For the second day in a row, the electricity was out in the Rondout section of Kingston. A slurry mix of freezing rain and sleet froze where it fell, encasing everything it touched in a clear shield of ice. Telephone poles and wires, front-porch stairs, and the city streets remain under glass.
Every tree stands, dangerous as Christmas decorations, their branches holding unaccustomed frozen weight.
First there’s a shiver of falling ice. Then the sound of heavy, crashing tree limbs punctuate the dull and constant undersong of gas generators and chainsaws operating in the Rondout neighbrhood.
Over on McEntee Street, near the Secret Vegan café, a tree four stories tall toppled over from the hill, resting its crown against the house roof across the way, and its middle across telephone and electrical wires.
What are the options?
Those depending on electricity for their heat face below-freezing temperatures expected to last through the day before plunging further after sunset to reach a nadir of minus two in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Temperatures were expected to rise above freezing on Monday, but in the interim residents of Kingston with no other choices required options to avoid the cold while Central Hudson workers struggled to repair damaged electricity infrastructure throughout Ulster County,
Just down the block from city hall at 647 Broadway, the warming station set up at The Andy Murphy Center is large enough to be an airplane hangar. A hundred cots are available for those who require them. The place is run by volunteers working with the Red Cross and the National Guard,
Wearing a baseball cap, a volunteer who could be the brother of actor Jonathan Banks [actor in Airplane! and other films] offers pizza and hot coffee to all comers. He estimates that 32 people stayed the previous night, well below capacity.
Throughout the day, he says, the number fluctuates. “A lot of in-and-out. They come in, charge their cellphones, keep warm. That’s fine.”
People with pets are often reluctant to leave them alone overnight. Beth Anderson, a volunteer with Ulster County Animal Response Team, says there’s a solution.
“We came out here with a mobile trailer,” she says. “Normally we would prefer to pull the trailer inside with weather like this, but there’s no loading-bay doors here. What we’ve done, we have a section cordoned off inside with pet carriers, so the animals can stay warm and are separated from those without pets that may be allergic. So the owners don’t have to leave their pets behind.”
The Animal Response Team consists of about 15 volunteers in all. There are vet techs with animal training. “But we could always use more volunteers,” says Anderson.
Closer to uptown, the 2nda Inglesia La Mission Church at 80 Elmendorf Street has opened its doors to those seeking warmth over the long night.
“We operate according to Code Blue,” explains Dominique Wallace-Mills, the Ulster regional supervisor for Catholic Charities. “Our services are activated at temperatures below 32. So we’ve been open now for a couple of weeks. We have a capacity of 25 beds, but in times like this we can always find a few more.”
Beneath the nave, cots are distributed in a series of sanitized rooms. Transparent plastic dividers indicate each person’s personal area — as well as inhibit the possible spread of Covid.
“Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all provided through the non-profit Family of Woodstock.” says Wallace-Mills. “We have hot coffee, yes, as well as snacks.”
Service animals are allowed with the proper documentation. Because of the current weather, the facility is open 24 hours a day.
There is a third option as well, the East Kingston Fire Station 1 at 868 Main Street.
Waiting it out
There are those loathe to leave their homes. No matter the conditions, they intend to push through them.
Hoping for the speedy return of normalcy on the first night without power, longtime Rondout residents Walt and Millie Witkowski, both past their middle age, spent the evening dressed in winter clothing huddled under blankets.
While they have a gas-fire furnace in their basement, without electricity to spin its fan the heat could not reach the rooms of their house above. Their stovetops are electric.
“This sort of emergency isn’t common,” says Witkowski. “The worst we ever had here, many years back, was when a city gas line broke under the street. In the middle of winter, of course.”
The whole neighborhood was evacuated. The Wirkowskis felt lucky they had a place to go. “I don’t recall that there was any sort of option for where people could stay that night,” Walt said, shrugging. “I guess, they went wherever they could.”
Somewhere around midnight, after returning home from the uptown bar Snapper McGee’s, Sjoerd Dijk set three pots of water boiling on the stove. Once they were boiling, he turned the flames down to the lowest setting, under the impression the heated water would transform the cold room.
“I lit three candles,” said Dijk. “For some reason I thought it was a good time to try reading Infinite Jest [a very long book by David Foster Wallace].”
He fell asleep shortly after, wearing, long johns, a sweat suit, a full down jacket, under three blankets, with a heated rubber water bottle next to him.
Only three weeks ago, Dijk had the gas pipes pulled out of his home, opting for the more environmentally friendly option of mini-splits. “The thought went through my head many times to fully upgrade to electric mini-splits,” he explained. “But having grown up here, and being in many blackouts, I was hesitant.”
The miniature HVAC technology is supposed to be greener, and there was a generous rebate as well. Dijk is still happy with the change he made. “The gas baseboard heaters and pipes were old and unsightly. This can’t last forever.”
Take care of the basics
There were those who seemed to welcome difficulties.
Jack and Lana, recent transplants to the neighborhood, like to be prepared, as became obvious for them at the start of the pandemic.
“A dog, a shotgun and a radio is all you really need,” says Jack. “That’s at the bottom of my own Maslow’s [psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ranking of human needs] hierarchy. But we’ve got a generator, propane heaters, walkie-talkies, candles, on and on. So come what may, it’s not really a big deal.”
One can learn from difficult times, Jack believes. “In the absence of modern conveniences like the Internet – distractions, really — there’s something else underneath, better I think, which takes the same place. If you’re not worried about the basics.”
Lana rolls her eyes and laughs.
“And our home has gas heat,” she notes. “Gas stove. I’d rather it be dark and warm than bright and cold. But we went out walking last night. All the trees wore glass beads. No street lights. No cars. I just wish the stars were out. At the beginning of the pandemic, we started to learn the stars.“
Central Hudson had predicted the electricity would be restored by 8 p.m, on Saturday night. Power came back to the neighborhood at 7:22, 38 minutes before the utility’s estimate. Well played, Central Hudson.