Two Letters Re: Lessons From an Ice Storm

Dear Mr. Rawles,
I have been a daily visitor to your site for about three years now. I want to drop you a line regarding our experience in the big Pacific Northwest ice storm–wit effects still being felt.

I live with my wife in a suburb of Tacoma, part way between the city proper and the farm country. The television and Internet news sites all warned of a “massive” and “record breaking” storm that would move into our area this past Monday. We are on PSE power and have our own water well.

We consider ourselves pretty well prepared (we read your site, right?) so all we did was top off the gas in our vehicles, plus put another 20 gallons into five gallon tanks. We did all our dishes and laundry, unplugged electronics, brought in a mighty heap of firewood, and got out a bunch of candles and hand-crank flashlights and radios. Because we knew we would have no water if the power failed, we filled the bathtub with water to have some extra if our bottled water (both drinkable and non-drinkable “flushing” water) was exhausted.

After getting a foot of snow Tuesday, (which is a lot for around here), on Wednesday the power went out. A one-two punch of cold arctic air and lots of moisture from the Pacific gave us  one nasty storm. Trees loaded with snow fell over left and right, taking out power lines and blocking roads. By Thursday frozen rain put a coating of ice on top of the snow, making driving almost impossible. Temperatures dipped into the mid-twenties but our wood stove kept us nice and toasty. For two and a half days we had no power, water, land line phone, television, or Internet. Not a big deal really, it was actually kind of an adventure since we knew we had the skills and the stuff to go quite a while without any of these things.

We did learn a few things, and spotted some holes in our plan. We could have used a generator but  it was beyond our budget, but I did use an inverter to run some electricity from my truck into the house, enough to recharge cell phones and my laptop, and to run the television to watch a movie. Lesson: get a hand-crank cell phone charger, and generator when we can afford it.

Because there was so much snow and it stayed below freezing for several days, we took most of the stuff from our refrigerator, put it in plastic tubs, and nestled them into the snow on our back deck. We packed snow around them and weighted the lids to keep critters out. Lesson: we should have done this on day one, rather than day two. By waiting we lost a few items and the fridge got stinky. And we had to empty some tubs to use, so next time we will pre-empty them, set them on the deck early in the storm, and transfer food to them sooner.

I went out to my truck to tour the neighborhood, more to see what was happening than anything else. I put on my chains but they rattled like crazy, which didn’t sound right. I limped over to the tire place a few miles away, suspecting that the chains were the wrong size, and sure enough, they were. (They did have power but in the case that they were open but had no power, I brought cash. No power means no registers, credit card or check payment, and they might not even be able to make change.) The truck is new to me and I did have chains but I had never put them on. Apparently I bought the wrong size  a few months earlier. Lesson: use your tools! Not just chains but everything. Practice with them before you need it. Stuff without training is just expensive doorstops/paperweights.

After chaining up properly I drove around a bit. Nearly all the traffic lights were out but most people obeyed the treat-a-failed-light-like-a-stop-sign rule, though I did see a few who just ran right through the intersection without stopping at all. About 80% of the area was without power but there would be a few blocks that had juice and boy were they packed. At least a hundred vehicles lined up for gas at the few stations that were open. The one grocery store that had power was absolutely mobbed. I didn’t go in because I didn’t need anything, but the parking lot was a madhouse of ice, slush, heaps of bulldozed snow, cars parked at crazy angles, and lots of angry people. I can only imagine what it was like inside the store.

Didn’t these people know a storm was coming a few days before it got here? It was all over the news, even the national mainstream media talked about it. Many, if not most, of the vehicles had no chains or snow tires and I saw several fender benders and cars stuck in the snow. Some lunatics drove way too fast for conditions, showering other cars and even pedestrians with ice and slush. No cops were anywhere to be seen.

I stopped to help one person but the conversation we had only made me shake my head in bewilderment. This guy wanted fresh coffee and hot food, so he put himself and others at risk because he was unwilling to sit at home and eat from a can and do without his precious coffee. He’d heard the news but disregarded it, he had not stocked up before hand, and was so used to his modern conveniences that the idea of going without them drove him onto roads he had no business on at all.

I have neck and back injuries so I was going to put my health at risk to help numbskulls like that guy, and I reluctantly did not offer anyone else roadside help. It does raise the obvious question: what will it be like during a long-term and/or large scale emergency? What if people like that guy have to go weeks, months, or longer without electricity? Just how long will it take for the helpless, handout-dependent, unprepared general public to turn nasty? Based on what I saw, not very long. – P.P.P.


Dear James:
I am writing to to you on Sunday afternoon. We have been without power since Wednesday at 3 a.m. I live in western Washington.

Most of the contents of our refrigerator are history. My wife is cooking and canning the now thawed frozen meat.

We scored 5 gallons of gasoline from Fort Lewis for our generator. The generator has had problems with fuel starvation from ice and gunk in its fuel line. Had to work on that Saturday and today. Seems to be fixed. We are using the generator to recharge computer batteries and to pump water, running it about two hours a day. Dried some clothes that were in washer Wednesday when power went down.

We have been very well off with kerosene lighting and propane heating. Even so, getting reset for the new day is very tiring in a mad rush to get everything done while generator is running. Believe it or not, we are sustainable. We could go like this indefinitely as long as I can locate gasoline. Having said that, we did not go to church this morning to conserve energy for the day’s chores.

I read that Yelm city limits has regained power as of last night. Hopefully we can buy gas there. Here in the hinterboonies we may not see power service again until Wednesday evening.

A new wind storm is blowing in Sunday, which may worsen an already rough situation. At it’s peak there were 3/4 million people without power. This was the ice storm that kept on giving, and many people were without heat.

We are blessed and thankful for what has worked, and are on notice for what has not. Next time we will be in even better shape. I’m thinking that we will switch to propane refrigeration and diesel powered cars/generator with a 250 gallon diesel storage tank. It’s now on the list. I am online right now thanks to the generator.

This isn’t just a how are we doing letter. I’m writing this to show you the value of all the preps we have done over the years. I wear my tin foil hat with pride. Some, if they were with us might say “You guys are weird,” then in the next breath ask if there is any hot coffee left. My wife is running both ovens at the moment (they were imported from Italy). Try that with a glow bar start oven–which is presently all you can buy in the states.

Signing off until generator run time Monday. – D.&D.