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the overwhelming joy of normal

while extraordinary circumstances often challenge us, teach us, enrich us, and make us stronger, the return to “normal” can be ecstatic.

early last week, i first read the ominous forecast: ice accretion. having not used the term “accretion” in daily conversation, i looked it up. sure, i thought, some freezing rain. some icy sidewalks and trees. maybe a brief power outage as transformers overheat, or a random branch falls.

Wednesday, December 10th

on Wednesday, the forecasts changed to start mentioning .5″ to 1.5″ of this accretion. that’s a different story, altogether. but the scope was limited; it suggested pockets of this deep ice layer. just to be on the safe side (as anyone who knows me would attest, i quite often choose to remain on the safe side) i planned precautions for what i assumed could be a 12 hour power outage. the NWS forecaster discussion was adamant that this event was not going to approach the scope of the 1998 ice storm (which left 55,000 houses without power). they were wrong.

Thursday, December 11th

the freezing rain had started even before we woke up. carrie left for work as normal, and i kicked into storm preparation mode. i drew 9 gallons of water off our well pump into empty fermenters (ever need a food-grade bucket? seek out your local home brewer). i purchased icemelt, batteries, and an extra tank of propane for the grill. i emptied out one of my 70lb bags of traction sand into a bucket, to ready it for driveway spreading.

i began heating the house up more. i knew building up thermal mass would help us to ride out downtime and more comfortably. when i would normally have the house at 65F, i set it to 70.

my immediate challenges were: 1. carrie had to drive home in this mess. since i don’t control the highway departments, i moved onto 2. i had to get her into the steep driveway. i kept it clear, salted and sanded. 3. what to do if we were out for 12 hours. and start thinking about what to do if we were out for longer.

carrie arrived home safely Thursday night. the salt and sand on the roads met agreeably with her snow tires. the driveway was still clear. first two challenges complete.

the evening was was mostly normal. ate dinner and went to bed. as i drifted off to sleep, i thought i saw something flicker. opened my eyes to watch the night-light in the bathroom cycle on and off several times. turned my head towards the alarm clock and caught the time as it went dark – 11:06.

i lay there thinking “okay, the power is out. there’s nothing i can do about it. staying awake will not make it come back. you will need a good nights sleep to deal with tomorrow’s challenges.” all good advice. but i ended up repeating it to myself for several hours.

Friday, December 12th

no alarm clock, but i woke up abruptly to a new sound: a generator starting up at 6am. i decided to stick around in bed for a bit – tough to get around efficiently without daylight.

the rising sun brought a strange new world outside. heavy clouds. the temperature was just at freezing. and there was a thick layer of ice on everything (except the salted driveway). the trees behind the house, which we had thought mostly benign, were arched over – some encroaching towards the house. but they hadn’t snapped or fallen—yet.

farther back in the woods, out in the cul-de-sac, and all over the neighborhood, it was quite a different story. the sound of branches snapping, trees falling, crashing into the ground. i didn’t expect it to be so sickening. every time you heard them start to snap—you immediately stopped making any noise, and listened. did it hit anything. did it hit anyone. thankfully, this was never followed by the sound of breaking glass or snapping lumber. just a shower of ice, branches, needles.

neighbors were up and about, and starting to assess the damages. i didn’t see it until we walked around, but one of the three large trees in our cul-de-sac circle came down across the road. folks across the street from us got out their chainsaws and we cleared it. at the time, thinking: so that a plow could get through.

it was then that the reports started running through the grapevine that our tributary street was blocked entirely. a neighbor tried to get out to go to work, and returned a few minutes later. it was confirmed. although the utilities in our development are all underground, beyond our street it was a tangle of downed trees, downed power lines, and ice.

all day Friday, we made preparations to spend a night in a house without heat. the forecast low for that night was around freezing. the thermal mass built up in the house was keeping it in the mid 50’s. we dragged our mattress into the smallest bedroom upstairs. we fashioned curtains for the window and the door. the principle being—two adults plus five cats should give off enough heat in an enclosed space to keep the room temperature livable.

we also took a walk around the neighborhood, and actually met more of our neighbors than we knew prior to the storm. we took a few pictures. we spent the rest of the day listening to a battery powered radio, playing cribbage, cooking on the grill, and trying to glean information on my blackberry about the power outage.

Saturday, December 13th

we awoke chilly. the forecast  for Saturday was sunny, mid twenties. Saturday night, however, was predicted to drop in the single digits. the house was 45 degrees now, and nothing would stop it from getting down to the 30’s by the time Sunday morning came.

also at this time, the news was becoming more daunting. one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, three hundred fifty thousand households without power. Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH – our power company) only has 500,000 customers. not like 1998, indeed.

the problem: we have a tank in the basement. that tank contains heat (oil). lots of it. but – we need a little electricity to release it. so we begin thinking about solutions to get the boiler running again. that’s either – get electricity from one of our vehicles, or find a generator.

now, i’ve never been a fan of generators. i see people run them all day, and power their whole houses. i don’t really care to have that – i just want heat. i can read by flashlight and play board games. i just want my wife and my cats to be warm, and my pipes to remain un-frozen. so i hadn’t gotten a generator sooner – i was planning on adding a fireplace or woodstove to the house.

we set off in search of a power inverter (converts from 12 volt DC to 110v AC) to drive the boiler pumps from one of our cars. skipping the boring details – we were unable to locate one large enough to give us the amperage that the boiler would need. then we moved to plan C – meet my brother halfway between Rindge, NH and Rochester, NY to borrow his generator. and try to get back to the house, and get it set up, before it dropped below 32 inside.

Saturday night ran the gamut of joy and frustration. after retrieving the generator in Utica, and a short visit with my brother (sorry, Rob, for leaving after 10 minutes) we high-tailed back to the house. the GPS advised we follow Rt 202 from Holyoke back to Rindge. this was logical – it was the most direct route. what i hadn’t considered, however, was that Rt 202 is narrow and heavily treed.

Rt 202 was blocked about 20 miles off the main highway. the barrier had an arrow, pointing left. it wasn’t a detour, it was a single instruction. further side streets that looked like they might circumnavigate, had their own tree issues. after much frustration (and gas fumes from the generator tank) we found our way back to Rt 91 and took it north to 2, and finally home, about an hour later than we would have without the 202 debacle.

when we arrived, it was 38 in the house, and 20 outside. the sunny day must have bolstered the thermal mass of the house. the gear my brother gave me to hook everything up worked well, and around 9:45 we started the generator, and subsequently the boiler and the fridge. by 11:30 we shut everything down and went to sleep, it was 55 in the house again.

Sunday, December 14th

i never thought i would experience so much delight, to wake up to a 50 degree house. or perhaps it was knowing, that when i went to start the generator up again, it would get warmer. perhaps – back to normal temperatures.

we celebrated each milestone. 55. 60. 65?! for the first time since Thursday, it was actually warmer upstairs than it was in the basement. we experimented with outlets, trying to load the generator correctly (but not overload it). and we made coffee. in the coffee pot.  (Friday and Saturday’s coffee started out as a pot of water on the propane grill).

by mid-afternoon, we were exhausted. warm, but exhausted. that evening, carrie made pizza in the toaster oven (luxury!) and we actually watched a little TV – DVR recorded stuff. the satellite dish was still crusted in ice. we got everything ready for morning, and turned in early. on our way to bed, we could see the lights from Rt 202 – Walmart and grocery stores were lit and open!

the only foreboding element left was that the trees were still encrusted, and they were predicting up to 30mph gusts of wind on Monday. would any gains made by power crews be reversed again?

Monday, December 15th

the routine of waking up and starting the generator was quickly learned. but before i could get to that, a pleasant surprise—no more ice. the temperature had warmed up overnight and the trees shed what was left of their icy covering. we made coffee, carrie went to work (jeans on a monday? who was going to argue?), and i settled down at my desk to actually do work for the first time since Wednesday, really.

by the afternoon, i was itching to get out of the house and go see how the world was recovering. i’ve been holding off on filling my truck up, as gas stations were pretty swamped by people getting fuel for their generators. but i wanted to get out there, so that was my excuse. plus, i could grab an empty gas can and fill it up, also.

i went outside to shut down the generator while i was gone. as i was loading up the truck, i looked around – everyone’s outside lights were on. that’s strange. even people who weren’t home all day, and generators weren’t running…

the power was back on? 3:42pm monday. i QUICKLY finished shutting down the generator, removing the back-feed from the panel. replacing the panel front. tentatively threw the main breaker that re-attached us to the grid. then i went to the wall switch, and threw it. light.

i reacted in a typical male fashion – a slight jump, coordinated with a fist pump/right cross, while forcing a muffled “yeah!” through my teeth. i’m not sure where i picked that up, or if it’s something genetic that we all possess.


the takeaways from this can be examined from several perspectives.

psychology. it’s amazing how optimism can prevail in any situation, and exactly how little you need to feel good. some light, some music, some company. laughter. even though you’re wearing three layers and a knit hat in your own house, you can smile.

sociology. people whom i had just met that day, offered us a bed in their home. our neighbors are amazing. we’ve never really lived anywhere that we could actually relate and become part of the community; i think the unique geography and composition of our neighborhood lends itself to creating and fostering these inherent bonds. we have friends in the neighborhood now. i’m not sure how long it would have taken to build those relationships (or rather, for us to stop living on an island of our own creation, and allow them to happen) without this storm.

planning. i don’t think my preparations were inadequate. i understood the challenge, given the forecast and information available. i outlined our requirements for water, food, heat, access. i came up with solutions for each. i created a plan to achieve success given the problem faced.

the only trouble is, the problem changed. it grew and multiplied. exponentially. so, we adapted as best we could. we still had a plan D – leave the house, take the cats with us and go somewhere warm. i tried everything to avoid that possibility due to the potential damage to the house (and the cats).

so, things are back to “normal.” and i have to keep reminding myself how ecstatic i was when i saw those lights. nothing is different between then and now, except the contrast of five minutes before.

posted in minutiae by mike, on December 18, 2008

7 responses to “the overwhelming joy of normal”

heidi says:

Glad things are back to normal – following your twitters kept me informed. I like how you broke it down though. Disaster is definitely the quickest way to meet one’s neighbors. Glad you found a supportive community.

posted on December 18, 2008

Frank says:

Normal is such a relative term.

posted on December 18, 2008

Brian Christiansen says:

Nice write up, Mike. Thanks for the write, very interesting. Are you ready for this upcoming snow dump? This will be the first major storm for Boston, I did a lot of prep tonight, snowblower’s working, have gas for it, ice melt, shovels found, storm grates cleared of muck. It should be interesting. 🙂

posted on December 18, 2008

mike says:

brian that sounds like my prep when i lived in manchester. i was the crazy guy who always dug out the storm drains.

out here, it’s a bit different. basically all i’m worried about is carrie getting home this afternoon (i convinced her to leave after lunch). once her truck is in the garage, it can snow all it wants. we’ve got food, beer, and generator.

i shoveled two houses in manchester last year, and it was the second snowiest winter in recorded history (take THAT, 1872!) hoping that one new(ish) smooth driveway out here won’t be too bad.

heidi and frank, thanks for following along. 🙂 i tried to moderate the twitter posts to just what was relevant/interesting. i’m always worried i’m going to terribly bore my followers. like in radio, it feels good to know there’s *someone* at the other end of the wire.

posted on December 19, 2008

Peter R. Wood says:

Great read, Mike. Your story had an interesting mix of independence and interdependence. Always glad to hear stories of people who can fend for themselves but know when to ask for help (borrowing generators, etc).

posted on December 19, 2008

mike says:

thanks, Peter. what it really came down to was the cats. if we didn’t have them, we would have taken our neighbors up on their guest-room offer(s).

what to do with the cats, and not wanting the heating system to freeze, is really what made the decision for us. in the future, everything will start from there.

posted on December 19, 2008

Greg says:

Your narrative certainly puts things in perspective. The Northwest is in the grip of what the TV news is calling “Arctic Blast 2008.” I love it when they have nothing better to do than name storms and give them graphics and theme songs. All this over a couple inches of snow! LOL. Though to be fair, the snow has been falling almost every day for the past week. It’s not accumulating much, but I’ve never seen this many snow days in a row. Thankfully transit is still running, and no power outages. Nothing like your ice storms out there.

posted on December 19, 2008