Wednesday, November 4, 2015

WYL #16a Where were you then - 1998 Ice Storm

Ice Castles

The lights flickered. Head throbbing from a day long headache, I groped my way to the kitchen sink to fill a bucket of water for the toilet and made sure we (humans and dogs) had enough drinking water, then rushed down to the basement to take care of the aviary full of parrots - 5 pairs of birds waited for me to serve up their supper.

Water and food was taken care of, getting the dogs outside for a break and opening the gate was next. I was shocked to find freezing rain bucketing down and every surface already glazed. It was a miracle that I didn't wipe out as I slip my way to the gate.  With a big heave-ho I wrenched the gate free of the ice and looked down the road. It takes a big dip down to the bridge over the creek, then there is a long, fairly steep hill on the other side. On either side of the road is a sharp, car-busting drop-off to the creek. The slick hill was too much for the few cars that tried, leaving them idling in the dip waiting for a salt truck to come along.

I didn't have to wait long for Carm to skid into the laneway from the other direction. As we stepped into the house the lights flickered again, and then went out. Already. We started a fire in the fireplace and wondered when the power would come on.

Thursday morning we woke up to a quiet house. No lights on downstairs in the birdroom. No alarm clock. No humming of the fridge. Dead quiet. Except for the eerie cracking of trees breaking. Oh geeze, surely it won't be long now. I traipsed outside with the dogs and stopped just outside the door. Thick ice cloaked every surface; even tall grasses were ringed with an inch of ice, sticking out of the ground like miniature crystal skyscrapers. Our driveway was impassable - there was no way we were going to work. The dogs slid and fell as they tried to do their business - they didn't linger outside. The birdroom was lit by two small windows, but it was enough light for them to find the food bowls that we had filled with bird seed rather than their normal scrumptious meal.

It was a long day. We had no phone service and no battery operated radio so occasionally we'd sit in the car trying to get news of what was happening. CHEZ 106 didn't have much to say, but Lowell Green on CFRA had reports of gloom and doom. We sat tight and hoped we'd be one of the first to be restored.

Cracking explosions kept up through the day and into the night as the trees surrendered their crowns to the icy queen.

The next day there was no change so we ventured out in the car. We were shocked when we saw long lines of power poles snapped in two. Every road we drove on the north/south poles were shattered.  A few days later we'd be even more shocked to see a line of collapsed metal power towers. Our hearts sunk and we wondered what we'd do. It would surely be weeks before this mess could be cleaned up and we had a basement full of parrots - tropical birds - that had to be kept warm. There was no way we could leave the house.

Thankfully our house was R2000 and we had an efficient woodstove in the living room. That was good for upstairs, but as you know, heat rises. When we built the house we had roughed in for a future wood stove in the basement, but that was no help (we did remedy that as soon as everything was back to normal). We had to find a way to get heat into the bird room and since we couldn't fight the laws of physics we'd need another heat source. My parents had a kerosene heater that we could borrow which would help a bit but we could only run it when we were there and we'd have to be careful about the fumes - we had 10 canaries in this coal mine.

Heat wasn't our only problem - we had no water. None for toilets, none for washing ourselves, none for the dogs. Luckily by the weekend the temperatures outside had risen to above freezing and water was pouring off the roof. I put bowls and buckets under the drain spouts and collected water into a large garbage bin that we brought into the house. A day of effort gave us enough to get by. We got drinking water from the township.

Firewood was also a problem - we had roasted a lamb the previous fall which depleted our reserves. Carm put many miles on the car collecting wood at various depots. Kind people from the city donated some to us, and the rest came from emergency suppliers.

By a fluke we heard about a delivery of generators that was coming into Home Depot - Carm was in line at 5am on Sunday to cinch one. The American manufactured generators were not designed to handle the frigid temperatures that had moved in. We had to carry the heavy, awkward unit up three steps to get it in the house to warm up for an hour before we could coax the engine to start. As if we didn't have enough to worry about. However, the generator could run a space heater in the birdroom - at least while we were home and awake.

The days passed, we were back to work so our heating efforts downstairs were minimal and day by day the room got colder. By Friday it was at 50F and I had made the commitment to stay up with the generator and kerosene heater until we warmed the birds up. I think it was 8pm when we saw the light down the road. Could it be? Carm disconnected the generator and flicked the main switch on the electrical… and voila! Lights.