So far, my family has managed to survive the “worst” drought of the century, two major floods including the “worst” of the century that turned my house into an island, and now the “worst” blizzard of the century. Apparently the only thing I’ve managed to miss is having Gen. Sherman burn me out.
Most everyone who’s seen the movie “Dr. Zhivago” remembers the ice palace scene of the deserted Siberian mansion coated with frigid crystals inside and out. Well, in a rerun shared by many in the past week, that’s where my family has been living.
Our power went out at 2 a.m. Sunday. It finally came back on at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Except for the gas hot-water heater, the telephone and the indoor plumbing, everything stopped working in that time period.
Some people didn’t even have this much, so don’t consider this griping. It’s really going to be a lesson in comparative sociology.
Our single fireplace couldn’t begin to deal with the furnaces being out of action. Running the showers boiling hot only helped a little and filled the rooms with steam that hung like clouds, then condensed on cold surfaces. Had it been a touch colder, our house would really have looked like the inside of the ice palace.
But this was about survival, especially when there are children around. It got so bad our long-haired dogs were visibly shivering.
By Sunday morning, the interior temperature had dropped to about 50 as the house slowly gave up the heat held in walls, floors, furniture. By Monday morning the interior temperature was down to 44 upstairs in the master bedroom, where most of the family was huddled warmed mostly by cats. Remember the rock group Three Dog Night? It was named after the Eskimo way of describing how cold it was for sleeping. This was about a Nine Cat Blizzard.
DOWNSTAIRS THE THERMOMETERS FELL all the way to 38 degrees. Then, as the outdoor warming trend started, the house remained colder inside than it was outside as the walls, floors, furniture clung to their new ice-cube status. One could feel the cold — through shoes, through carpet — radiating up from the floor.
Never before in my life have I been so cold for so long — and I lived 30 years in the northernmost of climes. Also, in 30 years of living through two or three storms a winter as bad or worse than this one, I never — repeat, never — lost electricity for more than an hour or two.
One Christmas Eve, about a dozen years ago in northern Illinois, we had a real blizzard (comparatively speaking). It was 25 below zero, about 50 below counting wind chill, snowing like crazy and winds whipping up huge drifts. You couldn’t look out the first-story windows; the snow was piled above them.
IN THIS NEXT-WORST MEMORY of being cold inside a house, the interior temperature fell to 55 degrees because the furnace, going full blast, just couldn’t keep up.
I’ve driven 40 miles to work, through the same kind of cold, in a car with a heater that was on the fritz, and arrived with toes and fingers completely numb — but then I could get into the heat and thaw. But not in Rome in March of 1993; from cold, one could only go to getting colder.
AND, ONLY ONCE BEFORE HAVE I been stopped from getting to work by snow, as I was this week by my driveway, which has a two-foot dip where it reaches the street.
Actually, I made it to work that other time — I was stopped trying to get home by 27 inches of snow. Would have made it, too, except the city bus in front of me stalled in a drift and I couldn’t get around it to blast my way through in what, in the days before 4-wheel drive, was the best snow-busting car going: a Volkswagen bus with stick shift, chains and the engine over the rear wheels. It could push an iceberg back up to the top of a glacier.
I had to spend the night in a fast-food restaurant with 100 other stuck drivers. Didn’t have any money with me, either, and if you think those folks served free coffee and food to the stranded travelers, think again. Up North, no special favors are accorded those who fail to surmount what’s seen as life’s routine obstacles.
By dawn’s early light, the city’s plows had cleared the streets — burying the stuck cars in the process. Of course, that’s why you carried a snow shovel in your car. Also blankets, jumper cables, a can of Sterno and some candy bars. And the CB radio wasn’t for idle chit-chat, either. It was to holler for help.
But enough of horror stories. This is about comparative sociology.
IN ROME, WHERE A REAL BEAUT of a winter storm seems to hit about once every 20-30 years, the community services are simply not geared up for this sort of thing. Similarly, up North, if they ever had a week of 95-degree heat folks would keel over left and right from heat prostration. They actually sell cars without air-conditioning up there (Hey, why buy it? Summer’s only a week long anyway).
Nonetheless, too hot isn’t nearly as dangerous as too cold. Cold kills often and regularly; heat rarely does.
Thus, before the next “worst of the century” storm hits, a few suggestions for city and county officials to ponder — things that won’t cost the zillions they pay up North for all that snow-removal equipment.
Who ever allowed pine trees within falling range of main power lines? A tree knocking down the line going to someone’s house blacks out that one house; the same tree within striking distance of the road can wipe out a whole subdivision. There are setbacks for buildings on property, why not setbacks for forests?
Buy a couple of snowmobiles, just to have around, and maybe quite a few more public vehicles ought to be 4-wheel drive. There were simply too many people who needed help who couldn’t be gotten to for too long.
Require key buildings, particularly places like hospitals and nursing homes, to have two completely different power lines feeding into them so they can switch over if one goes down.
Community shelters aren’t much good when one can’t get to the one or two set up for the whole county. Plan ahead. Work with geographically selected churches and set them up as shelters. Over a period of time, provide them with portable generators, cots and blankets, chain saws, radios, military surplus food supplies so that havens are within a mile or two of everyone — not 10 or 20 miles. Such would be useful not only in blizzards but also floods and tornados.
THERE’S NO REASON TO INVEST millions in preparing for “once in a lifetime” calamities, even though around Greater Rome they do seem to be happening at a pace of several in a lifetime. At the same time, those old sayings about “be prepared” and “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” have stuck around because they work.
Floyd County needs to think more about the risks of driving along the storm-lashed highways of everyday life. It needs to toss a snow shovel and blankets in the back of its car.
Just in case. Just because it makes dealing with the unexpected so much more manageable. Just because “Dr. Zhivago” makes a great movie but a lousy reality.