Free-Range Kids

The Upside of a Blackout? People Take Care of Themselves and Each Other

Nobody can read the rule book in the dark.


What happens when you've got a power outage on top of a pandemic on top of public demonstrations, a crazy election, and a boiling August when everyone seems ready to jump out of their skin—and down your throat? A kind of Good Samaritan—even libertarian—joy.

When Tropical Storm Isaias toppled trees across the Northeast last week, plunging 1.7 million people (including yours truly) into a blackout, the chaos provided a surprising balm for the soul. Sharing candles, flashlights, and hurry-before-the-meat-goes-bad barbecues gave us all an excuse to work together and make things better. It's a feeling we'd been longing for.

"It reminded me of medical school in the Dominican Republic," says Joe Chiarella, a doctor in Queens, New York, referring to all the extension cords he strung between his home and his neighbors' place. He had a working generator and was more than willing to share power.

As for the giant tree limb that fell, blocking their quiet, suburban street? "All the men on the block—like six of us—pushed and pulled," says Chiarella. (And then they figured out to use rope and a pickup truck.) Result? Street cleared.

And when neighbors needed to buy food because the stuff in the fridge smelled funny? Chiarella gave them rides to the grocery.

Unlike COVID-19, an implacable foe that just keeps on going, here was a natural disaster we could do something about, and no one was stopping us.

For Michelle Lobb Horoho, a preschool teacher and mom of four outside of Philly, the blackout was a time of connecting. She and her husband invited their new neighbors over for a patio supper—people they hadn't gotten to know yet—and "we had this wonderful night with this new couple," she says.

In Bergen County, New Jersey, camp administrator Peter Goldberg and his daughter, 21, were without power for four days. But his daughter invited friends over to sit in the back yard, socially distancing, to play games and shoot the breeze. "It was nice to see them connecting with each other," says Goldberg.

But beyond just the joy of being social again, the blackout gave us something else. "Everybody just feels so helpless right now," says Horoho. "To be able to help each other out was like satisfying that need. Anyone who could do anything to help was offering to do it."

This is exactly the kind of responsibility revolution Philip Howard has been arguing for, especially in his latest book, Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Policies of Right and Left. To innovate, to work hard, to feel good about ourselves and our country, "We need to believe that we can make a difference," says Howard.

But that feeling has been slipping away since the 1960s, he says, when bureaucracy began growing like sourdough left to rise. The theory was that if government officials meticulously detailed the procedures for doing anything and everything, no underling would ever make a bad call or dumb mistake. Perfection would be the result.

Instead, the result was thousand-page rule books, frustration, and stagnation, all of which were on display when the coronavirus first hit America.

Scientists eager to start testing in Seattle were stymied for weeks as they awaited government approval, says Howard. Then there was the case of a researcher "who spent day and night writing an emergency authorization to do research on the virus, submitted it to the FDA, and was told, "'Sorry, it's not valid because you didn't submit it in a hard copy,'" says Howard.

That's how innovation, efficiency and compassion can be derailed by onerous rules. Rules can't possibly cover every situation—like an emergency. The only antidote is to assert authority and take responsibility for doing the right thing.

With the power outage, we all got a chance to do that. My husband went and bought ice for the family next door. Other neighbors with a generator placed power strips outside their home so that anyone could come by and charge their electronics. I saw folks sharing hotdogs, and inviting kids over for an impromptu slip 'n' slide, and running errands for each other.

"I'm a a real believer in humanity," says the pre-k teacher, Horoho. Being plunged into darkness allowed that humanity to shine.



NEXT: Once Again, Kamala Harris' Record as a Prosecutor Was Less Than Progressive

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  2. Blackout? Whoa… racist much?

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    2. shall we call it Licorice our or ebony out or charcoal or ……..
      How about absence of white

    3. I see you just read John McWhorter’s piece too.

    4. It should be called Lightout.

  3. So buy a goddamn portable generator if you’re such a wilting flower.

    No preparation. Everyone assumes life just goes on as normal.

    1. Light a candle and sweat.
      Eat canned food.
      Pretend that there have been hurricane preparation lists available for years.
      Act like you knew the storm was coming for over a week.
      Live free range your own self.

      1. I got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days
        But I ain’t got no speakers, ain’t got no headphones, ain’t got no records to play

        1. changed my hair so many times I don’t know what I look like.

      2. this author is full of shit. I had no power for 6 days got 3 generators but it was every man for himself there was no community effort

  4. As for the giant tree limb that fell, blocking their quiet, suburban street? “All the men on the block—like six of us—pushed and pulled,” says Chiarella. (And then they figured out to use rope and a pickup truck.)

    Get a chain saw dude. I’ve cut many a tree out of our non county maintained roads from winter snows. Luckily we have a few younger guys in the neighbor hood now to help out. one even has a tractor for plowing snow

    1. Upside of Nuclear War? No more spam emails or targeted pop up ads

      1. They’ll be all that’s left.

      2. Theres and upside to everything

    2. Had a neighbor take a fallen tree from my yard during Sandy. He has a fireplace, so it worked out for both of us.

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    4. Get a chain saw dude.

      Considering they waited until after the tree fell to figure out how to use a pickup truck, I’m inclined to steer them away from powertools.

      They probably used cheap braided nylon or 550 paracord and just got lucky that they didn’t generate enough tension to snap it and cut someone off at the knees.

      1. Reminds me of when I worked in a machin shop, I would warn stupid people about to do stupid things “don’t do anything I’m going to have to put on you tube”

    5. you gotta be careful cutting trees that took down wires

  5. I bought a Generac 2 years ago after a snowstorm left me without power for 2 days. Worked great last Tuesday/Wednesday when the storm blew through.

    Lots of homes near me have backup or portable generators, or rely on solar. Kind of a necessity since we all have wells.

    1. There are still places in NJ that are on wells?

  6. Get used to power outages when Biden and Harris launch their Green Raw Deal and set humanity back a few centuries.


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  10. Its “the bright side of the blackout”. Or ” sunny”. There are poetic devices other than alliteration.

  11. It made me laugh with the reference to clearing the tree limb. I live in the very liberal suburbs of Washington, DC and a large tree fell across my street during a snow/sleet storm. I arrived home from a trip and could not drive up my street. Most of the neighbors bitching about government taking so long to clear it. Myself and one other neighbor got our chain saws and started cutting it up, only a couple teens helped us move anything. The rest just stood around and didn’t even say thank you. Done in an hour no whining necessary.

  12. I’ve been without power at home since Monday afternoon when a major storm system blew through cental Iowa. It might get fixed by this weekend but I give that a 50/50 chance. Yes it’s nice to have neighbors willing to help when dealing with storm damage and family outside of the storm damage to borrow a generator from. But hey I’m in flyover country and it’s not news to anyone outside of the state.

    At least I can get online at work and the generator keeps the beer cold at home.

    1. That storm hit us down in Missouri on Monday night, also, but it doesn’t sound like it was as bad here as it was up there.

      We had one about 15 years ago that knocked out our power for 5 days – in suburban St. Louis. Middle of July down here is no picnic without AC. But the neighborhood street party BBQ was kinda fun.

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