A blackout empowers a community

When Hurricane Isabel blew through my Richmond, Va., neighborhood last month, we all lost our power. Oh, a few folks rushed out for generators, but mostly we were unplugged from the grid and the telephone lines, too. Even our cellphone battery was dead when the hurricane hit.

I'd done a bunch of cooking the day it was due, as if I was expecting company. And so, there was a big pot of vegetable soup on the stove (might as well use those frozen foods, I figured) and a crock of homemade baked beans in the oven. My 9-year-old plucked fresh basil for a batch of pesto.

Isabel hit that night. We stuffed ourselves with food, and just as we turned the dishwasher on, the lights flickered out. We lit candles as we tucked in for the night.

The hurricane left before we got up the next morning. We rather smugly lit our gas stove, pitying our electric-stove neighbors until we realized we'd forgotten to grind the coffee beans beforehand. Groggy, we wandered onto our street, a sedate boulevard of 100-year-old houses with slate roofs and gigantic trees. Until now.

The chain saws groaned as folks stumbled from their houses, a tad frayed from the sharp rain and 70-mile-an-hour gusts. The sun popped up from the horizon as if apologizing for the grand slam of the night before. Soon, we ran into friends toting a jar of coffee grounds who had no heat source. We offered ours in exchange. Soon we sat sipping, wondering how long we'd be without power and when school would reopen. We heard the "boil all water" order via solar-powered radio.

Grownups chatted, sawed wood, dragged limbs to the curb, and shared food and storm stories instead of manning the domain of meetings, faxes, and phones. The children gathered for "capture the flag" instead of playing computer games, looking for instant messages, or going to piano or soccer. The sun did a proper job, generating energy for building strength and character and friendships in the neighborhood. People dragged grills to the center median with tables and chairs. We feasted together on whatever was in the freezer - chicken, salmon, steak.

As the electricity-free days passed, we sat on porches by candlelight the way we did when I was growing up in the South, before manufactured air and hundreds of TV channels isolated us inside. There were wild games of volleyball with adults that included even the cranky teens. Best of all, it was dark. Velvety and sweet, like chocolate cake. We hauled out the telescope and feasted on the sky.

Ten days passed before our electricity was restored. But our power - well, we'd already found that.

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