All That Glitters

I wrote this during the Ice Storms of 2007. They coated chunks of the central US with ice for up to eight weeks. I’ve clipped some bits and details.

The weather warnings had started almost a week before the Big Glaze. As a result, I’d gotten several days worth of food that did not need to be heated, spare batteries and other things well in advance, partly as a way to ward off any bad storm. After all, if you have it at hand and in working order, you shouldn’t need to use it, right? Earlier, on Monday morning, I’d also turned the heat up in my apartment, thinking that the warmer it was before the lights went out, the longer it would take to drop to freezing inside. Two friends and I had planned to go get supper in a nearby small town but we opted to cancel until after Christmas Break. None of us wanted to be out on the roads in freezing rain. Once the rain started that night, I got even more concerned and filled a bunch of bottles, a cooler and the bathtub with water. Several towns in Oklahoma had lost power to their water pumps and required help from the National Guard’s big military generators and water trucks to keep people supplied with drinking water. I wanted to be able to drink and flush for a while, if things got that bad.

I went to bed to the sound of rain pattering on the windows and pouring out of the drain spout, and cars splashing and hissing over wet pavement. Around ten forty five two bright flashes of light and a sizzling “BLANG!” announced the explosion of an electrical transformer one block to the north, as an ice-laden limb fell on top of the metal can and shorted the circuit. Then twigs and branches began dropping from the tree outside my window. Soon a second flash – “Bang!” was followed quickly by a third, interrupting the rain’s steady patter as more transformers blew up and blacked out blocks of houses. Ten minutes before midnight, my power went out. I tossed and turned, praying for the rain to freeze in the clouds and turn into sleet and snow, praying for the rain to stop, praying that no one was getting hurt, and cringing at each crack, flash and siren.

Around one AM the power came back for 45 minutes before going out for good. The crack of breaking limbs had started making me very edgy, as ice-coated twigs and small branches broke off the trees next to my apartment, clattering against my windows as they fell. Sometime after the last power outage, a very large limb crashed down and slammed into my bedroom window, almost cracking the glass. I got up and drug my mattress off the box spring and across the room, away from the windows, in case more of the tree decided to try and come indoors to get out of the cold. Transformers continued to blow as strobeing red and blue lights just north of my apartment showed where the police had set up a roadblock for some reason. I must have drifted off to sleep at some point, because I woke up after the sky lightened, around eight AM on my watch.

Rain continued off and on all morning, adding to the ice coat bending pines and breaking cottonwood trees all over town. No one on my block had power, but we did have running water, for which I was very grateful. Urban areas are NOT the place to be when modern sanitation systems fail, and the fact that the commodes kept flushing was a very great comfort and (pardon the pun) relief. I had some cereal and milk, then opened the kitchen window and put the milk outside to keep cold. The phone still worked, so I checked in with family and fired up my laptop and phone modem to check weather. Icky, but the end seemed to be in sight.

I attempted to study by the light of a very muted sun, in the best-lit room in my half-basement apartment. I managed a couple of productive hours, but it was hard to concentrate with limbs still falling. In early afternoon another enormous “crack CLATTER tinkle rattle” came from the west side of the complex, unmuffled by the two shut doors between my “desk” and the back bedroom. I capped my pen, laid it carefully down beside my papers, stepped out of my “office,” then took a deep breath and opened the bedroom door. No new drafts chilled the room, so I very gingerly opened the blinds. Another huge limb, its twig-tips still vibrating from the impact, lay just outside the glass. Later inspection would reveal that the big end, about six inches around, had missed the telephone junction box by half an inch or so. I shut the blinds, shuddered, and went back to staring at pictures of trophic levels and descriptions of food chains.

Around noon the rain stopped and the clouds thinned. The wind remained calm, and the temperature rose to a little above freezing, helping to lighten the load on the stressed trees. Cars began passing back and forth, but slowly, and the main east-west road remained blockaded closed. I opted not to go out and investigate. Later that afternoon, a friend from a block or two north dropped in to compare notes. Her transformer had been the one “going up in a blaze of glory” at ten forty five the night before, and she’d been out that afternoon investigating. Apparently a power pole had collapsed and high-tension lines were snapping in the street, leading to the road bock. Limbs and trees had fallen all over the place, and only one small strip of shops had power, as did Wal-Mart. We compared radio notes, and agreed that we would be lucky if we got power back by the next afternoon. I ate canned chili (not bad, better when heated), emptied the freezer and fridge, and went to bed around seven. I’d not gotten much sleep the night before, and the cold was starting to wear me out. A grad student who still had power called to let me know, in case anyone on our emergency phone tree needed a place to stay. I thanked him and agreed to pass the word on if anyone checked in. Then I piled two fleeces and a heavy parka on top of my bedding, climbed in and slept for thirteen hours.

The next day I lugged my books to campus and joined the hordes of other students taking advantage of the light and heat to study, cram, moan and hang out. The powers that be had decided to reschedule those exams that would have been on Tuesday, but only those. Wednesday exams were still on. By comparing notes, the grad students in my department filled in our pictures of the storm. Three of us had power, and the rest were hunkered down, staying with friends or family that had electricity, or otherwise coping with the mess. We all looked a bit frazzled on the edges, but not as bad as some of the faculty. One professor had moved his wife and infant son into his office, and the three of them were living there until they could get power back at their house. The former Army Colonel-professor had come through more or less unscathed. As I’d figured, he had a wood stove, kerosene lamps, a gas-powered chainsaw, emergency supplies and was doing just fine.

Wednesday night was chillier, although the pile of bedding, fleeces and coats kept me very warm. That, and having half of my walls underground helped insulate the apartment to a certain extent, since the ground remained unfrozen six inches below the surface. However, the place was loosing heat. I opened all the taps, just in case. Fortunately, the temperature only dipped into the mid twenties that night, unlike the teens that had been forecast. I didn’t sleep as well, mostly because of an alarm clock’s ticking. I usually kept the clock in the kitchen, and had opted to bring it into the bedroom. Big mistake that I will NOT repeat any time soon, because the clock has a very loud tick for its small size.

Thursday morning dawned clear and cold. Ice crystals hanging in the still air gave the eastern sky a faint golden wash, and the sun shone down on a diamond-dripping world. I opened the blinds and leaned into the window well, giving thanks for the ice-eating sun. All of a sudden I understood why my distant ancestors in the British Isles had worshipped the sun and had made such an important event of the Winter Solstice. There was an almost atavistic relief in seeing the sun for the first time since Saturday. It was really there, and escape from the ice really would come. My walk to campus was stunningly beautiful, as the sunlight turned ice-covered trees into shimmering silver and light. Berry bushes hung low with crystallized red and navy fruit, surrounded by fiery-red leaves that glowed through the encasing ice. Photographers were out in droves, capturing the beauty amidst the misery.

And miserable it was, for many people. The university campus, hospital and business districts had electricity, but the residential areas would be slow going. The downed pole and line did get removed from the main drag, allowing it to reopen, but traffic remained awkward since the stoplights had no power. The police told everyone to treat the intersections as if they were four-way stops, and to only call officers if some one got hurt or the wreck blocked traffic.

My German table met as usual, and we spend most of the session comparing stories and grousing about the power company. Back in my hometown, the utility company is fairly aggressive about keeping YOUR trees away from THEIR power lines. That, obviously, was not the case in this part of Flat State and it contributed to many of the headaches, because of losing the transformers and primary lines as well as individual residential connections. At least 30% of the town still did not have power, and people were getting very annoyed. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the earlier storm in another state, which sucked in all the available linemen and crews from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri even before other people had gotten clobbered. I didn’t grouse too much, nor did I join one of the members when she fussed about why no one had come up with a way to keep transformers from blowing up when falling branches shorted them out. There didn’t seem to be a point, some how. And we were much better off than a lot of people.

Sunset that evening was even more stunning than the sunrise. High thin ice clouds had begun drifting in, and the evening light turned them into ribbons of gold and delicate pinks high above the horizon. A faint mist from the melting ice combined with the low sun to tint the landscape pink and white, blurring the edges of the hills and gilding the lingering ice on the grasslands. The sky slowly turned lavender, while a thin crescent moon hung just west of the zenith. At last the liquid gold sun spread and sank below the edge of the world, leaving pink and yellow light to fade into blue and black.

The ice is beautiful. It is a deadly beauty, and the aesthetics of sunlight through and on ice-coated bushes, trees and grass do not balance the misery of losing electricity in a modern city, or the sorrow of those whose houses were damaged or destroyed by falling trees. I’ve always preferred fall and winter to spring and summer, and I still do. But I also understand why the Anglo-Saxon poets feared winter, and why the Norse gods battled ice giants. Without heat and light, life gets very difficult in northern latitudes in winter, one week before the Solstice. Tomorrow the sun will shine, subliming away more of the ice. By early next week, it is supposed to be up into the low 40s, melting the rest. But a lot of people will be cold for quite a while. Without the proper equipment, resources and experience to cope with losing power for an extended period of time, we are in a world of hurt. Even if we are prepared, the experience is still not a lot of fun. The novelty of cold food by candlelight wears off quickly, and we are too accustomed to having hot water available at the turn of a tap. The scene in The Lion in Winter where King Henry breaks the ice off the top of the washbowl was normal for life in a medieval castle. Ice in the toilet tank in the twenty first century is a serious problem.

(C) 2007, 2023 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


7 thoughts on “All That Glitters

  1. Today all the trees and bushes in our neighborhood are glazed with ice – it looks amazing, like everything is coated in crystal. We walked with Wee Jamie well-bundled up in his stroller this morning, and carefully avoided walking under those trees which had branches bowed down under the weight of ice. So far, only one brief power fluctuation, and only some smaller branches broken from trees. Still, we don’t want to go anywhere – I am certain there is black ice on overpasses.
    You know the really odd thing about ice storms? That the trees rattle when the wind blows!

  2. The problems of doing without electricity in a modern world don’t seem to have occurred to the folks who would like us all to be using all-electric-everything as soon as possible….

    • I don’t think they’ve ever been truly cold, or been hot without someone bringing cool drinks and fanning them. But there are also people who truly don’t understand why solar panels are not so useful in northern Canada in winter, or parts of Scotland at almost any time.

  3. There is reason that besides off-grid means of light and room heat, even if minimal to a single room, I have means of off-grid food heating. Even if it’s nothing more than warmed soup, it’s WARMED. I am glad to not have HAD to resort to such things. I might be an over-prepared kook to some, but better than freezing in dark.

    • Warm, even if not hot, food or water, and semi-warm spaces, are underappreciated. Sort of like having dry, warm socks waiting if your feet get wet. Morale is an important element in survival

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