Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Common Sense Survivor of the Ice Storm

Today, all is warm and toasty here at the Walker home at the Lake of the Ozarks. But yesterday was a different story. Good and faithful dog Casper woke us as usual with his insistent bark to be released from his safe and secure cage next to our bed so that he could welcome the day with a brisk relief break in our back yard. Alice and I played our usual morning game as we each pretended to be still asleep despite Casper's ever increasing bark insistence until one of us finally gave up and answered his pleas. This morning, as most often, it was Alice who lost the battle and answered the call.

She unlatched the cage in the dim light of pre-dawn and Casper sprang out like a drag car and sped down the steps in a flash. Alice followed much more slowly and flipped on the lights before heading down the stairs; but the lights remained in their darkened state. "oh oh", she exclaimed, "the power is out". This was the third day of a multi-phase ice storm that had been pounding the mid-west in general and Missouri in particular. Tens of thousands of Missourians had lost power in the first two days but we had been fortunate in missing the bullet.

Phase one of the ice storm hit on Friday but, having been forewarned, we had stocked up on emergency supplies and were prepared to cocoon out the storm. Alice laughed at me when I ran the bathtub full of water and filled all available jugs with drinking water but I knew that water would be a problem if we lost power. That's one of the disadvantages of not being on a public water system. But she was less doubting when I carried many arm-loads of wood from our wood pile outside to a secure spot indoors. When oil and gas prices soar, it's comfortable to be an "all electric" home. But when power failure occurs it's a different story. All day Saturday we simply enjoyed the excuse to do nothing but relax and watch the weather deteriorate. Our KIA mini-van remained safely in the garage as our driveway became a thick sheet of ice. Getting the van onto the main road would have been impossible since the driveway becomes almost immediately a steep upward slope as soon as you leave the garage. Our truck set unprotected near the top of the slope but it was locked in a coat of ice. We were content to just stay warm and safe in the security of home. Our sparsely traveled road was devoid of any traffic at all except for the frequent passing of the road-crew truck as it kept the road clear and spread its security blanket of sand and salt. We were pleased when, on Saturday afternoon we got a call that church the next day had been cancelled.

Casper woke us as usual Sunday morning and all was well. The sky was cloudy; the thermometer read 26 degrees, but nothing except the birds were in the air. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast as we listened to weather reports threatening a final punch of the three-prong ice storm. "Maybe we'd better try to chip away the ice in case an emergency came up and we would have to get out," Alice announced matter-of-factly. I knew she was right but dreaded the thought of the daunting task. Nevertheless, we bundled up, put on warm gloves, gathered a snow shovel and flat-nose shovels (I know there's a proper term for such a device but never can remember what that is), and bravely ventured out into the challenge. We had no more than started when good neighbor Doug showed up with his shovel in hand. "I'm sure glad to see you guys out here," he exclaimed, "I was getting cabin fever." Doug had parked their Dodge mini-van at the top of the driveway and would be able to get out by simply removing the vehicle of the ice enshrouding it. He joined us in chipping away the ice on our driveway. We soon learned that any form of "shoveling" was an impossible task, but that the ice could be removed by first beating on a small section of it with the blunt end of the steel shovel so as to break the ice off chunk by chunk. We soon had a system working whereby two would chip while the third shoveled away the small chunks of ice. Shoveling was the easiest part of the job so we rotated chores until, almost three hours later, a path had been cleared by which we could drive the van to the top of the driveway. Alice deftly backed the car out, turned it around and drove it up the slope without a hitch. We decided to leave it there for the duration and retreated to a well-earned rest. Later, we invited Doug and Vera over for a light supper and a game of Mexican Train dominos. By the time we retired for the night, the threatened final thrust of the ice storm had given way to higher temperatures and we felt confident that the resulting rain would wash away the remnants of the dangerous ice. But, as noted above, that was not to be the case and we awoke the next day to join the thousands of our neighbors who were without electricity.

We don't know why our power waited until this final day to give up the ghost. The driveway we had cleared was now dry and without a trace of ice on the area that we had cleared. Reports on the radio indicated that those without power might not be relieved for days and temperatures approaching zero were on the way. My first task was to build a fire in the living room fireplace. Even though the fireplace is a heatalator, like most fireplaces today it provides a lot more atmosphere than useful heat to the house. Nevertheless, it would provide a place of warmth if the fire was blazing enough and if you stood close enough. We decided to venture out to replenish our supplies in case we were in for a long period devoid of power.

On Saturday I had heard a radio report that Home Depot had gotten in a shipment of 400 generators but they were going out like hotcakes. Home Depot was therefore our first stop and, as we entered the store we became quite concerned because we saw that what seemed to be about every other shopper was leaving the store with a very large box on a lumber cart. Each such cart contained a generator.

I didn't have the vaguest idea of how to make use of a generator in our home but I figured if so many people were buying them it couldn't be too tough a job to put them to use. We queried a clerk as to the location of the generators and were sent toward the lumber department. There, behind a closed gate, we found a smiling Home Depot employee, with his assistant towing a cart with a generator on it. He gave us some quick advice on how to use the generator, opened the gate and handed us the handle of the cart, then closed it as his assistant went for another generator. At about $700 per generator I now know why he was smiling.

Alice brought the van around as I pulled the cart toward the pick-up area and a store employee helped me lift the heavy contraption into the back of the van. I wasn't sure how we would get it out once we got home. Fortunately, we had no more than backed up to our garage at home when Doug came over to help. We removed the box from around the generator while it was still in the van and then Doug and I had no trouble lifting it to the pavement. As expected, some assembly was required so we took it into the garage to get out of the cold wind. Assembly was not difficult as all that was required was to put on the front wheels and a support bracket in the front. We then rolled it back outside next to the garage, added the oil that had been included with the generator, and filled it with about five gallons of gas. It fired up on the first pull and we were in business. Now, I know the "right" way to use a generator is to have it wired directly into the house circuit box, but without an electrician at hand that is not a choice. For the type of immediate emergency use we needed, the supplied electrical cord was pretty slick. We simply plugged one end of the heavy duty cord into the generator, closed the garage door on it, and fed the other end through the garage door leading to the house. This end of the cord divides into four separate outlets into which four extension cords can be inserted. This enabled us to turn our living room/kitchen area into a cozy and relatively warm environment. We hooked two small space heaters up to two of the extension cords, and in the others we sent power to the TV set, to a lamp, a coffee pot, a crock pot, and a small microwave. So long as the wood and gasoline would last we no longer needed the electric company. We invited Doug and Vera to join us and planned for a camping trip of unknown duration in our living room. Coffee was made and Alice had put a delicious looking beef stew into the croc pot. We gathered around the kitchen table contented and happy as we played yet another game of Mexican Train dominos.

But since both Doug and Vera had to work the next day, they decided that they would be better off staying in a motel for the night if they could find a vacancy. Doug found one that had three rooms left so he went and checked into the room to make sure it would still be there when needed. The lights came back on just as he walked back into the house and our adventure ended.

We were lucky but we were prepared and could have endured the power outage for a long time. As I write this I hear reports that there are over 100 shelters open in this area for those in need of a warm place to sleep. I know that there are many out there who are too elderly, too sick, or too poor to be prepared for this cruel trick of nature. Let us all pray that they will be safe and that none will be missed or forgotten.

Take care. If your area is threatened by a storm of any type, use some good old common sense to be prepared.

No comments: