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MUTHUH's RIDES - Ice Storm of '02

December 5, 2002

On Wednesday December 4th, the mail lady left a big envelope from a friend in New Hampshire containing a book. Dick is one of those guys whose mind is always in overdrive, and stays on the cutting edge of technology. Although I understand Al Gore claims to have invented it, Dick is one of the primary guys behind the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) which is infused in a tremendous number of the technological products at our disposal today. Known as the Father of the Chaos Theory, I met Dick at an annual convention 10 yrs ago for Andover Controls Company out of Boston. Thats him in Pic#01. He and I were both there to speak to the attendees, he as someone of importance, and me only because I represented a company buying a huge order from them that year... had nothing whatsoever to do with any particular knowledge on the topic of technology.

I mention all this because I found myself reading his new book, Out of the Barn, early on Thursday morning about 1:20am. The promised winter Storm had been upon us for hours by then, starting off with snowflakes the size of half dollars, transitioning over to sleet and freezing rain by dark Wednesday evening.

I originally found myself totally overwhelmed with the techno-speak and gizmo-babble contained in the beginning chapters, making myself feel totally out of step with the real technology behind the equipment that runs the world. But I was determined to understand what was going on, and did something I often do when befuddled in a topic over my head. I flipped to the last chapter and started reading backwards. The book is a compilation of short articles written for Manufacturing Systems Magazine, each about 2 pages in length, covering one topic at a time. I knew Dick to be an eclectic and sharp-witted guy - with a particular brand of humor, so I wanted to ferret out what I knew had to be a streak of entertainment in this book.

OK, so the first three articles were over my head ... but the book was compiled over a several year span and I wanted to see if the style of writing was different towards the end. What I found was some really funny and timely humor written for the logical mind, and anyone remotely interested in the world of technology.

I read most of the whole book backwards, one article at a timer, 'til the lights snapped off, plunging me into utter darkness. Deeper than the usual middle-of-the-night dark. There were no LED's on the VCR/DVD player, no Alarm Clock readout, no nightlight in the hallway, no hum of the air-conditioner, no streetlights outside the windows... pure blackness. With what must have been eyes wide open to their limits, I stilled my breathing listening for any signs of life. Hearing none, I dropped the book on the floor, crawled over to the Gas Log fireplace and fired it up - not so much for warmth but for light in the room.

One look out the window confirmed my suspicion - the Ice Storm has taken it's toll. I had been hearing the crackle of treetops and branches losing their battles, and watched as pseudo lightning flashes betrayed the mini-explosions going on on top of countless electric poles throughout Durham. Tree limbs fell on lines crossing high voltage circuits and blowing transformers with a brilliant blue light that lit up the sky for miles within the mist and droplets of water falling from low clouds. It has begun!

With Hurricane Fran only a couple years away, central North Carolina was once again getting slammed with Mother Nature. With Fran, we were without power for 7 days. At least then it wasn't in the middle of winter. 'Course it was 95 degrees out and miserable then, but tonight was below freezing by a degree or two and forecasted to have record lows over the next few days. I had already positioned the 5500 watt generator outside my back porch and connected the wiring to my Main Breaker Panel. With a flashlight set at the top of the stairs the prior evening, I made my way down the steps and outside to assess the damages. Once outside the front door, I could hear the crackle of limbs falling and the crash of trees every minute or so. The smell of pine was permeated throughout the air, as branches and whole trunks were snapped like twigs with the weight of an inch of ice on all exposed surfaces. It was rather eerie to be outside ducking falling limbs as I moved our cars out of harms way and out onto the sides of the road.

I headed back to bed with little to do other than hope it goes well for us. I didn't even bother to fire up the generator, as it didn't have enough juice to power the heating system anyway.

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Come morning, the freezing rain had stopped, but the damage was done. The yard and roadways were littered with fallen trees and limbs. After taking my wife to work - hospital staff don't have the luxury of sleeping in just because the roads were thick with ice - I came back home and broke out the 1931 Underwood Typewriter that had been sitting on the shelf for many years. No - I don't have an unnatural desire to have to type SOMETHING all the time. Dick's Book last night pondered how many people still owned typewriters in the real world, and with the power out like it was - I thought I'd pen a book review on the old girl and mail it to him. Had to switch to the 1935 Royal (the same model that Hemingway used for most of his career) because the Underwood's ribbon was dry.

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As the sun edged over the frozen landscape, I put the typewriters away, likely not to use them again for quite a while, and grabbed the digital camera. I took most all of these remaining shots before breakfast.

Now... I know this isn't much of an ice storm for you yankees who brave the elements every year; but for us tarheels, an ice storm is our worst fear. The municipalities are ill-prepared for this and the overhead lines, hastily repaired during the Fran aftermath couldn't handle it. Siz years ago, Fran left 650,000 people without power around here. This morning, 1.3 million people are firing up generators, scrambling for dry firewood and sealing off whole sections of their homes from the cold air.

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By 9am, I had my second pot of coffee delivered and two gas log fireplaces fixed and fired up for the neighbors and one long extension cord draped over their fence connected to my generator. According to the news reports we were in this for the long haul and better get used to it.

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Fortunately, the day before, I had topped off the cars and several 5 gallon gans with gasolene and kerosene and filled the propane tanks. Done my panic grocery shopping and readied the generator. I remember now, looking at the generator sitting on the back porch already hooked up to the breaker panel thinking how goofy I'll feel if I never have to use it. Boy was I wrong!

Day 1 was beautiful. The house was still reasonably warm, the bedroom, where we had the firelogs burning, was toasty, and the trees and bushes were beautiful with their new coating of ice. About two miles away was the ONLY small section of the city's commercial districts with power and gas lines were already choking the intersections, making travel to town nearly impossible. As the day drew on, the line for the only kerosene pump working was nearly 100yds long. Looked rather comical, actually, snaking through the sidewalk and street with people all bundled up kicking their empty containers along the queue with them as the approached the pump.

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Here it was Thursday morning, and they already warned us that it could be a week before parts of Durham were restored. We were on the edge of town, and knew that usually meant us. I kicked into survival mode rather easily. I worked at home in the Internet business and without power or Road Runner, I had an instant vacation on my hands. I spent most days cycling the breaker panel - reminded me a little of "Green Acres" trying not to overload the generator and I cycled from the hot water heater, to the stove, to the microwave, trying to keep some semblance of normality. We took in neighbors refrigerator stuff, and sent over coffee. Several came in for showers. Hey this was gonna be fun!

(The pictures of the rustic old building are about a mile away from me at The Bennett Place - you may have remembered me writing about that after my trip to Appomattox in VA. This is where the Civil War really was ended. It's an interesting bit of little known history... look in the 2002 Archive under Southern West By God Virginia, Day #5).

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OK... so after a couple days of this it wasn't fun anymore. We had already watched every movie in Blockbuster before this happened and we were desperate to find something new. TV and DVD worked fine as did all the lights in the house. The heat was too much load for the generator so we were making do with the Kerosene heater, gas logs and a small electric heater in the master bedroom. A camp coffee pot on the kerosene heater kept a steady supply of hot water for the chocolate and spiced cider, and in the evenings, a couple dozen candles gave us light during the times I shut down the generator.

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After 5 days without power, the downstairs was hovering around 38 degrees. A dramtic shock as we stepped out of the toasty bedroom. I still got up at 6am to fire up the generator so Kim could dress for work, and I could make coffee... as well as the percolator attached to the far end of the extension cord running next door. One morning found me at 6:10am, by Coleman Lantern, adding oil to the generator. After 10 minutes of pull-starting the bastard, I remembered that there is a low-oil switch in this bastard preventing it from being started if low. I went through quite a few 5 gallon cans of gas, about 10 gallons of kerosene, a case of fire logs and a large pile of wood for the downstairs fireplace, and untold dozens of hot chocolate packets for my 14 year old, who by this time WANTED to go back to school!

Finally, on Tuesday evening the power returned. The same 6-day span we experienced after Fran, but this time is mostly freezing temperatures. We did OK, better than many of the neighbors, some elderly and sick. The generator is still on the back porch and the line still draped over the fence. Not so much from fear that it'll go out again as not wanting to remember the pain in the ass the whole thing was.

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While I did have a laptop and thankfully a backup dial-up line to check emergency emails and could keep in touch with clients, on firing up the desktop computer, I had over 500 emails waiting for me. 80% junk as always, and the Delete Key is about worn out - sure hope I didn't dump anything important. Here it is the 19th, and I am just now caught up with work and I suppose ought to change the oil in the generator and return it to the garage. We have a long list of 'things' we want in preparation for the next time...afterall this is only December, and we all know the repairs were fairly makeshift.

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It was fun, but my fantasy of living in a little remote log cabin are now shattered. Gimme a plot of land next to the nuclear power plant, thank you!

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Yeah, I know - it's not a ride story. Ol' Huck sat out in the garage totally unloved and forgotten. Well... thats not entirely true - I did go out and strip out the leather gloves and knit cap out of the glove box. I'll make it up next spring, I promise....

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Stay warm! -Muthuh