On the evening of January 26, 2009 an ice storm of unprecedented proportions hit the Ozarks. We were especially hard hit here near Mountain Home, Arkansas, but this place was not the hardest hit. I spent 17 days without electricity or running water in a home designed to be operated with electricity! My electrically powered wood burning furnace radiated enough heat through the front panel to keep the temperature tolerable, and I was able to cook with the gas stove. Few people had it as good as I did and most resorted to local shelters.
Have you ever listened to an empty silent house as the roar fills your head? Listen long enough and the pieces of silence come to you. An almost indiscernible hum of electrical current zings around and through the walls and floors. A fridge kicks in and clocks tick and blink the minutes away. Each appliance has its own electrical voice usually unheard and all together the silent discernible voice of a silent house is heard somewhere in the unconscious. Listen long enough and you become aware of its song, rich, melodious and comforting. I would miss that kind of silence over the next couple weeks.
Late Tuesday night after the ice storm, that silent voice was gone, shattering my comfort as a new kind of silence took hold. It was well-deep and dark. No distant traffic, no far off trains, no hum of the house, and it engulfed me in a deepening wave of quiet. The only other time I have experienced a silence this intense was the day after 9-11 when air traffic was halted. Most people huddled at home that day and here in the woods the silent sky was forboding.
This new electrically free world became punctuated by gunshots of falling trees and huge limbs spearing into the earth. As maddening as the silence was, tons worth of tree fall stirred one adrenaline rush after anther. Flickering candlelight, normally reserved for romantic moments, was sparse – as every falling tree renewed the possibility of one landing on the house and fire from candle flame a real fear. The phone and electricity were out. Other than what I had drawn Monday night that meant no water as it came from the well. I repeatedly recounted my gallons, including what was in the back of 3 toilets, the hot water tank and anticipated runoff from the roof when it thawed. The driveway would obviously be impassable and one half mile long, a tree leaning precariously over my car so no way to charge the cell phone now. It too was silent.
Tuesday, January 26, 2009 I vowed to acquire a few things when I got out of this mess; a battery operated radio, an improved supply of candles and batteries and an outhouse, as it was becoming obvious I would be isolated in this silent world for an undetermined time. I spent the day being still and thoughtful, willing with all my might for my home and myself to be safe, as I sat paralyzed with fear of the unknown. How extensive is the damage? How strict should I ration my water? When will the phone come back on? How long will I be here alone?
Monday night had been quite different. Busy, hurried action after a tentative afternoon at work watching the weather reports. A cautious drive home on blossoming ice. A mental to-do list; haul wood and kindling (a lot), bring in the dogs big water tub, wash every bit of laundry and the dishes, fix an ice chest with food from the freezer to eat over the next few days, fill the empty spaces in the freezer with dry goods and towels, empty the ash pan, take out the compost, move personal belongings downstairs where I will be spending my time when the power goes out, gather batteries, candles, flashlights, draw water. Close off the downstairs. Make up a bed near the furnace. Wash my hair. Poop. Make sure all the toilets are flushed.
I silently worked, hard and steady all through Monday night listening to the radio, willing the power to stay on as long as possible, all while the freezing rain morphed from ice pellets to snow to mist to semi solid slivers that pounded and ripped at the house. It shredded the plastic covering on a leaky window and beat at the glass. The unrelenting rhythm became a water torture pounding into my head. I stuffed rugs and towels under every door in the house to conserve heat. Trees and limbs began to shotgun, breaking, exploding and crashing to the ground and the sides of the house. I huddled and tried to decide the safest place to be, calculating the possible fall path of nearby pines over sixty feet tall.
At some point the relentless ice and tree fall became overwhelming and to much to bear. I tore everything out from under the basement stairwell and made a nest to crawl into. I stuffed it full of blankets, a gallon of water, cell phone, keys and purse, boots, a flashlight and candle and a can opener. It sounds like overkill now, but I wasn’t about to be caught unprepared for a huge pine crashing my house to pieces and being stranded in the cold. My safe spot was dusty and full of spider webs, but I would occupy it if I became any more scared.
I paced and sat and played solitaire for the first time in many years, wondering how long the ice assault would last; wondering if there would be any sleep that night. Wondering why the hell I live alone in such an isolated place. Around 1 a.m. it was definitely tapering off and I slept fitfully on the sofa near the furnace in the basement room with a flashlight in my hand listening to the ongoing gunfire of exploding trees. I counted the gunshots; as many as 15 per minute at times. Surely the power would be off soon. How long could it be before a tree fell on the line or it became too heavy with ice?
Wednesday morning brought a new fresh clean silence, along with sunshine and soon the beginning of a little melt off. Both brightened my day. I immediately set out bins to collect the drip and carefully ventured out far enough to see the serene crystal landscape. My camera barely captured the beauty of many inches of ice everywhere, twig, leaf, tree branch bowed to the ground in graceful curves. I watched while a 60 foot pine cracked like thunder and keeled over crashing across the yard. I did a few outdoor tasks and scurried back in.
Wednesday morning at sunrise in the garden.
The day was spent with busy work, organizing, taking stock, sweeping, wishing ever more for that precious outhouse while the phone remained dead. By the end of the day, after endless games of solitaire, I made tentative plans to walk the 3/4 mile to the nearest neighbor, soon, certainly by Friday. I felt like that woman in the nuclear holocaust movie meticulously making beds and cleaning her house, not knowing if the rest of the world was even out there. Time seemed to be moving so slow.
Thursday afternoon my silent house was shattered by thundering footsteps above and my son and his father-in-law crashed around the empty upstairs. AHA! unexpected company! It had taken the two of them, both working with chain saws, three hours to cut through the driveway.
“We came to save you!” they shouted, “and we brought water, come on let’s go, you can get a hot shower in town.”
“What do you mean you brought me water and you want me to leave? I can’t leave the dogs, the fire, the house will freeze.” I can’t leave. Once I knew the world was okay I was okay also.
I did leave that afternoon, but with misgivings and only for one night because I have two large outside dogs to feed and a silent house to keep from freezing. Coming back to it and watching my son drive away Friday afternoon and feeling the silence engulf me once again was probably the hardest part of this ordeal, but he had work to do in town. Every able hand was needed to clear streets and homes.
It’s day 17 without power and water. I haul water from town once or twice a week, take out the laundry, continue to wish for an outhouse every time I do my business in the five gallon bucket and have to haul it to the woods. A generator (a blessed gift from Adrian) miraculously continues to save my freezer contents (all of last summers garden efforts) and provides enough light of an evening to write and play solitaire.
The woods gradually fill with the thrum of generators as every house seems to get one sooner or later. I can hear them in the distance; so unusual for the woods to be filled with this sound. Generators and tree frogs most evenings, as I sit on the patio in the now balmy evenings smoking my single cigarette of the day and sipping a glass of Southern Comfort, listening to another new kind of silence.
My days are rigorous and long. Up at 5 to plug-in the generator for an hour or so. Bathroom duty consists of taking care of my business and hauling it to the woods to bury, burn trash, empty the ash pan and keep the fire going, heat enough water to sponge bathe in, make breakfast from the ice chest, heat more water to wash up with, recycling as much grey water as possible. I learned to brush my teeth with less than a cup of water, bathe with less than a gallon (I still liked to sluice off at the end), recycle rinse water for pre-washing dishes, hair 1 1/2 quarts, wear clothing more than once, put matches in a saved metal can. It was endless. Much of it already common sense to back to the land folks, but new to me. I was exhausted but it felt good. Off to work for 10 – 12 hours 6 days a week then home to do it all over, in the near dark.
Adrian worked for free for more than a week; first his father-in-law’s roof top then driveway, clear a path and down the road. He told me he never looked back or forward, he just worked, sawing and heaving branches to the side to make way for emergency services and other workers. For more than a week from daybreak till dark he worked for free where ever he was needed. The city of Mountain Home Arkansas looked like a bomb had gone off after the storm and for many months after. There were piles of tree fall stacked high along every roadway for many months as people conquered the mess.
Storm wide, more than a million households were without power, some as long as a month. The record ice build-up brought down distribution and transmission lines everywhere. Sixty percent of all trees in the area lost anywhere from 10 to 25 feet of their crowns due to the weight of the ice snapping branches. In many areas entire trees toppled over from the roots due to the ice weight. My pathetic despair was just a straw in the pile. But it was my straw.
A month later over one million people still without power.
Update; 11-22-2010 – Here in Baxter County almost 2 years later the electric co-op is still replacing poles. The entire infrastructure of power had to be rebuilt in many places, some of them so remote and so muddy because of the daily freeze and thaw, that men carried power poles into locations by hand on foot.
Update; January 2016 – there are still plenty of “widow makers”, (big hanging branches that sometimes fall at inopportune moments to land on woodcutters) in the woods, and the sound of a falling tree in the woods gives me a little jump. Last nights small ice event was a reminder of other more harsh times and a reminder to always be prepared.