I prepared for the (cue dramatic music) Storm Of The (new) Century as I usually do, by scoffing at the talking weather-heads on TV and making fun of the assorted Chicken Littles who always ensure that grocery stockpiles of milk, eggs and toilet paper are in short supply at the first sign of winter precipitation. We got our eggs, milk and toilet paper also, mind you, but that doesn't make the drill any less amusing.
With the forecast sleet projected to begin during the day, I decided to work from home. That way I could pick up the kids from the inevitable early release day, sparing my wife and baby girl from having to go out in the mess.
Once the kids were in from school, the sense of excitement was palpable. As a wintry mix began falling from the grey Carolina sky, our children were criss-crossing the house, running from side to side, front to back, window to window, cataloging each accumulation. For a scant few minutes, the sleet gave way to big fluffy flakes, prompting the kids to break into an impromptu performance of the Snow Dance. Yes, although I'm ashamed to say it, my children actually cheered for the storm, invited the glistening shards of frozen destruction as they began their relentless onslaught.
Our mood was light throughout the evening. We watched Christmas specials on satellite, as I fed the fireplace into the night. Long after everyone else had gone to bed, I was up, working, on the computer. The power flickered intermittently 'round midnight, interrupting Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and some Charlie Brown Christmas MP3s I'd been playing in my headphones. By 1 a.m., the power had fizzled out again, but this time with an air of finality. I placed a service call to CP&L's automated response line, thinking myself guaranteed to be first in the "turn our power back on" queue. The storm continued. The loud booms and flashes of green and blue light awoke my wife. We both peered out the windows of a pitch black house, eyeing the grim pyrotechnics of exploding power transformers, before tucking the kids back in and going to bed ourselves.
Day Two: The Cold Realization
We awoke, late, to a chilly house and no power. My two boys were bursting with energy, marveling at the frozen vistas framed by their bedroom windows. We dressed in layers and headed downstairs. It took quite a bit of time for my wife and I to explain to the kids that, "no, you can't go out and play in the ice" and "no power means no Nickelodeon and no video games."
I did the hunter/gatherer thing, donning my insulated lumberjack shirt over my sweats, venturing into the woods behind my house to forage for firewood, hoping to chop up some fuel for the fireplace from among a few of the dead trees, despite the fact that I only had a hatchet, not even a decent ax.
The combination of the brisk air and my steely determination to help my family survive the aftermath of the ice storm had me feeling very much the suburban Paul Bunyan. Well, until my first mighty swing clanged against a frozen tree trunk. I ducked and covered as the breaking glass sound accompanied a barrage of falling icicles. I suddenly noticed the crrrraack sounds coming from high up in the trees, as branches broke and fell. These little subdivision-separating woods became suddenly sinister. I looked up, apologetically, at the giant trees (flashbacks from reading Tolkien's The Two Towers) and assured them that I was only interested in their dead.
Returning to the 21st century with a very modest supply of wood, I decided that I'd have better luck foraging in the forests of Lowe's and Home Depot. There was, of course, no firewood to be found, but I managed to find a couple cases of those firestarters. That, and the wood (OK, bunches of branches) that I'd chopped earlier warmed our family room well into the night. I noticed my youngest son shaking, in the glow of the firelight. I hugged him close, to keep him warm. I was surprised that he was actually warmer than I was. As it turned out, he wasn't experiencing hypothermia, he was shaking due to advanced PlayStation withdrawal.
We bundled the kids up and piled blankets on the beds; my daughters bunked down with my wife while I slept in the room with the boys. My oldest son protested furiously about having to share the bed with his younger brother. I gave him the choice between that and freezing to death.
After some deliberation, he chose sharing the bed.
Day Three: This Isn't Fun Anymore
By Day Two, we'd commiserated with all of our friends and neighbors, but by Day Three we realized that some of them were getting their power turned back on, or at least getting estimates from CP&L. Our out-of-state families weren't helping, as they couldn't understand why we were still in the dark, but they let us know that our storm made the national news.
We mostly hung out in the malls, which, magically, had power. While there, we failed to meet our civic responsibility by shopping, since our available income and then some was going toward things like, um, eating.
The bundling up for bed that night took on the air of a grim routine. We had the candle thing down to a science, setting them inside bowls of water so that they wouldn't cause a fire if they burned all the way down or tipped over. We prayed that everyone's heat and lights would be turned back on soon, and that no one would die as a result of the power outages.
Around midnight, my wife and I were startled out of bed by a loud rumbling and flashing lights. We scrambled out into the dark hallway to see a utility truck creeping through the cul-de-sac, surveying our helplessness. Like an episode of Gilligan's Island, we jumped for joy at being "discovered," doing the power dance in the dark. We hugged and went back to sleep, happily expecting to be awakened by the drone of our heater starting up in the middle of the night.
Day 4: Whaddaya mean you don't know when it will be back on?
We woke up, again, to the cold. The utility truck we'd seen the night before had not restored our power. We grew more desperate. My wife suggested "utility jacking," and I was down for that. I envisioned myself yoking up a CP&L employee by the neck:
"Yo, you know what this is ... utility jack ... Run your conduit."
We weighed other options. Back when we had TV, I recalled seeing a program on power line restoration on the DIYDS (Do It Yo Damn Self) Channel, and briefly considered scaling the pole myself with some duct tape and my $9.99 Radio Shack soldering iron. Nah.
When nightfall came, we drove through nearby neighborhoods, glowing green with power envy. We seethed that people right around the corner from us not only had heat and light, but had their Christmas lights burning full blast. Flashing lights, big inflatable snowmen and garish Santas mocked us in the night. Here's a hint to any of you who've got your Christmas bling on: If you wake up and find your stuff slashed and deflated, don't be surprised. And don't even get me started on "icicle lights."
We came upon a utility truck and asked about our street. The gentleman informed us that they had crews up helping them from Miami, and that our neighborhood power would be fixed the next day, when they got a power pole.
Day Five: I've Got The Power
It was like a spectator sport, when the power trucks finally made it to our little neighborhood. All of the neighbors gathered within a half block of where the worker-mens (as my son calls them) were doing their thing. We chatted happily, sharing our survival stories, and I half expected us to join hands around the repaired power pole and sing "bahoo doray" like the triumphant Who's in Dr. Seuss' Whoville.
This disaster is by no means over for the thousands of people still without power. As news channels tout their round the clock coverage of this "Weather Event," and it becomes part of our shared experience, like Hurricanes Fran and Floyd, I hope that we can use it to remind us of the bigger picture. For those of us who suffered through anxious nights, feeling helpless despite an abundance of clothes and insulated homes, I hope that this experience will allow us have deeper empathy for the truly powerless. The homeless. The working poor. The elderly. Those in rural areas. People for whom a kerosene heater is not a stopgap solution for a few nights of roughing it, but the only source of heat.
If you've got light and heat and would like to help someone who doesn't, here are some organizations you can call:
Red Cross of Raleigh: 231-1602
Red Cross of Durham: 489-6541
Volunteer Center of Durham: 688-8977
Meals on Wheels: 220-4400
Food Bank of N.C.: 875-0707
El Centro Hispano, Durham: 687-4635
Alliance of AIDS Services: 834-2437