Friday, February 6, 2009

The Great Ice Storm of '09 part two whereupon we enter the dark side

By Lonnie Cruse

Awhile back I heard a news report about a blizzard in Michigan (I think it was Michigan, because shamefully that's how much attention I paid at the time, and probably how much attention others paid as well) and several thousand people were without power. We've been without power for a few days before here in Southern Illinois, so it's not like I'm totally out of the loop on this, but I really didn't think that much about it. Not until a huge power outage hit us last week. I'm posting this because I wondered how many others have no real clue what the term "thousands are without power and authorities don't know how soon it will be restored" really means. Please take a peek with me at the dark side.

Ice forming on trees looks soooo pretty and so delicate and so, um, not dangerous, maybe? But the truth is, ice weighs the limbs and branches down on the trees, bending them until they break. Thanks to gravity, the damaged limbs and branches have nowhere to go but down, right on top of whatever is below, be it houses, cars, or people. And sometimes the weight and the damage brings down an entire tree, often huge trees that looked strong and healthy only hours before. Worse yet, some trees survive the initial damage only to come down during the next ice/rain/wind storm, catching home owners by surprise.

Below: metal table and chairs on the front porch. Not a place you'd want to sit now.

Yesterday we were over in Paducah for church (Sunday morning, Feb 1) and afterword we transferred food from our friends' freezer to ours. They are still on a generator and we (for now, because in this area you take nothing for granted) have power. The amount of limbs, branches, and whole trees down in Paducah is amazing. Lots of houses with holes in the roof.

Once we got our power back I heard on the news that the linemen in one nearby county have to replace several HUNDRED light poles before power can even be restored in that area. And that number is FAR higher than they generally replace in an entire year. Ice not only brings down trees, it splits those huge poles and brings them down. Graves County in Western Kentucky may be without power for thirty days or more. The power company there experienced some major kind of problem that will not be easily fixed. Doesn't really bear thinking about. I was going nuts after only three days without power.

The trees in this area look more like they did when we had a killer tornado a few years ago. Nearly every single tree has no top, just raw branches looking like the tops were snapped off by a passing giant. And the branches torn completely off the trees litter the ground so thoroughly that you can't see what is underneath them in some places. Clean up is dangerous. A friend of ours was helping his son rescue his car when he was hit by a falling branch. He had to have several stitches. Wires are down everywhere, making it dangerous as well as difficult to check your property. Insurance companies are listing their phone numbers on television and radio so customers can register claims and get a processing number. Probably gonna be a long wait.

Below: damaged trees and limbs in our back yard near the creek.

Western Kentucky was quickly declared a disaster area by their governor and FEMA is helping them. Police and other authorities canvased door to door, checking on residents. Meanwhile, our governor's impeachment trial by the Illinois state senate began just before the storm hit, but poor Blago was too busy traveling the television talk show circuit to attend his own trial OR to notice what was going on in the southern-most tip of his state. He keeps saying he just wants to do the job the voters of Illinois hired him to do, but I'm not really certain he's ever figured out just what that job is. Anyhow, after a fifty to nothing vote to oust him, the locks at the Governor's office were changed and the lieutenant governor was sworn in around the time we lost power, but we're not sure if even the new governor knows how bad things are down here to date either. Nothing has been said on the news . . . when we get news.

Last week I enthusiastically and somewhat prematurely posted here that we still had power after the initial storm ended. Sigh. Before the power actually went off we kept hearing a loud buzzing sound outside our house. I was chatting with a friend on the phone when Hubby shouted that there was a huge fire across the road from us.

Back to last Tuesday afternoon: We live about three miles outside of Metropolis on a couple of acres that used to be a corn field. There is no house across the street from us, only an open field where flames from a downed power line were shooting several feet into the air along with a large cloud of smoke. And the scary buzzing sound. I called 9-1-1 and the operator told me it was indeed a downed power line and the fire department was on the way. Ditto the power company, but they were much later getting here, being kept busy with other downed lines. The ice storm was already doing its worst. I'm surprised the downed line didn't take out our power as it was hanging from the pole in front of our house, but it wasn't until the power company arrived that we lost power. And it stayed off.

Below: note the electric pole middle right of the picture. A line came down from there, landed across the road in the field, and the fire was just to the left of the pole and was big enough to be seen over that hill.

It was just growing dark when the power went out so I lit three oil lamps and about a dozen candles. Sounds like a lot, but trust me, it wasn't nearly enough light to read by. Or do much else by. Hubby and I listened to an audio book using my iPod and a battery operated speaker system. It was a Naigo Marsh mystery, A Man Lay Dead. And I read What Are You Wearing to Die by Patricia Sprinkle, with me still hovering over the candles. We have gas logs fueled by a propane tank, so the living room was comfy to live/sleep in. At least in the beginning.

Trust me, besides the sound of someone breaking into your house, I doubt there is anything so scary in the middle of the night as the sound of falling branches and tree tops. Since our lot was cleared decades ago for the corn crops, there are no trees close to the house, but they line the creek a few yards from the house. I knew the house was safe, but what about the garage (where Hubby is restoring a '57 Chevy) or the storage shed? What about the neighbors and their children? Was everyone safe? Their houses undamaged? What would the morning bring?

Below: note how low the electrical line going from our house to the neighbor behind us is. And all the ice on it.

Wednesday: The neighbors up the hill came down here early that morning to share our heat because their twin babies are too small to stay in an all electric house without heat. No damage to their house, but tons of limbs in their yard and ours. When we heard rumours that we might not have power for a week, they decided to pack up and brave the icy roads to head an hour away to Grandma's, who did have power. Thankfully, they arrived safely. By now, no stores were open in Metropolis, or in the larger city of Paducah, KY, across the river. And if you've watched the news lately, likely you saw pictures of the terrible damage over there. No stores and no gas stations open meant that we all had to survive with whatever we had on hand when it started. A few places opened on Thursday, but the few brave who ventured out could only buy $25 worth of groceries using cash and could only take $100 out of the bank. Gas stations were still closed. EVERYTHING in the area was at a standstill. Yes, most of us stocked up when the storm warnings came, but supplies dwindled quickly.

At lunch time Wednesday Hubby decided to roast hot dogs on the gas logs in our fireplace. I wasn't concerned since he used to be an expert at roasting them on a gas stove. Unfortunately we no longer have a gas stove, opting for electric when we bought this place. (And yeah, what WAS I thinking? With a gas stove, gas furnace or logs, and gas water heater, one can survive a VERY long time during a power outage. Sigh.) Anyhow, he was using one of my better oven mitts to keep from burning his fingers, even with a long fork, and he set the mitt on fire. He poured water on it, then ate his dogs and went onto the next task. I kept smelling smoke and checked the kitchen. The mitt was smouldering on the table I use for a kitchen island. I used more of our precious stash of water to put the fire out and tossed the damaged mitt out into the back yard. And threatened him with physical violence if he used any more of my good mitts.

You might remember I mentioned in preparing for the storm I'd filled both tubs with water because we are on a well with an electric pump and I wanted to have water to wash our hands with or flush the potty with IF the power went out. Well prepared, right? One tub leaked out around the stopper, so we were down to one. Urrrrr. Where was I?

Hubby kept me sane (and probably from killing him) by using an old pan on the gas logs to heat water for hot chocolate and my daily cup of tea. Meanwhile branches were still coming down and I couldn't see my favorite old glider out in the back yard. I worried that it had been badly damaged.

Along about now the neighbor on the other side of us headed to Grandma's as well, leaving us alone for quite a distance on this road. And the prison escapees I mentioned in an earlier post were still at large. I slept on the couch with one eye open. Hubby sleeps like the dead. He fed the birds each day, knowing they couldn't peck far enough through an inch of ice and two or more inches of snow to eat. At least until we ran out of bird seed, and then he used the bread I had in the freezer that soon thawed. We had enough bread to feed a small army. Of birds, anyhow.
Below: Hubby feeding the birds at the backyard feeder.

Thursday: Don wanted to brave the icy roads and bring home hot food. Cold cereal was wearing a bit thin and he was out of hot dogs and oven mitts to burn. Unfortunately for him, all the restaurants within driving distance were still closed. I, on the other hand, learned how to toast bread by holding it over the gas logs with my bare fingers, mind you. Best toast I ever ate. More food was thawing in the freezer so we put some on the sun porch by the window to keep it cold. Worked pretty well. Many of our friends had moved to higher ground, meaning Marion, IL, an hour away where the storm missed. Motels were full. Generators sold out, more were shipped in, and I vowed to buy one this spring or summer when prices come down out of the sky. Gas sold out at most stations, shortly after they were able to open. Trapped in a house with no electricity was becoming less and less fun.

Friday morning: Somewhere in the middle of the night our propane tank ran dry and the temp outside was in the teens. We could no longer stay here. We bundled up to finish out the night, and packed up that morning, heading to our friends' house around the corner. They have a large house and a large generator. We were invited before, but they have a large family as well and we didn't want to impose. At this point we were fully disposed to impose.

We had warm food at long last and other people to talk to besides each other. I stopped having visions of Donner Pass and the cannibalism of my nearest and dearest and concentrated on beating one of their granddaughters in a hot card game. Hubby cleaned out our freezers and brought along what he thought was all of our meat to cook at their house. (He missed a pound of burger and some frozen fruit which I later had to discard.) A master griller, he fired up their grill and proceeded to feed a dozen or more of us steaks, ribs, and chops. He's by now the most popular man in the neighborhood. I'm staying there with him, so I'm allowed to join in the feast.

One of the married daughters in this family was determined we were going to have Monkey Bread (cut up canned biscuits, covered in butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon and baked in a Bundt pan, for the unfortunate of you who never had this treat) but the dad of the house insisted the generator could NOT carry the electrical load of the oven. It would shut the generator off. The rest of us were determined to back her against him, so after dinner, we shut down everything in the house except the oven, sat with one small light on in the kitchen and sang hymns while the Monkey Bread baked. Best Monkey Bread I've ever had.

After the "party" broke up half the family hustled back to another of the hosts' daughter's house, next door, and the rest of us dived for our respective beds and called it a day. Just before we retired, we heard the good news, the lights were back on in the entire neighborhood! We elected to stay overnight anyhow as Hubby had turned off our power at the box so we (hopefully) wouldn't be hit with a power surge when the power company re-connected us. It's a rarity, BUT last year two neighbors suffered house fires when a downed power line was incorrectly re-connected after a storm. No one was home, but the damage was extensive and they are still recovering from it. Hubby wanted to turn our power on in daylight when he could see what he was doing. I agreed. Any bed in a storm, so long as it's warm.

Saturday morning: Our friends feed us a large breakfast and send us on our way home. At last, all good things are possible. Hot baths, flushing the toilet without having to dip several pitchers of water first, television news. Yea! My first task is to clean out one refrigerator and two freezers. I promise you I now have the cleanest fridge in two states. Maybe three.

So many things impressed me about this disaster and how people reacted. Many families and friends took others in, sheltering those who had no heat and no generators. Few without heat were able to stay home. Many churches and community centers opened what they called "warming shelters" giving folks with no heat and no way to feed themselves a warm place to stay and served them hot meals.

One of our sons took his family to his wife's mom's house. Our other son and his wife have a small generator and were able to stay home, but he did make use of our washer/dryer last night for laundry and our television for the Super Bowl. He received word that his power was back on during the game.

A police officer friend is staying with us now that we have power and he still doesn't, sleeping during the day, and patrolling on twelve hours shifts at night until things settle down in his area and he has electricity at home. Our youngest son called from California, not to commiserate with us mind you, but to proclaim thankfulness that he no longer lives here but resides in sunny California. Sigh. We really should've adopted him out when he was younger and cuter.

On the down side, many locals bought generators in order to be able to stay home, only to have them stolen in the middle of the night. And at least twenty people died due to improper use of generators. (Kept them inside instead of outside and they put out poisonous fumes.) And some who bought generators for this emergency are now selling them at a discount. Hello out there! Tornado season is about a month away! Power will be out again. Generators will be humming again.

Things I managed to enjoy during the power outage:

Hearing that family and friends were okay.
The white beauty, the sparkling trees (before they fell.)
The absolute quiet when absolutely NOTHING in a house is operating (furnace, TV, appliances, etc.)
The antics of the birds on the front porch.
Cross-stitching or reading without the guilt of "I should really be doing ___ (fill in the blank.)
Not having to be anywhere because absolutely nothing was open even if I could have gotten there. And, boy howdy, does a "To DO" list shrink at a time like this.
Staying warm in sweats despite no electricity.
Battery operated games and radios and speakers for iPods.
Non-cordless phones that kept us in touch with the world when cordless phones wouldn't work. And being with a cell phone company whose product continued to work when another well-known company's phones wouldn't.
And most of all, the neighborhood kids coming to slide down our hill during the outage.
Below: the intrepid sledders.

Things I missed or outright hated:

No local news or national news. What were the rest of you doing without us? Sniff.
Little or no warm food. The best of cold cereals grows wearisome somewhere around day three.
Lost or severely damaged trees.
Batteries that ran down. And the propane tank running dry. Sigh. NO way to re-charge or re-fuel.
Not knowing where the escapees were. We are a bit removed from our nearest neighbors. Screaming wouldn't help much. Shooting might.
The sound of a live wire buzzing and the sight of flames and smoke.

That's how we survived the first (and dare we hope the last?) great storm of '09. Many are still without power, cut off and struggling to get by, or forced to leave home. I ache for them. After church yesterday one family went to gather water in five gallon buckets from someone else lucky enough to have access to power and water.

Yes, our ancestors, some not all that far removed from our generation, often lived their lives without all the luxeries we take for granted like electricty and running water. Hubby grew up in a home without electricty until he was a teenager, (which meant no running water as well) and my family lived in the hot Nevada desert without air conditioning, only a swamp cooler which really didn't do the job, until I was a teen. It's amazing how much for granted we take these simple things . . . until we don't have them.

Meanwhile, my survival list is growing. Refuel the propane tank. Get more batteries in all sizes. Get a small camping stove to heat tea water and roast hot dogs in safety (yes, I know it has to be used outside or in a WELL ventalated area.) Get a new plug for the guest bathroom tub. Stock plenty of bird seed. Save for a generator. Pray for good weather. Try not to hate anyone smart enough to own a gas stove, a gas hot water heater, and/or has access to natural gas, which doesn't run out. You might want to update your survival list too. Just in case.


Lorraine_Bartlett said...

Being without power during the summer is bad enough--but being without it in winter is pure torture. This post brought back too many bad memories of the ice storm we suffered six years ago. We were without power for four days--with temperatures in the mid-20s--and it was the worst four days of my life. At least we could go to the mall to warm up (I am forever grateful for Barnes & Noble and all their wonderful chairs). I'm glad you're safe and finally warm again.

caryn said...

Our experience with a long power outage was a few years ago during the summer-8 days. Power companies from all over the country were here to fix the damamged lines. BUT it was summer. It is much easier to find ways to stay cool than to stay warm. The basement for instance was a cool 60 something the whole time. Outside? high 90's.
The thing with gas appliances though isn't quite what it seems. The stove, furnace and dryer have electric ignitions and in the case of the furnace an electric pump (hot water radiators). The stove top we can easily light with a match, but I'm not so brave as to stick my head in the broiler area to light the oven.
Also in the summer using the charcoal grill was a daily event anyway-so the whole neighbor hood was busy grilling and eating as much meat as we could before it spoiled.
By the 4th day, when we went anywhere at all it was easy to pick out those whose power was restored and those still without.
By the 5th day I was sulking and feeling very much like a refugee in a thrid world country. At the week mark I was postitively sure if I would have been the "pioneer" our family would still be in Norway and Germany. No "Little House on the Pairie" hardships for me thank you very much...
So now when we have thuderstorms or it starts sleeting, my daughter and I are as nervous as cats waiting for that "zit zap" noise that happens right as the power goes.
I'm glad your power is back-I understand that there are areas of Notrthern Kentucky that are still out and may be for quite awhile longer.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wow, great post, Lonnie. I didn't know you could die from putting the generator inside. Tucking that knowledge away in case I ever need it. And how about seniors and people with disabilities in unheated houses--was there any way for them to get someplace warm? And did your water last the whole time?

Lonnie Cruse said...


The Paducah police went house to house checking for people who needed to be in shelters and couldn't get there, so that was good. Mostly, families checked on each other when they could. Worked pretty well. I heard on the news that 24 people died from the storm. At least 20 were because of fumes from generators, sadly.

Sandra Parshall said...

More than 150,000 homes in Kentucky are still without power. I heard on the news last night that the Amish community -- people who have never used electricity -- is coming to their aid and helping them cope.

I think it's shameful that this country routinely suffers massive power outages during storms. The big infrastructure project I'd most like to see is work on burying power lines so they aren't affected by weather. It would cost a fortune, but it would also save a fortune -- and it would save lives.

BTW, no reputable installer would put a generator inside a house. We had to consider several different outdoor sites for our whole-house generator before the installer was satisfied with one he considered safe.

Anonymous said...

I lost power on Tuesday, January 27th. I would light the burners on my gas cook stove for heat during the day, but turn them off when I went to bed. I wore two pairs of socks & a pair of winter house shoes, two pairs of sweat pants over a pair of long underwear bottoms, a sweater & sweat shirt over a long underwear shirt, plus a sleeveless corduroy winter vest.

I was lent a kerosene heater for the two nights when the temperature got down in the single digits, but except for that my only warmth came from the gas burners and 6 layers of blankets on my bed. Once I got the bed warmed up though, I was fine. Getting out of bed the next day, however, took some will power.

During the 13 days & nights without power, I read 15 books by sunlight & flashlight. I pulled a chair up in front of a window and the sun warmed me while I read. The power came back on, Monday, February 9th, and on Wednesday, February 11th, the wind took it out once again. I read two more books during the 2 days & nights without power, and on Friday, February 13th power was restored once again.

So far, I still have power. My sister told the family last Sunday that her almanac is calling for a severe ice storm at the end of February. I'm hoping they were off by a month, and the one they predicted is the one that has already hit. [crosses fingers]