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Before the Storm: A Few Thoughts

My backyard

Here in the northeastern U.S., we’re preparing for Winter Storm Bobby.

(I should point out that it’s hard to take a storm seriously that sounds as if it’s named for a little boy or, for those of us who recall the 1970s, a teen heartthrob.)

Forecasters tend to get excited about such dramatic weather events. I imagine it has something to do with how seldom they occur. Also, if they fail to hype the event enough and it turns out to be a big deal, the same people who complain about they overhype every snowflake will shriek and moan about how somebody should have told them this was going to be a big deal.

Since my house runs on electricity (pump, boiler, stove), preparing for a possible power outage is a must. Charge the devices, run the computer backup, ensure there’s drinking water as well as water for flushing the toilet (septic system), inventory the contents of the refrigerator to confirm there’s plenty that won’t need to be cooked if the outage runs for a few days. I should add “bring in firewood,” but my firewood isn’t well-seasoned, and it’s likely to produce more smoke than heat.

And then there are the things for which there can be no preparation. Last night, as I was writing a cat biography, the air conditioning system came on. The outside temperature was in the single digits, and suddenly, the air handler was blowing full force.

For some, this might be merely odd. For me, it triggered full-blown panic. As long-time readers of this blog know, several years ago the cats and I had to relocate for ten weeks after the former air handler shorted out and caught fire, pumping smoke and soot into every room in the house. The entire air conditioning system was replaced, but I still can’t bring myself to flip on the fan before going to sleep as I did that fateful night. I tell myself it’s a new system, but I remain unconvinced.

So when the air handler kicked on at 1:30 in the morning—an hour far too late to call anyone who might offer suggestions–I immediately freaked out.

But then something happened. I wouldn’t say calm descended, but the thought settled that nobody was going to fix this situation for me, at least not in the middle of the night. So I moved into pragmatic mode. I checked the thermostat and the air conditioner controls to see if I’d somehow knocked something askew. When it became clear they were not the culprits, I moved everything out of the front hall closet and headed up the attic stairs.

Unsurprisingly, the attic was cold. I approached the air handler. It was humming as one would expect when it was running. On top of the unit was a single white switch, like any innocuous light switch. I flipped it, and the unit stopped running.

I looked through the installation and maintenance manuals that sat atop the air handler (because really, where else would you keep them?). Needless to say, I couldn’t make heads nor tails out of the text. I set them back on the unit and went downstairs to continue panicking.

Then another thought occurred to me: turn off the circuit breakers. If the problem could be electrical, the answer was to turn off the electricity. So I went to the basement and flipped off not only the breakers for the air handler, but the ones for the compressor outside, just in case.

At that point, I had exhausted my tiny store of knowledge. So I Googled “why won’t my air conditioner turn off?” and watched a YouTube video offering several suggestions. The video was far beyond my capabilities, but I found small comfort in the fact that the person wasn’t saying things like, “This is a crisis, make sure the homeowner pays their insurance premium and evacuates immediately before the house burns down.”

I couldn’t bring myself to call the company that had installed the system even though they have a 24-hour emergency line. Even I understood that this wasn’t that kind of an emergency. So I sat in the living room and tried to discern whether I was smelling something funny, like something might have melted.

I’d already decided I wouldn’t be going to bed. I sent off the bio to the team leader. Then, I picked up the psalms and read a few at random. What was interesting was that the ones I flipped to were about praising God for His goodness. I wasn’t quite there, if only because I knew from past experience that God’s goodness didn’t mean I couldn’t be facing a house fire or other catastrophe. My senior cat, Olivia, hovered next to me on the back of the sofa; my orange boy, Ned, was already curled up in bed as if to encourage me to join him.

It was 3:30 a.m. when I had one more thought. I’d been telling myself that with the unit and the circuit breaker turned off, there was nothing more that could happen, but I wasn’t convinced. Then, it occurred to me to check the most obvious thing. I went back to the attic and felt the sides of the air handler. They were as cold as you’d expect sheet metal to be in an attic on a frigid January night. In other words, there was no evidence of warmth as there might be if something inside were on fire.

At that, I made up my mind. I’d done all I could. I had smoke alarms in case somehow I’d missed something. I’d assembled a few critical items in case I had to move fast, and the cat carriers were in the front hall. So, at four in the morning, with Olivia still hovering, I got into bed, turned out the lights, and waited to see if I’d fall asleep—which I did.

Olivia, keeping an eye on everything

I’d set the alarm for 7:45, but in my late-night grogginess, I set it for 7:45 p.m. So I awoke slightly past 10:00 and immediately called the a/c people. Unsurprisingly since they also handle furnaces, their service personnel were all out on service calls ahead of Winter Storm Bobby, but the receptionist has been there for years and likely remembered the issue with my last air handler, and she was sympathetic. So at present, I’m waiting for the service manager to return and call to let me know if anything else needs to be done or if I must simply await my appointment a week from Tuesday. In the meantime—at least for today—I’m not replacing everything in the front hall closet.

There’s so much we never see coming. Emergency rooms see a constant stream of people injured by falls, whether from a roof, a ladder, or a single step. Two universal truths: falls are unexpected, and they are fast. Often, our minds are elsewhere in the instant before we miss a step or lean over that tiny bit too far–and then, it’s too late.

Other times, we’ve heard the warnings, but we don’t believe or heed them, at least not until the last minute. Unvaccinated covid patients on their deathbeds urge others to get the vaccine. Closer to home, I guarantee there are lines of cars at gas stations all over my town as people seek to fuel their snow blowers and generators on the eve of Bobby.

From the luxurious vantage point of ample prep time, I can’t help thinking of the families in Colorado who had literally minutes to evacuate their homes ahead of wildfires last month and are now trying to rebuild their homes and their lives. A fire, a blizzard, a fall, a pandemic—so many possible disasters that dwelling on them could leave a person frozen with fear. And then there are the people who are obsessed with preparing for remote or theoretical dangers, leaving everyone else to wonder whether they’re nuts or simply the smartest of us all.

There are some storms you can prepare for, and others that hit from nowhere, changing your life in an instant. I can prepare for Bobby. I couldn’t prepare for the air handler, but I can cope with it, at least for now. When I go out to clear the driveway tomorrow, I’ll tread carefully lest ice lurk beneath the snow, sending me crashing to the ground and breaking bones. As much preparation as I can do, coupled with the reality that I can’t know else what the future brings. I just have to move forward as best I can. For now, this is all I can do, and it is enough.

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