Even as California has escalating rolling blackouts and Iowa has been blasted with storms, an extremely active hurricane season for the United States is only just beginning. It’s not just the loss of electricity Americans fear from these events. With the internet acting as a fragile lifeline to school, work and family, extended and extreme isolation is just a fallen tree away.
After a vicious attack on Puerto Rico, Hurricane Isaias traveled up the Eastern Seaboard in early August, knocking out power, internet service or both for millions of Americans. Around the greater New York City metro area, many were disheartened to not get services back for more than a week. Some are still without service.
And this year, in a pandemic, being without power feels different.
Jacki Kovatch, 51, lost power for a week at her home in Pleasantville, N.Y. — and also lost power during Hurricane Sandy, back in 2012. “It was a very different feeling this time,” she said. Sure, Sandy “was an awful storm, a storm of the century,” but, in its aftermath, she described a community with bonds forged by the blackouts. “I just remember feeling more like it’s going to be an adventure, and we’ll all be OK. But this time, no, this was awful. The pandemic is what made it so much worse.”
People who lost power for more than a week this month described in interviews a level of psychological distress beyond what they had felt after prior storms. Some of this had to do with the baffling length of the outages after what seemed a simple storm. Some seem spurred by utility companies’ obtuse or slow communications. But mostly it seems that life without internet now can be devastating.
In late July, Gloria Skigen, 57, returned to Stamford, Conn., after dropping off her daughter at Duke University in North Carolina. To abide by state regulations around coronavirus, she entered a 14-day quarantine. Her husband and son checked into a nearby hotel. Six days later, on Aug. 4, Isaias knocked out the power, internet and even water at her home. She would stay there for the next nine days.
“We’ve lived in this house for, like, 30 years and we’ve been without power before,” Ms. Skigen said. “The feeling that I could not leave the house, that really changed it.” Quarantine transformed the experience “from being like, ‘OK, this is fun, we’re camping,’ to actually being pretty hard.”
Ms. Skigen estimates she spent two hours a day hauling jugs of water from a neighbor’s hose back to her house in order to flush the toilet, bathe and water the garden she planted when quarantine began. For entertainment, there was knitting — she made a “funky grandpa cardigan” — and reading.
“Seriously, ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” she said.
Her quarantine ended the same day that her power returned. That evening, she sat in the same room as her husband for the first time in 14 days. “What an odd experience that was,” she said, “to be both sitting with him and not be sitting in the dark. And I told him, I said, ‘No, it’s actually unsettling. It feels weird now, that’s how much it impacted me, to be without power for nine days like that.’”
“I am my own boss, I run my own business, so if I have no internet and can’t work, I have to work a lot harder when I do have connection or there’s no paycheck,” wrote Skyla Rayne, who is 25 and who sells cosplay-themed erotica on the subscription site OnlyFans, in an email written on their mobile device (cell service was not affected). “I’m sort of a workaholic, so I have been focusing on all of the work I can do offline. Optimum had a few hours of intermittent connection, which I used to schedule posts on the website where I receive my main source of income from.”
Four days after losing service at their home in Brooklyn, Mx. Rayne decided to rent a hotel room in Philadelphia just to be able to post. When they returned to New York City, they bounced around between friends, “which isn’t exactly desirable with our current pandemic and social distancing orders.” For recreation, Mx. Rayne has been taking walks outside, cleaning and playing Kingdom Hearts — an offline game.
“It’s honestly been such a rude awakening of how dependent I am on the internet,” they wrote (Mx. Rayne uses non-gendered pronouns). “I even left a candle burning overnight because I couldn’t set a reminder” on an Amazon Echo device. As of Aug. 18, their Bushwick apartment still had no service, two weeks after the storm.
Eliza d’Amore, 59, teaches English to people first learning the language at a community college in Westchester County. She was isolating after returning home from a virus hot spot when the storm struck. She had to postpone tests, creating chaos for her dozens of students.
“They’re from an underserved community, they’re immigrants,” she said. “They have made their schedules based on tests on Tuesday, then they all of a sudden have to talk to their bosses because, you know, tests have to be changed. And so the fallout and the ripple effect of something like that, it’s just huge.”
Disruption spreads like wildfire in a networked society. “My lack of internet, my delay, had so many consequences on my colleagues, on the kids that I’m working with,” Ms. D’Amore said. “That was incredibly stressful. If it was only me, that’s fine, but it’s not only me.”
Even recreation is harder. During past blackouts, Ms. Kovatch recalled, her family enjoyed board games. But after months of the pandemic, they have lost their analog charm. “We’ve already been doing all of that,” she said.
The pandemic has already been shown to exacerbate mental health issues. These have only been intensified by the loss of a lifeline to the world at large.
“I teach kindergarten. I’m like a really happy person, I can put a really good spin on almost anything,” said Ms. Kovatch. “And I couldn’t with this. It was very defeating. We have lots of friends and resources to rely on. And still, I felt like we were alone.” Thinking of those without a similar support network, she said, “just made me really sad.”
Pete Harckham, a New York state senator who represents parts of Westchester County and the Hudson Valley, spent the last two weeks crisscrossing his district. “I think with so many people working from home, you know, losing power for an extended period is always frustrating. But then to lose communications was exasperating,” he said, adding that “this was the first time that communications have been lost on this level.”
Still, people have found solace in friends and neighbors. Mr. Harckham said he was heartened by the “good neighborhood spirit in our communities where people help each other,” dropping off groceries and helping clear downed branches.
Nili Asherie, 75, helped care for Harold, her 93-year-old Larchmont neighbor, a widower with lung cancer. “He really was lost without a landline because it’s hard for him to operate his cellphone because he has neuropathy in his fingers,” she said. She spent several afternoons keeping him company in his backyard.
A week without air conditioning or internet was absolutely no picnic for Syretta Gladden, 30, of New Rochelle. “I went into T.J. Maxx, Marshalls just trying to find something to occupy my time, instead of, you know, just sitting in a house with no power,” she said. “I was definitely at my wit’s end.”
Still, she expressed gratitude for the time she’s been able to spend with her father at home. “We have electronics and have so much going on that sometimes we forget about this, like, having conversations,” she said.