What I Learned From the Midwest Ice Storm of 2011, by J.M.

The three elements of nature that cause damage– sun, wind, and water. My bet is on the last one, especially the frozen kind. Preparing and acting upon it are two entirely different and opposite things.

The rain started in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, without much concern at first. Although the weather report at first said the possibility of ice was real, it would stay south, in Ohio.

Lesson #1: Nature is fickle, and even NOAA cannot always track the line between rain, snow, and ice. Predictive weather paths can give you a false sense of security, and margins of error are costly. Unfortunately, the prediction of a little bit of accumulation of ice turning to snow was wrong. It was all ice, at least for my area in Southeast Michigan, and we paid the price for the miscalculation.

All was well until dark. The warm upper atmosphere and the cold air clashed as it swepted out of the northwest. By the time I looked out the front door, two hours later after dusk, it was too late. Ice hanging like chandeliers had already formed on the trees and power lines in front of my house. A hundred-foot tall pine tree that had survived decades of inclement weather soon bore witness, the branches cracking and shaking to the ground in piles. I shut the door and told my wife that we had better fill the bathtub and water jugs with water for drinking and flushing the toilets.

Lesson #2: Don’t trust others when you are first responsible for yourself and family. Local authorities on a large-scale emergency are only reactionary and are little prepared themselves for a regional disaster.

Before I could fill the bathtub up halfway, the lights went out. I had backup power, so I had a false sense of security that I soon paid for. I looked out the back window to see the transformer located on a pole above my outdoor shed explode in a shower of sparks. It was the fourth of July, except it was February. Luckily, I had moved the wood pile and it wasn’t behind the shed, as the situation was only going to get worse from here.

I had a Bearcat scanner with fresh batteries, so I had the local catastrophe well monitored. Already the police, ambulance, and hospital were at duty, but I couldn’t keep up with all the 911 calls. I dwelled at that moment on taking a chance of going to Walmart for extra everything. I went outside and soon regretted taking that chance. I reached the car and realized the vehicle was covered with an inch of solid ice. Before I turned to get my utility bar to chip away at the mess, I found myself in mid-air grasping for the car door to help right myself. Instead of standing, I hit the asphalt; all 200-pounds of me was bouncing on the ice-covered driveway. I pulled my head forward, barely in time to prevent hitting my head flush thereby keeping consciousness. I couldn’t move. My back locked up, and the air in my lungs was gone. I couldn’t breathe. I heard no one come to the garage door to see what I was doing. The frozen ice had already covered my face. Finally, I started to breathe again. I couldn’t stand. I rolled slowly side to side, until I landed on my stomach. I crawled on my elbows up the driveway toward the garage doorway. I had full strength in my arms, but my lower legs were weak, leaving me unable to rise up. Those fifty feet felt like a mile. By the time I crawled to the door, my wife opened it and I rolled in.

I asked my wife to get the electric heat pad and plug it into the DR Series 2400 Watt Inverter/Charger I kept in the corner of the garage with my battery bank. I forgot to check it immediately after the transformer blew. When the power goes out, it automatically goes from charger to inverter mode instantly. I later found out the 30 amp fuse had blown.

Lesson #3: Keep multiple extras of whatever you think you really need. My wife grabbed the hand warmers I kept in the kitchen drawer. This was a chemical solution for my locked up back. Non-electrical items are key in any emergency situation and I buy these in bulk now. After taping the hand warmers and later some icy blue gel packs to my lower back, I was able to stand again.

No cell phone worked. We still had a land line, but since most of my friends had cell phone I couldn’t reach them. Land lines have back-up batteries and operate on low voltage, which is an advantage in a crisis situation. I called my aunt, who also still had a landline, and made sure she had no immediate problems. I told her to take her medicines out of the fridge and put them in the garage, as most attached garages stay just above freezing in the winter. A thermometer revealed it was 36 degrees in ours, so we emptied our refrigerator and stored the goods in coolers out there. We taped the freezer shut, so no one would accidentally open it and let the cold out.

We had installed a Hearthstone wood heater with soapstone in the living room. It gives off heat slowly and evenly instead of a red hot steel one that burns anyone who suddenly touches it. My wife uses aluminum coffee cans filled with rock salt that absorb the heat and provide extra heat also. Although the central heating system was down, we were still warm. In the breezeway that separates the kitchen and utility area from the living room and bedrooms, we hung a blanket to keep the immediate areas more warm. The kitchen was cool the next day, but we only prepared meals and didn’t spend much time in there.

With the inverter down, I still had a generator for power, but I decided not to use it at that point. I did have several smaller inverters– 300 to 700 watt size– to use for smaller appliances, which I used with the deep cycle batteries. The DC sump pump with the batteries helped to keep the water entering the sump pit from flooding the basement. I let my son do the lifting, as my back was in no condition to carry 100-pound batteries. Two six-volt batteries in series parallel produce 12 volts and run the DC sump pump, bypassing the AC sump pump. In the argument of Tesla’s AC versus Edison’s DC system, Tesla’s AC system clearly is much better delivering power over great distances, but in an immediate power down situation DC power in a homestead has advantages over AC. Small appliances can be run fully charged in a power down situation. Any appliance found in a RV can be run on DC.

By morning, I surveyed the damage from overnight. Trees and power lines were strewn across the roads. The people on my street who dared to go out decided to leave altogether instead of staying in their unheated homes. Our neighbor across from us left to go live with her grown children. I went out in my backyard to get a closer look at the blown transformer and discovered a power line was down the width of my entire yard, just missing my shed. If it had landed on my shed roof, it would have burned down, and with the gas can I kept inside, the shed might have blown up. That was a close call. It was six days before the power company finally installed a new line. They decided to put the new transformer in a new location, closer to road access. That was a good decision. The clean up on my street took several days, even after the power came back on.

A Big Berkey water filter gave us a gravity-fed clean water system. Draining the hot water heater also helped provide water for flushing toilets. Lighting was done by oil lamps and LED flashlights, a low tech solution. I missed work for a few days but safety was my first priority after my fall. I found lead acid deep cycle batteries are the weak link in any solar home power system. If you cycle them down more than 50 per cent over and over, you soon lose capacity and shorten their life. Newer technology in batteries lessens the problem but they are more expensive. Oh well. Communication is paramount in staying in touch with the outside world. FRS and CB radios can offer immediate help. Shortwave still has a place and is not obsolete.

I converted a gas generator with a conversion adapter kit to use propane years ago, and a 500-gallon tank provided ample fuel for the week-long blackout to keep the freezer on. The power did come back on, and everything slowly got back to normal, but I’ve been thinking lately what would happen if you had to go a year or five years without juice. Civilization and the population would be scaled back drastically. Everything is doable with the proper resources and man power. No electric power, no refrigeration, no cars, and technology strangled by the lack of energy will be daunting indeed. The solution is around the corner, but it may not reveal itself until after another major war and /or economic collapse. Still, GOD makes a way no matter how grim it appears. Having stuff (solar panels, water filters, and all of that) gives solace, but we only have the CREATOR to protect us. Amen!