The Ice Hits the Fan in South Carolina, by Gadget

This is the story of my family’s experience during the ice storm that hit the Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) of South Carolina and Georgia. My family and a network of friends, who live in the area, are reasonably prepared for any problems that may come our way with food and water storage, shelter, generators, et cetera. When the “ice hit the fan” in our area, we had a very real test of our preps that lasted five days, and some families were still without power seven days later.

First, a little background on our area. The Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) is the area surrounding Augusta, GA. We are approximately 120 miles inland from Charleston, SC, so the area has little impact from hurricanes, other than heavy rains and some wind. We are far enough south that we may get a dusting of snow once a year. Residents here can frequently go without a coat on Christmas Day due to mild temperatures. People from other parts of the country joke about how a half-inch of snow can shut down a southern city, while northern states function relatively normally after a foot of snow. The fact that so little snow or ice can shut down a southern city is due to the lack of heavy equipment to clear streets and the lack of driving experience in snow or ice. Also, utility lines are on poles rather than underground. This allows ice to build up on the lines and ice laden trees to fall on them. On the other hand, residents of this area can tolerate 100 degree temperatures in the summer much easier than northerners typically can. The area is a mix of small cities, towns, and rural property; it is also heavily wooded throughout with many tall pine trees. There is more on this later.

My family has been actively prepping for over five years, and we felt we were adequately prepared for whatever might be thrown at us. We have food storage, water storage and filtration capabilities, medical preps, alternative cooking methods, and more, so we are in pretty good shape. We have also been able to get many other family members and friends involved in prepping along with monthly information sharing sessions to help build community and teach various skills.

The weather reports were forecasting a very severe ice storm. This forecast was put out three to four days before the storm rolled in, so there was plenty of time for people to make the necessary preparations for being without services for up to a week. There were a number of people that tried to minimize the potential of the storm and still others that were oblivious and had no plans for anything. Over the weekend before the storm, I split and stacked firewood on the covered porch to supply us for a few days.

On Tuesday, February 11, 2014, the freezing rain began falling around noon. The roads steadily began to get slick, and the slush was accumulating quickly. At around 8:00am on Wednesday, our power went out. Luckily, I had scheduled vacation for the week and didn’t have to worry about being called in to work. When we awoke on Wednesday morning, there was a significant layer of ice on everything, and the ice was beginning to accumulate on the trees and utility lines. I initially got the 5500 watt generator out and ran extension cords to the freezer and two refrigerators. I also set up a power strip to power the Internet and charge cell phones and iPads. We used our wood stove to heat the house with no problem. We keep solar walkway lights outside all the time, so when it got dark we brought them inside for lighting. This is a great, safe source of light. We have grandchildren that are toddlers, and we can give a one year old one of these lights with no risk. I do have a few oil lamps, but I wasn’t willing to take the risk with little ones climbing around.

The result of the ice building up on the trees was lots of broken limbs and sagging trees. Pine trees tend to bend when they have ice on them until they snap half way up. These broken trees fall and break utility lines, damage houses and other buildings, and also block roads and driveways. While checking on my parents, who live a few miles away, and running errands to get gas for the generator and large bags of ice, I felt the need to check on some neighbors that are older and have some disabilities. When I called them, they happened to be wondering how they were going to get their generator out of their crawlspace and set it up. When I went to help them, my truck could not make it up their icy driveway, and a number of trees were blocking the drive. I had to walk up to their house, which was over a quarter mile in the woods. I was able to get them set up and taken care of shortly. That afternoon, after we had our household taken care of, my wife and I cleared the fallen and sagging trees and limbs from over a mile of road between our house and our daughter’s house, so she would be able to get to us if her power went out. That evening, I remembered I had a twist-lock 220 volt plug for the generator but never made up a cord to tie it into the house breaker panel. After finding the proper wire, I was able to turn off the main disconnect for our electrical service to isolate our house and hook the generator into a spare breaker on the panel to supply power to the house more efficiently. I also taped off the main disconnect to prevent anyone from mistakenly turning it on and back-feeding the local grid and injuring someone. CAUTION: THIS IS POTENTIALLY VERY DANGEROUS AND SHOULD ONLY BE DONE WITH DIRECTION FROM AN ELECTRICIAN! THE PROPER WAY TO DO THIS IS THROUGH THE USE OF A TRANSFER SWITCH. By tying the generator into the breaker panel, I was able to supply power to our well pump and water heater. It also helped prevent a lot of tensions from bored family members, since we could then watch TV. Since I had things running relatively smoothly at my house, I was able to check on other older neighbors. My ATV with a small trailer was a huge asset. I was able to easily navigate the fallen trees and icy roads and driveways to get to them. On this trip, I took my chainsaw and a first aid kit. One neighbor’s driveway was completely blocked by fallen trees. On the ATV, I was able to drive through the trees on either side to get around them. Since I had the chainsaw, I cleared the trees on my way back out. Each of them had wood stoves for heat, and they were basically fine, except for a lack of news from the outside world to know what was going on. One neighbor ran out of firewood, and we had to take firewood to him from our supply a few times. Another neighbor needed ice. Luckily, I had more than enough of both.

My parents lost power around the same time we did, but they don’t have a generator. They prep as much as they can on their fixed income and had a kerosene heater with ten gallons of kerosene and a Coleman camp stove with four one-pound cylinders of gas. They have some food storage and keep plenty of flashlights, candles, and oil lamps handy. Their solar walkway lights were brought inside for lighting, also. Due to the lack of power, they had no TV or Internet access. My mother had a battery-powered Eton shortwave radio on hand for news, but the radio was complicated and took some time to tune onto a station that carried news. They were able to cook on the camp stove on the porch and even heat water for instant coffee on the kerosene heater. They chose to stay at their home for the duration of the outage to keep an eye on their property.

We developed a routine after a few days and had relatively normal life during the outage. On Friday, there was a 4.1 earthquake about 30 miles north of us in South Carolina. We felt the “wave” pass through the house. This startled many area residents, who were already stressed from the weather, since earthquakes are uncommon in this area. There was no damage from the earthquake.

Power was restored to our area Sunday morning around 10:00 a.m. after just over four days without electricity. Some residents of the area didn’t get service restored until Tuesday, February 18.

Lessons learned from the event:

Electricity. Even though I had a generator, I only had about ten gallons of gasoline on hand. The generator used about four gallons in 12 hours, while under load. Luckily, I was able to go to a local gas station that had electricity to refuel. If the outage had been more widespread or long-term, my fuel stores would not have lasted very long. I will be developing greater fuel storage to be able to handle a longer duration outage. I will also be researching multi-fuel adapters for the generator to allow it to be fueled by LP gas tanks also, since LP gas is much safer to store than gasoline. Even though I had the necessary plug to connect my generator to my home, I didn’t have a connecting wire made up, and I had never tested my idea before. The generator also had to be set up on the front side of the house. This allowed it to be seen by everyone driving by. I will be making arrangements to be able to connect the generator out of sight and to deflect some of the noise, including buying an aftermarket muffler for the generator. I also learned through trial and error what devices could run at the same time and not overload the generator. I provided constant power to the freezer, refrigerators, and electronics. In addition to this, I could alternate between powering the well pump, water heater, hair dryer, or a toaster. The generator did not like the microwave at all! I also had a few circuit breakers fail as a result of the power fluctuations, so I will keep spare breakers of various sizes on hand. The solar walkway lights were very helpful. They were placed around the house to provide light to move around at night, and the grandchildren love them.

A friend has a large, solar power system installed on his house. The snow and ice built up on the panels, which were mounted on the second-story roof, and prevented them from charging his battery bank. The battery bank was able to supply power for two days without sunlight. When the batteries got down to 36%, they had to climb onto the icy roof to clear the ice from the panels. Having a safety anchor system installed ahead of time would allow this to be done in a safe manner with the proper equipment. He also found that the circuits in his kitchen were not tied to the inverter. He had to run extension cords from other parts of the house to power small appliances in the kitchen.

I know a few homesteading families who regularly hold emergency drills in which the husband will turn off the main breaker without warning for the weekend. They then require their family members to adapt to the adverse conditions. They fared relatively well also since they have had this experience many times before.

My sister’s family commonly plays board games and card games, and this was a great way to pass the time and have entertainment without power.

Medical. A couple we know had some medical difficulties due to the power outage. The wife has to sleep with a CPAP, and the husband recently had foot surgery and has a WoundVac pump on his foot. They had no way to charge it for a few days. Either of these issues could have proven to be fatal, if the event lasted longer. They will now be acquiring alternate power sources for these devices. During the ice storm that hit our area in 2004, one family had to call 911 when their child suddenly needed a breathing treatment, and they had no power. An inverter for their car or booster pack used for jump-starting a car could have easily kept this situation from becoming an emergency.

I kept a first aid kit with me when using the chainsaw and checking on neighbors. The local emergency services were stressed to their limits. If someone had a severe injury, they could have easily died while waiting for assistance. I also made sure to have someone with me as a safety while away from my yard clearing debris with the chainsaw. If I had a branch fall on me while I was working down the road, who knows how long it would take for someone to come looking for me, if they even knew where I was. One friend did have a branch weighing over one hundred pounds fall out of a tree and knocked him out. Luckily, he had a friend with him who was able to get the branch off of him and treat his injuries.

Water. We had plenty of bottled water on hand for drinking and numerous 2-liter soda bottles of water stored around the house for utility water. The soda bottles of water were easy to move and also to give to other families that had no water or water containers to fill. If electricity from the generator had been unavailable and the event lasted long enough, more water would have been necessary, since my well pump requires electricity. Area residents on public water systems had water initially. However, after a few days the water in the water towers ran out, and thousands of homes had no water at all. This could have led to many health and sanitation problems for a lot of people. I have a number of plastic water drums, but I never did anything with them. I am going to set up a greater water storage system with them, so I have the water on hand, instead of rushing to collect water ahead of an outage.

Shelter. We had no problems with our house, but many people had trees or tree limbs crash through their roof under the weight of the ice. I keep some building materials on hand for emergency repairs, but if the large oak tree near the house had fallen over I would have had major problems. Tree limbs near my house have been trimmed back, and I will be removing trees that could possibly hit the house, especially pines.

Transportation. The ATV and utility trailer were extremely useful. It allowed me to access where driveways and roads were blocked and to carry supplies to them. It uses very little fuel also. I have a winch for the ATV, but never mounted it. This would have been helpful when moving downed trees.

Heat. My wood stove was a blessing. It heated a 2,500 square foot house easily and with no electricity. Keeping a large amount of firewood on hand was critical, not only for my family but also to be able to help others. My shortcoming is not having a dry place to store all of my firewood. The freezing rain lasted for a few days; the only dry wood I had was what I cut in preparing before the storm and what I was able to cover with a tarp. In four days, I used almost all of my dry firewood. A large woodshed is now a priority. During the outage, my parents’ kerosene heater set off the smoke alarm. They found it was due to soot buildup under the top lid. Later, they found the heater would hardly burn, and there was a strong smell of kerosene. They found the wick had burned down and needed to be replaced. Luckily, they had a spare wick on hand. The instructions and YouTube were VERY helpful for this task. We learned the importance of having spare wicks and instructions for changing them. It would be wise to practice this under normal conditions, rather than when the heater is vital to survival.

Cooking. The generator was unable to supply power for the stove or oven. We have Coleman camp stoves that use liquid fuel and gas cylinders. We also have our gas grill with a dozen 20-pound tanks. We could cook for a long time on this. Having multiple camp stoves on hand would allow us to have redundancy and also be able to loan them out to friends that don’t have a way to cook. A problem that was encountered was not having a covered cooking area. I have a covered porch, but my parents didn’t. This could have been a problem if the rain and cold temps had been non-stop. A gazebo-type structure with a way to block the wind would have been nice to have, so we wouldn’t have to get wet when cooking and also so the house wouldn’t catch fire in the event of an accident.

Information. Due to my location, I have to use cell-based Internet. Luckily the cell system operated fine throughout the event. Having access to YouTube on my phone and iPad was an awesome resource for how-to’s on various tasks. The generator provided power for charging laptops, iPads, and cell phones. I do have a BioLite stove, which can charge small electronics that are charged through a USB cable, as a backup. Many other people lost Internet access when the power to the land-line phone system failed. The lack of phone, TV, and Internet service led to lots of boredom and withdrawals from the constant connectivity we all have normally. Those who did have Internet were able to share lots of information, especially through Facebook. I realize the OPSEC risks of using social media, but the ability to shoot information, questions, or requests for assistance to a large number of people instantly was a great help. We were able to quickly check the status of friends and family or where various resources were available, such as fuel, food, or equipment. I wouldn’t totally discount this information resource. My parents had the shortwave radio, but they weren’t familiar with its operation and which radio stations would likely have news. They will be getting a simple AM/FM radio. Our network of prepper families in the area is working on a Ham radio network for communications, in case all other systems fail.

Human behavior. After a few days of adverse conditions and the disruption of the normal routine, many people began to show signs of stress, such as anger, agitation, depression, and short tempers. I began to get exhausted on the fifth day of hard, physical labor. I was glad to be able to go back to my normal work on Monday, to get some rest. In a longer-term event, we would have to pace ourselves. A friend that lives in town noticed lots of young people wandering about at all hours that normally didn’t do so. At times, they appeared to be scoping out potential theft targets. People from outside the area came into town with truckloads of generators for sale. The problem was that they were selling $400 generators for $1,600. Once local law enforcement found out about the scammers, they ran them out of town, due to a lack of business licenses. Another phenomenon I noticed was, when the power went out, many people refused to leave their homes and go stay with family and friends that did have heat and the ability to cook. This was the situation, even when some houses were near freezing temperatures at night. This not only put them in danger of hypothermia or other illness, it prevented them from consolidating resources with other households, which would have made all of them much more comfortable and decreased the individual workloads. I am curious how long they would “tough it out” in a long-term or permanent event.

Other lessons. I quickly found out I was lacking in my cardiovascular fitness level. Branches that are covered with ice weigh three to four times as much as normal. This will quickly wear you out; it did me. Imagine if this was a permanent event, and we also had to be tactically ready in addition to various tasks that had to be performed around your homestead. My shoulder now has an over-use injury, due to many hours of chainsaw use and pulling on debris. By the fourth and fifth days, I was starting to get “tired and stupid”, and accidents were much more likely. A lighter chainsaw for cutting smaller branches would have made the work much easier. I also had two chainsaws quit and was down to one working chainsaw by the end of the week. I did have the opportunity to train other family members in how to start and connect the generator and how to use the chainsaw in case I was unable to. I was the only one in the family that had durable rain gear and work boots. If I had needed more help with clearing debris while the freezing rain was falling, no one else would have been able to help effectively. As a result, we will be acquiring rain gear, boots, work gloves, and work clothes like BDU’s for everyone in the family. I also need to get a few pairs of chainsaw chaps to prevent serious injuries from the chainsaw. Headlamps were invaluable. They allowed for working hands-free after dark and moving about the house easily. I keep spare batteries of all sizes on hand, and I would like to have even more stored in case of a long-term event.

I will be putting together a procedure manual with pictures for various tasks. This will cover starting the generator and plugging it into the breaker box, using a chainsaw, starting a fire, using the camp stove, et cetera. I found that if something happened to me and I was unable to help or communicate, my family would be in quite a jam.

The primary lesson I learned from this experience was that I am glad I have been seriously prepping for years. This allowed my family to live a relatively normal life during this event. My preparedness level also allowed me to be a blessing to friends, since they had not prepared in the least and needed help. I do not know everything, and I am not a “super-prepper” that is prepared for anything that comes my way. I try my best and am trying to pass on the things I learned when the ice hit the fan in our community.