has a four inch PVC drain tile under it and I've never seen flowing water at its surface before. That gives you a sense of how saturated all the drainage options had become.
I went down to the greenhouse to see how its drainage system was coping with such unprecedented demands. Amazingly, somehow enough water was getting in through the natural fractures in the shale bedrock to require the complete capacity of the four inch drainage pipe carrying it all away to daylight. Water had completely submerged the intake of that pipe, and water had pooled up a couple inches higher than I've ever seen it, flooding nearly all the exposed shale floor. It stopped well short of the wooden decking, however.
As part of my suvey of household systems and their response to these extreme conditions, I managed to track down the outflow for the house's footing drainage, a four inch PVC pipe arriving at daylight about twenty feet downslope from the house. I've looked at this outflow many times, sometimes after weeks of torrential downpours, and have never seen any water flowing out of it. Today, though, a good trickle was flowing, enough to fill an eight ounce cup in 10 to 15 seconds, which, given the conditions, indicated a watershed of about a square yard.
Given the quantity of precipitation and the unusual angle at which it was falling, it wasn't a big surprise to find that our roof had developed a slow leak over near the woodstove's chimney. A single drip would fall every 30 seconds or so. I set out a mixing bowl to collect it.
Watersheds uphill from the house (blue) whose drainages don't approach the house. The farm road drainage is reddish, the large one south of the house is green, and the one diverted by my new lawn hump is cyan, and the patch of reforesting lawn is yellowish. You can see the two cars on the driveway, in the very small watershed whose water must be handled by surface runoff or pipes buried near the house.
The storm gradually died down and eventually Gretchen was awake enough for me to suggest that we drive down to Esopus Valley to see what the wider world looked like in its aftermath. I expected to see flooding and maybe a downed tree or so. Gretchen reluctantly agreed to come. So we gathered up the dogs and drove down the hill.
The first peculiarity of the drive was the amount of debris on the road. It consisted of leaves, dead branches, and occasional swaths of sand and gravel. About half way down the hill, we saw a tree leaning on the wires bringing us our phone and power. It had broken through the power lines (which are on top) but not the phone lines. Indeed, as we would find out later when trying to get internet, the phone lines were still good despite all the trees, some of them large, that had fallen on (but evidently never broken) the thick black phone cable.
There is a modest brook that MapQuest dubbed "Englishman's Creeek," whose gorge Dug Hill Road follows for much of the climb up to our house. I often collect stones from its creekbed in the low lands, prefering their smooth-but-not-ovoid shapes to those of Esopus Creek. On today's drive, we found
water pouring over the roadway at the bridge (41.9154N, 74.094517W) where I like to collect those rocks. Not knowing how deep it was, I decided to park. As we did so, a truck following us did the same. It turned out it was Tommy, the brother of the guy who built our house (a name I'd been cursing this morning) along with his wife and daughter. They live up the street a quarter mile from us, and they were also out driving around to gawk at the spectacle. Tommy, who is a little older than us and grew up on Dug Hill Road, offered that he had never seen the road flooded like this in his entire life.
We walked down to the bridge and found the water crossing it was shallow enough to wade through. But the currents swirling on either side of it looked effortlessly lethal. Sally is dopey about such risks, so I'd have to occasionally steer her away from making a potentially suicidal step. As for Eleanor, she was utterly miserable; rain was still spitting down from the sky, and there are few things Eleanor likes less than rain. So I put her back in the car.
Gretchen and I decided to continue walking around the bend to Hurley Mountain road. There were downed electrical wires snaking all across the asphalt in that bend. I was sure they were dead, but one must never take chances with such deadly potential, so I picked up Sally and carried her through.
There was a shallow multi-acre pond covering the entire intersection of Dug Hill Road and Hurley Mountain Road. It didn't quite reach the trailer with a lot at that intersection, but it came close. The worse damage here was not from the water but from the wind; numerous large locust trees had blown over, smashing (in multiple places) a beautiful wooden fence belonging to the old stone house on the bluff above. Somehow the trailer and the car parked in front had narrowly avoided a treefall, though it looked like a deck and some plastic outdoor children's furniture were among the casualties.
We continued walking south down Hurley Mountain Road all the way to Gill's Farm Stand (41.915396N, 74.094517W, passing multiple houses variously impacted by the flood water. Most were high enough so that only their basements were inundated, and one house was operating a sump pump that shot a two-inch-wide stream of water out into the yard. It seemed futile, given the likelyhood that water was pouring into that same basement one or two orders of magnitude faster.
Sally kept running ahead of us, as if we maybe we had intentions of walking all the way to the Secret Spot (as it was, though, we were actually walking briefly into the Marbletown Township). I'd hear a car coming and run after her to catch her, but there was little danger of her being hit. Nobody was driving very fast. There were a number of official white Town of Hurley pickups on the road trying to ensure at least one lane lane was open. A guy in one of these (the same guy I always see shoveling salt, raking sand out of ditches, and installing guard tails) yelled at me to be careful of overhead trees, some of which were in danger of falling without notice.
We eventually returned to Eleanor and the car. The rain had almost stopped, so Gretchen decided to give Eleanor a good walk by walking all the way home (about a mile away uphill). At about this time Sally pulled one of her typical stunts by running up somebody's driveway, although she didn't get far; that driveway crossed Englishman's Creek, but the bridge had been destroyed.
I drove the car and Sally home, and when Gretchen later arrived, she said that poor Eleanor had been pooping her way all the way home; evidently the hurricane (and her inability to psyche herself to go out into it) had created an enormous backlog.
Without power, television or the internet, our day today was going to be rather different from the usual. One project I spent a good amount of time on was a system to get 120 volts out of one of the two fully-charged 12 volt batteries I have at my disposal. I had a couple of years-old uninterruptable power supplies (UPSes) with small, dead 12 volt batteries. My task was to connect the big car battery to a UPS and then also bypass the stupid alarm device, which makes using the UPS as a battery-powered 120 volt source into a continuously shrieking headache-inducer (there might be another way to silence that alarm, but it seems designed to complain so long as there is no wall power available).
I tried cutting the printed circuit trace to the piezo buzzer, but it turned out that this lead continued on to some other place on the circuit board and was needed for the proper functioning of the UPS. This meant that I now had to do two things: fix the cut I'd made to the trace, and desolder and remove the piezo buzzer. But all my soldering irons require 120 volts. What to do?
Some years ago I must have faced similar challenge, because I'd actually made a crude soldering iron that works after being held in a flame until it gets hot. It consists of a wooden handle attached to a bunch of fat copper wires that have been folded back and forth and then pounded into a bass tube as far as it would go. This was to create a large mass of copper capable of storing a usable amount of solder-melting heat. It's not a very precise instrument, but luckily the details on the UPS's board were all macroscopic in the way that circuit boads were back in the 1980s (this particular UPS was at least eleven years old). Before too long, I had an operable and nearly-silent source of 120 volt power. It was perfect for such tasks as recharging my netbook battery or operating a compact fluorescent bulb.
Later, after clouds cleared out and large bands of blue sky appeared, that charged-up netbook proved capable of getting onto the internet using someone else's generator-powered network, indicating Verizon DSL was still making it up our road. I was glad I'd prepared for this eventuality some months ago by playing around with aircrack.
At some point in the afternoon, I was working on a carpentry project that didn't require power tools: the preparation of a brand new door for the Gunther guest room made of genuine wood. One of the more laborious tasks in door preparation is the chiseling-out of countersinks for the hinges. As I was preparing to do this, one of our more distant neighbors pulled into our driveway and asked if we had a working telephone. I said no, though that was only because we didn't have our phones hooked up to electricity. This neighbor (whom Gretchen detests and who is famous for his poor decisionmaking, blowhard banter, and shoddy workmanship) told me about a place up on Reichel Road (a half mile away) where a tree had broken the telephone wire and he suggested that, if possible, someone should call Verizon to tell them about it. Clearly, this neighbor had no idea how bad the situation was. So I proceeded to tell him about all the broken power lines, the unprecedented flooding I'd seen on lower Dug Hill Road, and the fact that last night I hadn't even been able to see any artificial lights off in the multi-mile distance to the east. Obviously calling Verizon would be a waste of everybody's time.
Later in the afternoon, winds picked up again and the trees began to dance in frightening ways, lashing towards and away from the house and seeming to strain against the limits of their structural integrity. There's a large White-faced Hornet nest at about the same height as the solar deck in a tree about ten feet away, and I watched as it was tossed about and lashed like a windsock. Some of its outer layers had pealed away, but it was largely intact. Still, I had to wonder about its occupants. Had I been smacking it about like that with a stick, they would quickly cover be with dozens of painful welts, but there was nothing they could do against this much larger enemy. Can hornets be fatalists? In this situation, what choice did they have? They had to all hunker down inside the nest and hope for the best while fearing for the worse. I like to imagine that hornets do this in much the same way as we do, which makes sense given that they have to interact with a world that functions like the one we interact with.
Somehow these post-storm winds managed to find trees to blow down that hadn't blown down earlier. Off in the forest, I could regularly hear large trees snapping apart and falling creakily to the ground. When I was going down to the greenhouse, I found the steps blocked by a large sumac that had experienced a root failure and fallen. Then when I was down in the greenhouse giving myself a whore's bath, I saw one of the three Tree of Heaven stems nearest the house suddenly thrown to the ground (it was as thick as my thigh and mercifully fell away from the house). Both of these trees have unusually weak wood, and it was amazing they'd been able to survive the initial storm, which had managed to flatten all of our sunflowers and even break some of our tomato stakes.
In the late afternoon while there was still light, Gretchen started preparing a delicious dinner stew containing barley, lentils, green tomatoes, kale, green beans, and red tomatoes (all but the first two coming from our garden). Because we have a gas stove, it was possible to light the burners and cook. Gretchen also made grilled cheese sandwiches, hoping to salvage the most perishable items in our refrigerator. We ate these things by candlelight, sharing a $3 bottle of Trader Joe's shiraz.
After nightfall, I climbed up to the solar deck to look out over the land to the east. I'd been able to see the Poughkeepsie fireworks from here, and normally one can see many dozens of light spread out to the horizon. Tonight, though, the view to the east was absolutely black, as it had been in 160 years ago. It was an eerie sight to behold. I felt like I was witnessing the extinction of industrial mankind.
We stayed up for awhile, reading by kerosene or LED headlamp. But it was best to go to bed early so as to take better advantage of tomorrow's natural illumination schedule.
Water being intercepted and diverted in our lawn by the low hump I built earlier this summer. In the background you can see one of the tomato patches. In the upper righthand corner is a bit of umbrella.
Farm road emptying into Dug Hill Road.
Water and debris on Dug Hill Road in front of our house.
Water emptying to daylight as fast as it can from the greenhouse today.
Flooding in the woods near the greenhouse.
Sally walks toward Hurley Mountain Road on lower Dug Hill Road.
Tree hung up on unbreakable Verizon telephone wire on Hurley Mountain Road just norh of the intersection with Dug Hill Road.
Sally in the water crossing Dug Hill Road.
Water crossing Dug Hill Road at the bridge where I like to collect rocks. That vine is Poison Ivy, by the way.
Eleanor with Tommy and his family
Sally in the floodwater on Hurley Mountain Road.
Sally on an unflooded part of Hurley Mountain Road. In the middle of the road as usual.
Sally and me at the intersection of Dug Hill Road and Hurley Mountain Road.
Gretchen carries Sally because she got tired from all the excitement.
Tree falls and flooding at the trailer near the intersection of Dug Hill Road and Hurley Mountain Road.
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