Besides exposing our vulnerability, storm disasters remind us of how really spoiled we are.
The weather reports claim we were hit by an ice storm last weekend. Not here in Niagara, which has been prone to freezing rain disaster in the past. A limb down here, a patch of ice there; no, that was not an ice storm. January 31, 2002 — yeah, that was an ice storm.
The recipe for a quick-freeze fiasco here along the north shore of Lake Erie is a simple: sudden gray gales whip up the waves, the heavy spray turns to sleet, soaking every branch and power line along a narrow band tracing the lake’s shoreline. When everything is sufficiently saturated by the shower of crashing waves, then the temperature drops 15 degrees in as many minutes.
Presto. A Lake Erie ice storm. Happening in that order and always in the middle of the night, the prescription for natural wreckage comes together flawlessly and residents are yet again reduced to living, hour to hour, by the basest of means. Falling limbs take down power and phone lines, lights die, basements flood, furnaces quit and, of course, water pumps are out of commission. People with generators become gods.
Hours after midnight, January 31, 2002, I sat in my kitchen drinking coffee with my neighbour, John Beck. Taking a brief break from bailing water out of our basements and stoking fireplaces to keep the pipes from freezing, we opened the door and watched as nature, like a drunk in a domino tournament, smashed and bashed everything in sight.
Without so much as the hum of appliances, we sat in perfect silence and witnessed this peculiar assault on our immediate environment — ice breaking trees, limbs lashing roofs, airborne branches smashing our car tops and taking down eaves troughs. Some dagger-like limbs embedded a foot into the ground would surely have killed a person unlucky enough to be under one. All this in pitch back, except when the sky flashed bright blue from the arcing of downed power lines and blown transformers somewhere in the distance.
The first sound heard was the loud rattle of breaking ice as the tree, bent by the wind, snapped back to shake off its glassy glaze. Then the sharp crack of limb, wrenched from the tree trunk was followed by an eerie wind noise as it was propelled to the ground. John and I sat silently side by side, by this time, nursing brandies and assessing our situation by noise alone.
A loud, low thud meant a tree or branch had found a target.
“My car?” I said.
“Too far away,” said John. “Probably my van?”
Then flying wood and ice sent back the sound of crashing metal and glass.
“That was a house!”
“Probably Nelson’s place.”
For every manmade disaster, there’s an antidote, but only nature can render people perfectly helpless until that mother’s work is done. Then it was back to work — bailing buckets of water from a rising tide in the basement, hauling in more wood to maintain the fireplace as a furnace, warming my hands over two gas burners on the stove, replacing spent candles, winding up a crank radio for any news of relief.
Doze, bail, stoke, check the news — 36 hours without everything, everything that is normally at our fingertips as soon as we wake in the morning.
We are so spoiled, so soft, so controlled by convenience and completely confused by its absence. A hundred times I descended into a black basement and each time I automatically flipped the light switch on. At one point between hauling buckets and lugging logs, I decided to wash a sink full of dishes. So I collected a bucket of rainwater and snow, melted it on the hearth by the fire and then poured it into the electric kettle. And then, proud of my resourcefulness I stared at the kettle for a very long time until something at the back of my sleep-deprived brain screamed, “The power’s out, you dolt!”
As dawn breaks on the second day, I’m shivering at the stove, my feet are soaked, my back creaks, the gas and lack of sleep have given me a dull headache, and the waves are crashing into my breakwall, spewing large rocks up and over the lawn, and in the midst of all this … the dog wants to go out and play. He’s got that smile that says, “Didja see all the sticks out there, Bill?” Yeah, the single benefit of a destructive ice storm is unlimited sticks for the game of fetch.
Fortunately, the telephone lines did not go out, allowing me to have a critical conversation with a telemarketer at Time Life Music in Richmond, Virginia, wanting to send me Singers and Songwriters of the ‘70s with no obligation.
Things got so bad that on Saturday, February 2, the groundhog crawled out of a hole in my neighbourhood … wearing a crash helmet. Unable to see his shadow for all the broken limbs and toppled trees, he threw himself onto a power line and ended it right there. 02/02/02 was simply oh, too much.
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