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Letter Re: Experiences in the Southeastern Ice Storms

Our family lives in a rural area of South Carolina, recently affected by a freak snow storm that shut the area down for a week, and is still affecting our area in other ways more than 10 days later. Our family was much better off than most we knew, but this little test really showed our weaknesses. We thought we were prepared, but we found some holes in our planning that came as a complete surprise. I’ve taken notes, and hope to be better prepared for next time, and hopefully can pass along some advice in the process.  

First mistake – not shoveling right away while the snow was fresh and newly fallen, or even while it was falling. This was a mistake because the very first day, the snow was very light, almost pellet-like, and easily brushed away with a broom or any form of shovel, no machinery needed. However, we let it sit a day, in which it partially thawed, and then froze overnight in subfreezing temperatures into a solid mass that did not thaw for ten days. Had we shoveled, swept, and dug out the very first day, we would have had clean walkways, accessible vehicles, a clear driveway and sidewalk. Instead, we experienced the inaccessibility of two of our vehicles, and treacherous injury-inviting conditions everywhere we walked.  

Second mistake – when the snow started falling, that’s when we needed to move our vehicles to the most accessible point in our drive area. Instead, we had one very reliable front wheel drive vehicle parked behind our house, on the down side of a slope, encased in ice, surrounded by solid ice, unable to move. Even if we could have moved it, we found the battery died after a couple of nights of subfreezing temperatures, and the front of the vehicle was pointed away from where we could reach it to jumpstart with another vehicle, so it wasn’t going anywhere until it thawed. Another full size vehicle, with a full tank of gas and great tires, pointed the wrong way on the back side of the driveway, encased in ice and also on top of a solid ice driveway, unmoveable. Only one, a large 4-wheel drive truck, full of gas and having new tires with great mud and snow grip, plus all the goodies needed to traverse any road conditions, was positioned in a place where it could have left the driveway under its own power, and it had a flat tire. Not just a few PSI flat, but down-on-the-rim, not-going-anywhere flat.  

Which brings me to …  

Third mistake – actually a combination of mistake #1 and #2. The only moveable vehicle we had, had a flat tire, and although it had a full size spare, we had no way to change it. The truck was on a solid sheet of ice with no traction. No way to position the jack without making the truck unstable and possibly sliding it dangerously into the house, another car, or ourselves. No way to secure it to safely change the spare. Our way to resolve it was to pump the tire as much as it would safely hold and then  try to make it as far as we could towards civilization (we live outside the city limits) where I could then find a flat spot, maybe a gas station that had cleared its parking lot, where the spare could be safely put on. Luckily, and I wasn’t expecting to be this lucky, the leak was very slow and I made it all the way to work, where I bought another tire.  

Fourth mistake – not keeping track of our portable jumpstarter. We had a nice one for years, even had its own little mini-air compressor. It had some problem a year or so ago where it would not charge up any longer, so I brought it back to the store where we bought it to exchange it for a working one. They no longer sold that model, so they exchanged it for a cheaper one that did not have the air compressor feature. We had this cheaper one for a while, but then one time someone from work borrowed it, and … and … I don’t know. It’s somewhere. I forgot, and didn’t replace it, and now I had a perfectly good reliable vehicle completely inaccessible.  

Fifth mistake – losing patience. That was me. Everything took so much longer when you had to walk slower, avoid carrying items, keep your hands free, avoid running certain errands, bundle up every time you go in and out, take an hour and a half to drive on single lane roads what used to take only 30 minutes with plenty of room to spare. I had no patience, and the stress this generated was entirely self-inflicted. Like I said, the bad conditions lasted 10 days, with the first four days being complete shut down disaster, and things barely returning to normal in a trickle after that. Work was difficult. Customers were stressed out. No deliveries showed up on time. The snow hit us on the night of the 9th, and just today (the 20th) I got some deliveries that I had been expecting between the 10th and the 12th. There are some suppliers that are experiencing a “snowball effect” … no pun intended … of the further they got behind, the worse it got. Some delivered once a week, some daily, some three times a week, some once a month. There are some deliveries I was expecting between the 10th and the 14th that still have not showed up, and that I am told will be the end of this month before they have caught up, because they had to just cancel all their deliveries from those times and start their schedule over. I have had some very tense, and very unpleasant, conversations with suppliers because their inability to deliver parts to my business meant my customers were waiting, which meant my customers heaped their frustrations on me, and I dumped all that right back on my suppliers. It doesn’t help anything to get bent out of shape. I’m going to remember how this feels next time something like this happens, and just try to be more patient. Sometime around the 17th (the last day of actual ice causing problems, but still while the repercussions of business interruptions were troublesome), I finally stopped stressing and just decided to embrace the horror. I stopped apologizing, after all I was doing everything I could, I stopped berating my already weary suppliers, I stopped lying awake at night freaked out about what might be waiting for me tomorrow. I just let go of all the negativity and decided it was all going to have to go on without me. The snow and ice have since melted (it’s the 20th as I writing this today) but we are not over the damage done yet.  

Things we learned for next time:  

Lesson #1 – Really evaluate your errand-running. When it takes ten minutes to dress properly, and an hour and a half to get anywhere, you seriously evaluate what you “need” to go and get. Driving was a tension filled event, not so much the act of it, because I had a very reliable vehicle, but because other people on the roads were so unpredictable. Every Yankee joke about Southern drivers happened right in front of me, too numerous to mention. I really tried harder than anything else to maintain distance between myself and other drivers, even if it meant pulling over in a parking lot and waiting for cars to go by so I could have a several car-length cushion between me and anyone else with a Southern license plate. I just had no idea what they would do – maybe they just moved down here last week from Maine, or maybe they’ve never been in the snow before … I didn’t know and treated everyone like they were crazed maniacs bent on destroying themselves and everyone around them in the process, and avoiding other drivers meant slow going. Worse, I actually did see several drivers being intentionally reckless – several that were intentionally spinning out in the middle of the road, doing donuts, or racing down the road at higher speeds than the speed limit for unknown reasons – maybe to prove to everyone else that they could, I don’t know. Many older rear wheel drive cars, when stopped at a stop light, would gun it when the light turned green and whip their car sideways, then get traction and take off, fishtailing down the road. So if I saw a car stopped at a stop light, I intentionally slowed way down and didn’t approach the stop light, instead crawling in the other lane way back until the light turned green so I wouldn’t be in the damage path when they decided it was play time. When it takes you that long to do any simple thing, you find there are so many errands you don’t really need to run. Doing this really kept us efficient, as I would leave the house, I’d be sure to get everything done in one shot.  

Lesson #2 – Be patient, kind and pleasant. Everyone is stressed. Everyone is trying in their own way to get through it. Nobody cares that you are stressed. So, be the nice one, be the one who does not add misery.  

Lesson #3 – Wear waterproof outer clothes, especially if you are in and out. You’re not going to keep changing clothes, you’re going to trudge around in what you put on that morning and maybe layer some extra to go out, so as soon as you let snow build up on your pants and boots and sleeves, you’ll go inside and it will melt and you’re going to be miserable all day until you change again. It was silly of me to not know this, because I have plenty of waterproof hunting clothes, but I didn’t wear them. I could have just pulled them over the outside of my daily wear clothes. I will next time.  

Lesson #4 – Is your fireplace usable? What, you live in the South, and it’s only decorative? Check and see if you can actually use it, and if you have firewood! We got lucky and didn’t lose electricity or any heat function in our house – but we were lucky. We didn’t have firewood, we would have had to venture out and cut some … in the snow … and even then I don’t know if the fireplace was safe to use. We didn’t have to find out the hard way, but we are going to check on this before next time.  

Lesson #5 – Find relaxing things to do. Pacing, complaining, and growling at your family are not preferred options. When things slow down, and things aren’t happening like they should, and you feel impatient, find something relaxing to do. I settled on reading (although it took me a few days to realize this), and that helped pass the time and calm me down.  

Things we were happy to see we did correctly:  
Gold Star #1 – Filled up all the cars with gas before the crisis! Had good tires (with one unforeseen sudden problem)! Lights working, horns working, brakes in good working order, belts in good shape, all caught up on maintenance. Had emergency kits in every car – blankets, flashlights, bungee cords, spare tires, bottled water, gloves, etc.! Lets not mention that 2 of the 3 vehicle were unusable for several days. We were at least not so bad off once things were moveable again.  

Gold Star #2 – Plenty of food and cooking supplies! We even fed our pets and the local wildlife with plenty of food to spare. The deer hung out in our yard and ate dried corn, bruised apples, molasses and salt. We had tons of birds on our back porch in all daylight hours feasting on the bread and scraps. The raccoons at night ate all our leftovers and stale food. Our pets were well fed and didn’t mind having us around the house to pay attention to them.  

Gold Star #3 – Everyone stayed healthy, and did not experience any injuries, no falls on the ice, and limited contact with the ice at all. Having everything we needed at home and limiting our movement outside the house decreased our chances of injuries and health problems.  

Gold Star #4 – Semi-ready if the power had gone out. We had candles, warm clothes, and a generator. Not bad.  

Gold Star #5 – Did not require any emergency services whatsoever. Did not request roadside help from any of the overworked and emergency-limited roadside service companies, just handled our problem ourselves. No medical emergencies, really I believe due to our careful thinking and moving slow, avoiding leaving the house unless we had to, and not trying to behave as we normally would on a normal day. Did not get ourselves in any unneccessary troubles. Avoided traffic accidents, which were everywhere all over the roads, many of which sat in place as testament to their mistake for a day or longer since tow companies were way overbooked, I believe due to my intense paranoia of treating every car on the road as if it would spontaneously attack me if I got too close. Did not attempt to use the fireplace we weren’t certain about, therefore possibly avoiding a fire problem that we might not have been able to get help considering our ice-locked driveway. So we were not a burden on the already over burdened emergency services, or anyone else, we did have some challenges but we handled them ourselves.  

In general I think that we did pretty well. We do plan on continuing to learn, and improve, should anything else interesting happen around here. Thank you so much for your very informative blog and for the good work you have done. Take care. – B.H. in Upstate S.C.