Unlike many of you, I am an average suburbanite, not a hardcore prepper living on a homestead in the country. My family needs to stay where we are because of my husband’s work. So we are making the best of living a short distance from Washington, DC. We are generally well-prepared for the typical emergencies experienced in northern Virginia, such as severe thunderstorms and hurricanes. But we were caught mostly unprepared for the unusually severe snowstorm that we had in early January, 2022. This storm delivered 14-inches of snow where I live and stranded hundreds of drivers, including one of Virginia’s US Senators, for over 20 hours on a 50-mile stretch of I-95, which was rendered impassable by the storm. I am going to share our successes, failures, and lessons learned from this experience to help others who live in suburbia and may face a similar situation.
We had been out of state on vacation for Christmas and New Year’s for over two weeks when we saw that some snow was expected at home. We decided to return early to avoid the bad traffic that results from any precipitation as we live in one of the worst traffic areas of the country. We returned late on Sunday night and didn’t do any food shopping. We weren’t concerned because any snow that is forecast usually falls short of what we actually get. We woke up the next morning to heavy snow falling at a rate of over one inch per hour. By the storm’s end, we received over a foot of heavy, wet snow. To give some perspective, where we live a few inches is a big deal and causes government shutdowns, closures, traffic accidents, and a general feeling of panic in many people.
Our power lines are mostly underground, so we were surprised when our power went off in the morning during the storm. We ended up being without electricity for almost four days. Unlike hurricanes where the worst we have to worry about is some spoiled food and a hot, humid house, for the first time we had to worry about hypothermia and frozen pipes.
Our central heating system no longer worked. We had no hot water because our tankless gas water heater requires electricity. Our gas stove did not work because safety features prevented us from igniting the burners manually. The only remaining source of heat, our gas fireplace, would not turn on because the power was out. Heavy snow caused several of our trees to fall in our yard and on the neighbor’s fence.
Although the situation was frustrating, we had multiple successes that allowed us to make it through the power outage relatively comfortably.
- Our municipal water supply did not fail, and we had running water throughout the outage. If it did fail, we had adequate stored water from our hurricane preparedness.
- We had plenty of non-perishable food on hand. Since we have a four-wheel drive vehicle, my husband was able to go to the store to pick up snack food that did not require cooking while many of our neighbors were stuck in their houses.
- We kept trying to ignite our gas fireplace, and my husband was in the process of wiring the fireplace to a wall plug to plug it into the inverter to start it. Luckily, it turned on spontaneously during one of the power company’s attempts to restore power. Once it was on, we kept it on. This, combined with opening window coverings during the day to let in the sun and covering windows at night to prevent drafts, kept our house between 55-to-61 degrees throughout the power outage.
- We did not have any burst water pipes. We would periodically run the taps throughout the house to make sure the water would flow. We also opened cabinets in front of sinks that had their water pipes on exterior walls so that the heat from the house could keep them warm.
- We had over half a tank of gas in our truck and were able to periodically charge our cell phones in it. This allowed us to check news and government announcements. One of the best sources of information was our community’s Facebook page. People posted updates on road conditions, power restorations, which gas stations had gas, and what local stores had food. We were also able to log onto our power provider’s website to monitor restoration efforts. The bandwidth was strained at certain times of day.
- We had winter equipment and clothing available. Because we do rarely have somewhat heavy snow, my husband invested in a snowblower. He was able to clear our driveway and sidewalk (which is required by our HOA) as well as help our immediate neighbors clear their snow. This reinforced goodwill between us and our neighbors. We had a chainsaw to clear downed trees. We had gas stored to run both the snowblower and chainsaw, as well as our vehicles in case gas stations ran out of gas. Since we are originally from parts of the country that experience harsh winters, my husband and I had the appropriate outwear to protect us and keep us comfortable as we were doing work outside during and after the storm.
- My husband was able to get our gas stove to work by plugging it into a power inverter connected to a car battery. Having access to a safe indoor cooking source was a game-changer. This allowed me to cook our stored food instead of having to rely on just snack food. We were also able to have hot beverages, which was very helpful in warming us up in the cold house or after being outside. We were also able to heat up water to use for bathing. We brought hot water in a large pot up to our bathroom, put some of the water in a pitcher and then added cool tap water to get it to the right temperature. We were then able to pour the water from the pitchers over ourselves to mimic what we would do taking a normal shower. It was a big morale booster to be clean.
- We didn’t lose any perishable food. Because it was so cold, we were able to fill up water bottles, leave them outside to freeze overnight, then put them in the refrigerator and freezer to keep them cold. We repeated this process and avoided food spoilage.
- Our dogs immediately alerted us to any unusual activity around our house. They could hear things much better without the background noise from all of our electronics. There is nothing better than having a canine early warning system when your house alarm is down.
Along with our many successes, we had several failures:
- We had never anticipated being affected by this type of natural disaster and didn’t have an appropriate plan in place.
- We did not scrutinize the weather report for our area, and only had a vague idea that we would be getting some snow. If we had paid more attention, we would have realized that we would be getting more snow than usual and would have bought more supplies before the storm hit.
- We did not have a generator on hand, so we were scrambling to figure out how to make our vital house systems work. My husband had to search our house for several hours to find the inverter. If our gas fireplace didn’t turn on from sheer luck and he hadn’t found the inverter to power our stove and fireplace (if it hadn’t turned on by itself), then we would have had a very uncomfortable few days.
- Our gas fireplace is inadequate to heat our house. Although one room was comfortably warm, the rest of our house was quite cool and put us at risk for burst pipes.
- We had a chainsaw but no ropes at the house to help pull the downed trees in a safe direction while my husband was cutting them down.
Our experience with this storm gave us some important lessons learned that we will apply to our future preparedness and hope can help others.
- If you have a medical condition that requires equipment powered by electricity, have an evacuation plan in place and get out of the area before bad weather hits. It broke my heart to see all the desperate posts on Facebook begging for the power company to restore their power because they had elderly or ill family members whose medical equipment had stopped working. Even though some shelters were set up, people could not get to them because of the impassable road conditions.
- THE GOVERNMENT WILL NOT HELP YOU AND YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN! Virginia’s state government completely failed in their storm response and it’s a miracle that there were no deaths or injuries (that I know of) from people being trapped by the storm in their homes and cars. Our Governor refused to declare a state of emergency or deploy the National Guard during the worst of the storm. People were without any help for many hours and days in some cases.
- If you are going to be traveling in wintry conditions, carefully check the forecast and have supplies with you in case you are stranded in your car. You should have water, food, warm clothes, blankets, and a flashlight. This is not just for driving through remote areas. Being close to civilization didn’t help all the people trapped for hours in their cars on I-95.
- Have preparations in place for the most common natural disasters that occur in your area and use them as a base to prepare for the more unusual disasters that may occur. Think about what you would need to do to live your life and operate your home’s critical systems during a disaster and evaluate any gaps in your current preparations. Your situation could be more challenging living in a populated area because you are so dependent on the local infrastructure and our country’s just-in-time delivery system to keep shelves stocked and fuel available. Local building codes may prevent you from having a wood fireplace or wood-burning stove as a heat source.
- Skills can make up for lack of preparation. In our case, we were able to adapt what we had on hand because luckily my husband is a trained electrical engineer and was able to figure out how to run our stove and fireplace without a generator.
- The store shelves will be stripped clean very quickly from panic buying and food spoilage from power outages, and it could be some time before they are restocked. Keep what you will need on hand so that you don’t have to deal with dangerous road conditions, shortages, or bad-tempered, unprepared individuals.
- As part of your food supplies, have food on hand that doesn’t need to be cooked. This will keep your stomach filled if cooking methods are unavailable or you are too tired to cook from all of the work you have been doing dealing with the disaster. Be sure to include pets in your food preparations.
- Make sure you have adequate supplies for lighting, fuel, and all the other things you would need until power is restored. Have these available and ready to use before the power goes out.
- Have non-electronic things to do to keep family members occupied and entertained. It is boring sitting around in the dark with nothing to do. It will lift family members’ spirits if they can read, play board games, or do crafts, etc.
- Get yourself in good physical condition so that you can do the tasks necessary to deal with the disaster without getting injured or over-tired. Going from sedentary to doing the hard physical labor of shoveling snow and using a chainsaw to cut trees down can be dangerous and even lead to a medical emergency.
- Have an alternate source of energy ready to go, such as a generator or solar power system along with the fuel necessary to operate it. You will want to have something in place that can run your home’s critical systems such as refrigeration, cooking, and heating. Test it and maintain it so that it will work when it’s needed.
I think my greatest takeaway from this storm is that we have to be prepared for the unusual as well as the typical disasters that happen in our part of the country. I moved to the South thinking that winter is no longer a big deal, but I was wrong! I hope my family’s experience will help you to be better prepared for your next natural disaster.