As the outside temperature plummeted from a balmy 50 degrees to the mid-teens, my family of four humans and three dogs piled into my 350-square-foot studio apartment and snuggled up in blankets and winter coats to shield ourselves from the freezing weather quickly seeping through my single-pane windows.

We lit all the candles we could find in my apartment – the only source of both light and heat available.

My sister and parents had months before decided to visit me in Maine for the Christmas holiday and had rented a home near the ocean in Saco for the weekend, hoping to relax and take some walks along the beach. Those plans were upended when a fierce storm ripped through the state on Dec. 23, flooding coastal areas and knocking out power for hundreds of thousands of people as temperatures dropped well below freezing. My family members, from New York, were near Camp Ellis, squarely in the path of the storm surge.

The storm that hit Maine this weekend is likely to be remembered for years to come. It brought near-record-breaking winds, fueling powerful waves that suspended ferry service between Maine’s island and mainland communities, damaged historic monuments and caused power outages that shut down Portland’s airport for hours and left people around the state without heat over the bitterly cold holiday weekend.

Vicious weather also tore through much of the rest of the country. Freezing temperatures descended on the Southeast, deadly blizzards pummeled the Great Lakes region and wind chills plunged the real-feel temperature to 45 degrees below zero in some areas of the northern Mountain West. All this made travel dangerous and sometimes impossible as highways became ice-slicked and flights were canceled.

But when my sometimes melodramatic mother called me around 7 a.m. Friday morning to say that seawater from giant waves was smashing against the windows and pouring into the house my parents had rented for the weekend, and that she was going to call our Philadelphia-based family friends, one of whom is 92 years old, to tell them to turn around and go home, I assumed it was an overreaction. I took my time getting out of bed and dressed to drive from Portland to meet my family.


I sleepily tried to turn my coffee machine on without success before realizing there was no power – and no hot coffee. It was then I started to understand that my mother might not be exaggerating and that I should hurry to my family. As the intensity of the storm became more clear, my family’s circumstances got worse. My sister, who was with my parents and is more of a pragmatist, called to say that the situation was “not nothing.” She called again a few minutes later to announce the power had gone out.

I decided I should arrive bearing gifts of warm food and drink, something to lighten the mood and improve the situation for my family, who had left their own warm, dry homes to see me. But when I arrived at my local bakery, I saw it might not be so easy. The baristas were wearing hats and gloves and a few candles flickered on the counter. I stood by as a line of people holding reusable coffee mugs asked if there was anything hot, all walking away disappointed.

The rain pounded down on my car as I drove cautiously away from Portland, wipers on full speed, through flooded sections of road and underneath traffic lights gone dark.

My worry for my family heightened when my GPS took me to a barricaded road where brown-grey water had flooded the street and risen up to the doors of a line of cars parked nearby. I crossed my fingers and hoped that my sister and my parents, in their mid-60s, were not stuck on the other side of the flooded road.

After turning around and navigating around a maze of washed-out roads, I made it to the neighborhood where they were staying and breathed a sigh of relief that we would all be together.

Video by Jason Cohen


But the house they rented and that contained all their belongings was surrounded by water on three sides and impossible to drive to. They had abandoned it about an hour before I arrived and were in my parents’ car down the block where the land was dry. After doing some exploring, we found a walkable route to the house through a few backyards and a small section of beach tucked inside a dune that bypassed the deepest pockets of flooding.

Once inside we began investigating the damage. Large rugs had soaked up most of the thin layer of seawater covering the floor in the downstairs room closest to the ocean, and the sand and small rocks that had washed through a few door frames could be cleaned up. There was no power, but it wasn’t very cold yet. Everything would be fine.

But before finalizing our decision to sit tight and make do, we figured we should check the basement. Brightly colored summer furniture floated sadly in water that filled the darkened basement. We would have to figure out a plan B.

We called the owner to explain the situation and sent him pictures of the flooding so he could assess the damage, told our family friends to stop driving north and, after grabbing just the essentials, drove to Portland and packed into my tiny powerless-but-dry apartment, where we would stay for the night.

Having not eaten all day we decided to head to a Chinese restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious meal and hot tea and laughed incredulously about our situation, all of which drastically improved our spirits. Most of Portland, including Sichuan Kitchen, where we went to dinner, did not lose power. The restaurant, just half a mile from my apartment and filled with people who looked significantly less ruffled than we felt, seemed like a world away.

Back in my apartment, my mother handed out wool socks for us to sleep in, and we searched the internet for tips on how to stay warm without electricity in freezing temperatures, just in case we got desperate. And we worked out a backup plan so we could continue our holiday in more spacious quarters.

Compared to so many others in Maine and around the country devastated by this storm, we pulled quite a long straw.

We found a dry place with power and multiple bedrooms to stay for the rest of the holiday. Our family friends made it to Maine a day later than planned but in remarkably good spirits.

And with so many people – and dogs – in such a small space, we never needed to use our new knowledge about how to stay warm without electricity.

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