Hurricane Irene: Life in the dark ages

One lesson from Hurricane Irene -- or make that, Irene, the tropical storm -- is that we have no moderation in our information flow. It's either all . . . or next to nothing.

For days, weather-watchers reported the direction and shifting wind speeds of the approaching hurricane. We couldn't look at a television, website, smartphone or tablet without a reminder to stock up on drinking water and fresh batteries. This constant nagging heightened the feelings of urgency -- especially for those of us who grew up in a relatively media-free age, when headlines waited patiently on the doorstep until we were ready to take them in.

The blanket storm coverage may have kicked up our anxiety a notch too high, especially since the hurricane slowed significantly before it hit New York. All those masking-taped shop windows afterward seemed overcautious.

But the frequent alerts also made many of us better prepared. My household had never so much as inventoried our flashlights. This time, our outdoor furniture was lashed tightly together with bungee cords, and we had a full propane tank for outdoor cooking -- which proved handy since we were among the hundreds of thousands of tristate homes that lost power.

The pre-warnings about Irene had another effect: They made the morning after seem unbearably quiet. Without electricity, there was no Internet telephone service, no website browsing ability. My family hadn't gotten to the store in time to buy batteries for the radio -- those Ds sold out quickly -- so we started up the truck in the driveway, eager for news. Had the storm passed? Were we in the calm eye and vulnerable to another blast?

It's impossible to imagine my parents' generation being caught without radio batteries.

By midday Sunday, people were emerging from their homes to look around at the wreckage. It was reassuring to be amongst each other. Snapped pine branches scented the air like Christmas.

Some shops were open, powered by noisy generators. Two of the Greek restaurants in Huntington Village had open doors, not to be outdone one by the other. Several caffeine addicts lounged mournfully on the steps of the darkened Starbucks. Neighbors sat on porches with books, turning actual pages and reading by daylight.

A second lesson of Irene is how dependent we are on electronics not only to inform, but also to entertain.

Back at home, still chipper about our power loss, my daughter set up a game of Clue. Afterward, we read until the light faded. I had a charming Jane Eyre moment, transported into the 19th century in my imagination as I carried a candle to the basement to feed the cats. Did Jane also scoop kitty litter by candlelight?

Our peaceful acceptance didn't last. My daughters quarreled over how to use the remaining charge in the laptop. Power up one iPod Touch? Play an audiobook they could both listen to?

As darkness closed in, the quiet was broken by a high-pitched whine. It stopped, then started again, several times. Annoyed, I asked my husband what he thought it was. He replied, "Crickets."

So, that's what's on the other side of the air-conditioners' hum.

Darkness fell before 8 p.m., but who goes to bed that early? We burned greedily through our last energy resources, playing solitaire on the iPad.

Monday morning, still without power, my husband shouldered his laptop and went in search of public places with Wi-Fi. I trust the Long Island Power Authority is hard at work.

First published in Newsday