I never realized how dark and eerie our house could be. Even at night, there were usually two or three nightlights casting their brave glow to prevent midnight mishaps. But on this evening, there was no electricity to power this smallest of luxuries. Another thing I noticed as I kept vigil over my sleeping loved ones by emergency candle light was the extreme, echoing silence. There was no fan humming in my son’s room. There was no whir of the compressor cycling on and off in the refrigerator. There was no air blowing through the central air unit of our home. Instead there was lingering, creeping silence that accompanied the knowledge that it would be a long time before normal service was restored.
This may sound like the beginning of an apocalyptic horror movie, but in truth, this is what happened in my town after the Super Outbreak of tornadoes on April 27, 2011. We experienced our own localized TEOTWAWKI when an EF4 tornado ripped through the center of town on its 38 mile long trek of devastation. The world as we knew it was about to shift dramatically.
The day started off with tornadoes ripping up the town just south of us in the pre-dawn hours. Everyone was tense as the Weather Channel meteorologists were forecasting a TorCon index of 9/10; the highest numbers they had ever seen. Yet, we all felt comforted by the fact that storms seem to veer off before hitting our town. We have weathered many near misses and become a bit complacent. At 3:00 PM, me, my 15 year old son, my 72 year old Mom and Dad, and my 92 year old grandmother sought refuge in a back basement bedroom of my downstairs apartment as the tornado sirens blared. The camera located on the tallest building in the center of town provided an excellent view to the local News Channels of the half mile wide tornado as it barreled straight towards us.
Like most people who are confident that disasters only happen to others, we stood on the driveway after the power went out. It wasn’t until we realized we were looking up into the center of a side funnel and we could hear the tortured wailing of the winds in the main tornado that we ran like frightened rabbits to the back basement bedroom. We were lucky that the true devastation started a block away from our house. After the tornado sirens stopped, the police, fire-engine and ambulance sirens began to scream only a few blocks over. Within the city limits, 910 homes and 98 businesses were damaged.
As we huddled in the dark, listening to more storms rumble by, we expected things to return to normal within an hour or two. What no one knew at the time was that the Super Outbreak had destroyed almost all the large high voltage transmission towers that brought electricity into our substation from the north. We were without grid electricity for six days and without cable television and Internet service for 12 days. Gasoline was scarce for three days. Land line phones were inoperable for 21 days. Cell phone service was sketchy for nearly a month. Also, schools were closed for 12 days. Our cushy world as we knew it had suddenly ground to a halt.
Let me start by stating that I’m not your average “survivalist.” In fact, I don’t personally own a stitch of camouflaged clothing. I’m a middle-aged, overweight, desk-driving, city dwelling, mother of one. I don’t like camping and my idea of roughing it is to pitch a tent on the drive-way so I can come into the house whenever I need something. I hate baiting hooks for fishing, and the only things I like to shoot are aluminum cans.
I never made a conscious effort to prepare for the end of the world as we know it. Sure, the thought that some cataclysmic event could disrupt our cushy every-day lives has always lurked in the back of my mind, but I never acted on it in a big way. Despite the fact that we did not have an organized response to a disaster, we survived quite well due to several things we had set into motion over the past few decades.
Our location was selected for a number of factors. We chose to live in town, to be close to hospitals and utilities. Our electricity is never out for very long, due to the numerous grids that can be used to reroute power around problems. We also chose a home with a basement, which is crucial when living in tornado alley.
The first necessity for survival was food. My mother and I have always kept an emergency supply of non-perishable food in the basement. She began this practice in the 1970s, during the Cold War. As children, we thought it was normal to have extra food in the basement. Of course, raiding the stash to snack on the powered Jello didn’t help her, but we sure enjoyed it. She stopped for many years, but then started stockpiling peanut butter and jelly again in 1999. It started out as “Y2K supplies.” When that didn’t result in grid disruption, those supplies were renamed as “tornado supplies.” In the winter, we jokingly renamed them “ice storm supplies.” This wasn’t some organized, labeled food storage. We just stuck extras of what we normally used in some boxes in the basement. To prepare food we used the propane barbecue grill and the side burner while we were without electricity.
The second necessity we had prepared in advance was electricity. Since weathering Hurricane Fran and ice storms in North Carolina in the 1990s, we have never been without a generator. Years ago, we had an electrician wire a separate breaker box into the house so we could power most of the house, most of the kitchen appliances, and the HVAC unit by plugging in the generator. Also, I have had a inverter box in my van for road trips for years which allow us to plug in regular appliances to an outlet that is run off car battery when the engine is idling. We used this to recharge our phones, laptops and fluorescent lanterns.
The third necessity we required was information. Our first line of access was a wind-up radio. My Dad’s reason for buying this was not disaster related. He simply got tired of replacing the batteries in his radio that he listened to daily. With this, we could get information on more storms coming through, as well as the condition of our town, and the availability of limited resources, like gasoline. We also had cell phones that could generate a Wi-Fi hot spot. Although we couldn’t use them to make calls, our phones allowed us to reach out and connect with the outside world through the Internet. Facebook was a Godsend since people were creating pages for the City where vital information was shared.
One resource we did not expect to be scarce was gasoline. Apparently, very few gas station owners were prepared for an extended period of time with no electricity. On the first day after the tornado hit, there were only two gas stations that had the foresight to purchase generators for such an emergency. The lines of cars queued up there were staggering.
We were lucky, in that we had five full gas cans for the lawnmower. After a failed attempt at purchasing more gas, we rationed the generator by running it only three times a day to keep the freezer cold and several hours at night. Next we started siphoning gas out of our vehicles. We started with the least necessary vehicle. We reasoned that the last to go should be my mini-van, since it can hold the most people, and got the best gas mileage, in the event we decided to evacuate. So, with this plan, we were set to weather several days without gasoline.
One resource we didn’t have to worry about during this localized TEOTWAWKI was water and waste. Our water treatment plant was not damaged, and the service was not interrupted thanks to back up generators. Though since that day, we have had the opportunity to suffer the loss of these luxuries due to non-disaster plumbing disorders. We have become quite efficient at what I call a Japanese shower, where you wet and soap your body with a washcloth, then only turn on the shower to rinse off. We did not drain the tub, and used that water for flushing the toilet. Waste management is something we do not have a solution for yet.
Our safety was not an issue as we were fortunate to not suffer any criminal activity as a result of this TEOTWAWKI. At the time, our only defense was a very old, pistol and a shotgun with one box of ammunition. Luckily, there was no breakdown in civility in our little town as might be expected in an extreme disaster.
I am proud how our town of 18,000 responded to this disaster. Several churches set up cook centers for food that was about to spoil, and to provide meals to senior citizens, government employees and workers. Charging stations were set up at local shelters to charge phones and battery powered tools. Volunteers and sports teams from the high school mobilized to help clear debris and cut fallen trees. Government offices were open to help citizens get permits to be able to drive through downtown. Police and National Guard were mobilized to help with directing traffic and prevent looting. Tide mobile laundry service came to town to provide clothes washing facilities. Trucks loaded with bottled/canned water drove through the affected areas handing out water to whoever wanted it. It was a wonderful affirmation of all that is good in human nature.
The End of the World as we know it doesn’t have to be an event that impacts the entire world. Sure, there will always be the looming threat of global catastrophe, but it’s the “as we know it” part that we experienced in our localized disaster. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Our outlook on the world changed that month. People no longer scoff at tornado warnings. Storms are watched more closely. Schools close more readily when severe weather threatens. More families are prepared because they purchased some of the items they needed to survive that month. Cities are purchasing and installing community storm shelters.
My family no longer teases us about our TEOTWAWKI supplies. They simply nod and feel more secure knowing that we are taking steps for the next event. I doubt I will ever have a fully stocked “retreat” outside of town, but are doing what we can. We are taking baby steps that will add up to a solid plan for coping with a disaster. If this middle-aged, overweight, desk-driving, city dwelling, mother of one can be prepared, then so can you.
What we had before the Super Outbreak of 2011:
-Second breaker box for generator to run essentials
-Coleman lantern and Emergency long-life hurricane/tornado candles and hurricane lamps and oil.
-Night lights that become flashlights when the power goes off.
-Non-perishable food and paper items in storage.
-Propane grill with a side burner eye and an extra tank
-Power converter for van – used to charge cell phones and laptops.
-Internet access via cell phones
-Internet hotspot via smart phone.
-Blue ice blocks to keep in the freezer or use for emergency coolers.
-Several tanks of gas for the mower/generator.
-Filled up the tubs with water and filled 10 gallon jugs with filtered water.
-Important papers and prescriptions in satchel.
-Folding chairs for safe room.
Additional steps taken after tasting TEOTWAWKI:
Researched solar powered water heaters, solar and wind resources for electricity.
We have purchased a solar charger and plug adapter for small appliances.
We have purchased a camping solar hot water shower bag for emergencies.
Researched pedal powered generators.
Researched storable food stuffs.
We have tried several freeze-dried meals from a camping supply store.
Researched water collection systems.
Designated ICOE (“In Case of Emergency”) contact person.
Came up with our own list of supplies in the event of TEOTWAWKI
Inventoried our battery powered tools.
Researched tents and sleeping bags.
Researched reusable defensive weapons that do not require gun powder or gunsmithing.
Practiced fire starting with flint.