Lessons Learned From a Winter Storm – Part 1, by Michael X.

I have often bugged my wife to let us try a “long weekend without power”. I wanted to test my preps, byt so far she has not taken me up on my offer. However, recently Fate stepped in and gave me what I wanted. I am writing this to document my experience and my analysis of what I need to do to further my readiness.

I have been interested in Prepping for many years. My early introduction to prepping was on this website, and by reading the Patriots novel series by James Wesley, Rawles. Many, many books followed that rounded out my prepping education. My go-to book is “How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It”. I also like “The Prepper’s Blueprint” by Tess Pennington. I have the List of Lists and I had thought that I was making progress. But using the preparedness tools and supplies is much different than checking the items off a list.

We live in Northwest Wisconsin in a recreational area popular for fishing, canoeing, ATV riding, and snowmobiling. We bought a small lake cabin about 20 years ago, and then built on to the cabin 10 years later, making it a year-round home. Snow is on the ground about five months a year. The nearest village of 400 souls is four miles away, and a town over 6,000, with services and major retailers, is 25 miles away.

As an aspiring prepper and a civil engineer, when we decided to build a permanent year-round home, and potentially our final retirement home, I designed some elements into the plans that would help us in troubled times, primarily loss of power and thus loss of heating capability. I put in a high-end wood stove in the basement. We put in two LP gas fireplaces that do not need electricity to operate. I added vents from the warm wood stove area to the master bedroom, with an in-wall fan to move the warm air at a higher volume. I designed in a whole-house generator option, with power provided by a large portable generator outside. The house electrical panel uses a master switch to move between commercial power and generator power.

On Wednesday, December 14, 2022, a winter storm warning was issued for basically all of Western Wisconsin. Rain, rain/snow mix, heavy snow, and ice were predicted. The lights flickered a couple of times in the evening. In response, we started to prep for an outage. The predictions alerted us that the rain and ice could cause some power outages. Based on our experiences in the past, the outage could last a day or so.
We filled several clean five gallon pails with fresh tap water, and filled a food grade bucket and our picnic water jugs, pitchers and clean jars with water for drinking and cooking. We have a Big Berkey for filtering lake water if it came that. We figured our food on hand would be plenty for a risk of this type. I brought in extra firewood to warm up and dry a bit. The woodstove is going most evenings so it was already warm. I dug out the flashlights and looked for the solar chargers, finding some. We wall-charged the phones and iPads. Our television is satellite and was working as long as we had power. Our Internet is brand-new fiber optic service with a wireless router to all AV equipment. (Again, as long as we had power).

The first problems with my prepping started to show up even before the outage. I decided to test the generators. I start the generators several times a year and recently topped off the big generator (7,500 watts) with fresh premium gasoline. At dusk, when I went to start the generator, it would not start. Eventually, the battery wore down. Rather than pursuing the solution to the generator issue at that time, I gave up due to the late hour. That was foolish.

When we woke up on Thursday morning, we realized the power had gone out at 2:30 AM. It was about 30 degrees out. The house was still warm. But it was quiet. We made coffee on our normal kitchen gas stove, using a lighter to light the burners. I pulled out a never used graniteware coffee percolator (from a garage sale last summer), finding that there was even a stack of the correct filters stored inside! Outside, we found about eleven inches of new heavy snow. This was on top of the foot plus we already had on the ground. There was no wind, so the snow was weighing down heavily on all the trees. Snow was even over a foot deep on the deck railings. There were many pine branches, up to 6 inches in diameter, laying in the yard. At the main road about a quarter mile walk away, there were trees leaning dangerously over the road, but luckily there were no cars to hit them as the roads were not plowed.

I phoned in the outage to the local power company, and they actually did answer with a live person, telling me the outage was widespread and they knew our area was out. Our neighbor two cabins down called us but the reception was so poor we couldn’t talk to her. She has a land line, so we knew the problem was on our end; our internet calling was obviously out. Later she walked over through the now knee deep snow. She said she was cold and needed to warm up. We happily offered her hot coffee and snacks. Her house had no electricity, no working furnace, no fireplace, no portable heaters, so no heat.

Ten minutes after her arrival we heard a loud crash…. A 60-foot-tall maple tree had broken off at the base due to the weight of the snow and crashed to the ground. It missed the corner of the house by six feet but went past the house corner to the garage, hitting about fifteen feet up the roof. Luckily it was only the tree top, made up of smaller branches that hit the cushion of deep snow on the roof. But the sidewalk my neighbor had used was buried by branches. A window was hit but the branches skimmed by it. Of course, I have some chainsaws. I used my gas saw on the bigger branches to get them off the roof. The saw chain was really dull, but it worked. So, the garage was safe. I had to put plywood across the window to protect it as the branches slid down off the roof. All in all the fallen tree experience was a near miss.

We had that neighbor over for supper on two nights, and offered a warm room to sleep, but she is a tough lady and stayed at her place at night. She eventually moved to the closest motel for a couple of nights, not wanting to put us out.

She was worried about being able to flush her toilets. For flushing toilets, you can get by with clear lake water that you are willing to run into your sewer pipes and septic. The difficulty here is that this time of year the lake surface is covered with solid ice. Luckily there is a small spring at our shoreline that keeps the water surface open until it gets really cold. I was able to get clear water by dipping the buckets in by the shore and hauling them through deep snow to her place. I also hauled up some for us, but actually didn’t need to use it.

Later I went back to the generator and worked to get it started. Since the battery was dead, and I couldn’t charge or jump a battery without power, I got a different battery from our warm basement that I was storing for the winter. It turned over the generator starter great but I could not get the actual engine to fire up. So, we had another night of no power. I also have a little two-stroke generator that I thought would at least give us some lights…. But the pull rope recoil broke on the first pull. So that was out of commission. So Thursday night was another dark night without power.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)