Lessons Learned From an Ice Storm, by G. in the Zarks

Friday, Feb 5, 2010

While watching the local weather over the last few days, it has become apparent that a winter storm is heading for our part of the world, bringing with it the distinct possibility of not just snow, but significant amounts of ice. As I pondered this, it brought to mind our recent experiences with ice storms over the last few years, most notably in January 2007. I thought some of our “lessons learned” were worth sharing with others.

We had been blessed with several years of reasonably mild winters leading up to the 2007 storm. Unfortunately, the good times often seem to lull people into a state of complacency, characterized by an artificial sense of well-being and overall lack of awareness. This is, of course, what the late Colonel Cooper referred to as Condition White.

I freely admit to being somewhat guilty of the “All is Well” syndrome where the weather was concerned also. While I have spent my entire adult life trying to make sure my family is prepared for the myriad of difficulties we experience, I must confess that when the weather man said “Chance of ice,” I didn’t really take him all that seriously. I failed to properly evaluate the nature of the threat. In that particular instance, I didn’t think through the potential ice storm scenario to any great degree, because I considered myself and my family to already be prepared for this event. At the very least, I should have gone through the mental exercise of “what if” and reviewed the supplies I had in contrast to what I was likely to need in this situation. In a real emergency, “All is Well” can get you killed.

The ice came. In the early hours of the morning I awoke to find the power had gone off. This was, frankly, no surprise to me. Temporary interruptions in the grid caused by weather are far from unusual here. What I couldn’t know at the time was our power would not be back on for 8 days. Neighbors not far from us were out for 13 days. In contrast, power in the closest town was only out for hours.

Upon waking, I immediately got up, woke my wife and told her the power was out, and took a hot shower before the water in the tank had a chance to cool. My wife did likewise. A hot shower can become an unbelievable luxury in a surprisingly short period of time when the power is out. (Yes, our hot water heater is “gasp!” electric.) Also, I filled the bathtub and several buckets with water in case the generators failed at the local water district. I already had several cases of drinking water and approximately 200 gallons in drums in the garage as well. These are standard precautions on our part, regardless of the time of year.

Heat was the next issue we tackled. Our home is all-electric, but we supplement the electric furnace with portable kerosene heaters in order to keep utility bills manageable. I isolated the living room, which is where we spend most of our waking hours, by stapling blankets over the doorways leading to our hallways and kitchen. This five-minute modification allowed me to more efficiently heat the living room with a kerosene heater, and minimized heat loss into the unused areas of the house. I used the same “compartment” approach at night when heating the bedroom. Of course, kerosene heaters should never be left unattended for any period of time, and a battery-powered CO detector is a must.

A second important lesson regarding heat is to have ample fuel supplies on-hand to handle an emergency. We were burning kerosene on a daily basis before the storm. When the weather forecast seemed ominous, I asked my wife to pick up an extra container of kerosene on her way home from work, since I work long shifts and would not be away from work before the station closed. She forgot, and we faced the storm with less than 5 gallons of kerosene. On the heels of the ice came painfully low temperatures for several days. It became clear that we would not have sufficient fuel for our heaters to last throughout the cold snap. Furthermore, a large percent of the local population had turned to kerosene heaters in the absence of electricity. Local suppliers soon ran out of kerosene. As a result, I eventually found myself standing in line for approximately four hours in order to purchase 10 gallons of kerosene, when it became available. Fortunately, I did have enough cash on hand to make the needed transaction. ATMs were only intermittently operational. The wait, outdoors in single-digit temperatures, with a few hundred other unfortunates, was by far the most valuable lesson I received during this time. The helplessness, anxiety, and shame associated with my lack of preparation have impacted me deeply. By the way, I now buy kerosene in 55 gallon drums. No more queues for me.

That covers water, shelter, and heat. Our next issue was light. I keep several Dietz lanterns and two Aladdin lamps along with several gallons of high-grade lamp oil on hand. Illumination was not a problem. In addition, I have a wide variety of Surefire brand flashlights and spare lithium batteries for nighttime chores around the house. All of the above were put to good use. I was even able to supply some of my neighbors with Dietz lanterns and oil during the time we were off-grid. Several valuable lessons concerning light were learned. First, the Aladdin lamps are excellent, albeit somewhat expensive. They are bright when used according to the instructions. So bright, in fact, that I recommend anyone planning on using them also spend the extra money for lamp shades. They are definitely bright enough to read by without undue eyestrain. They also give off significant amounts of heat, which was helpful in the cold temperatures. They would be less pleasant to utilize in hot weather, however. I was actually able to boil water by holding a metal cup over the top of the chimney for a brief time. This was an excellent technique for preparing some of the freeze-dried Mountain House food we ate during the event. Buy at least twice as many mantles and chimneys as you think you will need, as these are the most fragile parts of the lamp. Also, read the instructions.

Dietz lanterns are excellent tools for the money, but are significantly less bright than the Aladdins. They are easier to use when you are moving around as they have handles and can be carried while lit. All the standard precautions apply when using anything that is actively burning while you handle it.

Surefire lights are also outstanding illumination tools. The major shortfall is battery life. I discovered that when you are using them as a primary illumination source, you will go through a surprising number of batteries. The good news is the batteries generally have a shelf life measured in years, so you can afford to stock up without worrying too much about discharge rates. Don’t buy CR-123 batteries from places like Wal-Mart; they are too expensive there. Instead, order them directly from Surefire’s web site. You can get them in bulk for less than $2 per battery. The battery life problem can also be mitigated somewhat by buying the newer generation of LED lights, as opposed to the older ones with the xenon bulbs.

Food was not an issue due to pre-existing stocks. All our cooking was done outside on a propane burner from a turkey fryer. Coffee prepared in an enameled percolator was definitely the biggest morale-booster from day to day. We even had friends over for “Mountain House night” to provide a little levity and fellowship in an otherwise dreary situation.

The same morning that the power went off, I removed all perishables from the refrigerator and stored them in a Rubbermaid tub in the cold garage. That food was prepared and eaten first. The freezers were left closed as much as possible, and wrapped with blankets for additional insulation. I keep a 5kw generator with the tank drained along with several gallons of stabilized fuel (religiously rotated) and sufficient oil. My only purpose for the genset is to keep the freezers frozen in just such situations. Only one of my freezers in indoors, the others being outside. It was only necessary to run the generator for a couple of hours every two to three days to maintain the integrity of the frozen food. In retrospect, it would be advisable to have the ability to connect the genset to portions of the house (with the appropriate safety measures, of course) for added flexibility in using a limited number of electric appliances.

During the crisis, I had two different coworkers whose homes were “cased” by potential thieves. Each home was rural and isolated, with no neighbors in direct line-of sight. Fortunately, in both cases, when the armed homeowners confronted the would-be thieves, they wisely ran away.

Keep in mind that, while the power was off for several days, this was in fact only a pseudo-disaster. Roads remained passable, and within a day, Wal-Mart was open for business. Within hours they sold out of bottled water, candles, lamps & lamp oil, manual can openers, flashlights, batteries (D-cells were the most in demand), milk, bread, and most foodstuffs that don’t require preparation. Over the course of three days, I watched my closest neighbor make at least two trips to Wal-Mart per day, returning with armloads of white plastic bags each trip. Also, within days, there were enterprising individuals selling small generators out of the back of tractor-trailers. You could hear the rattle and hum of Briggs & Stratton engines in almost every direction.

On a personal note, the experience was also a validation of the preparedness mindset for my wife. While she has always been supportive of my efforts to prepare, she was from time to time also prone to grumbling about the amount of space occupied by our preparedness supplies. More than once during the storm, she would say something like “Gee, it would be nice if we had…” upon which I would go to the back room, rummage around and return with the item she was requesting. By the end of the storm, her most frequent comment was, “I’m glad you’re my husband.”

Lessons Learned:


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