Tuesday, February 3, 2009
The ice storm that hit Kentucky hard last week just missed us. We're only twenty-four miles from Kentucky, and, even though we got a fair amount of freezing rain and sleet, and the lights flickered about two hundred times, we never actually lost power, and temps warmed above freezing sufficiently and quickly enough that the precipitation did no major damage here. Not so back in February of '94. That was the year that middle Tennessee got SLAMMED by an unanticipated ice storm. Those of us who experienced it will never forget it. It was one of those events where you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing, like when President Kennedy was shot, or Elvis died, or the airplanes hit the World Trade Center.
The weather had been unseasonably warm for several days. We had highs in the 70's, and the kids played outside in short sleeves. When a cold front moved in, that warm air and the cold air clashed, and we had thunderstorm and even tornado warnings. A torrential rain resulted in flash flooding. The rain turned to sleet and then snow, and covered everything with a thin layer of white. Tennessee school kids prayed for and got an unexpected holiday. Schools shut down more easily here in the south for such weather; we're simply unaccustomed to it, and it sometimes takes no more than a good threat of snow to cancel school for entire counties. My own kids had done their snow dance, and I had picked up my niece, Drop Dead Gorgeous II, so that she could get away from her own home and make a little money babysitting for me for a couple of days. Fred worked for the Public Works Department of Nashville; his job, in such weather, was driving a salt truck. Spreading layers of salt on the roads, melting the ice so that Tennessee drivers could get to work and back without incident. Without incident? Not in Tennessee. Tennesseans DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE IN SNOW OR ICE. I'm among the worst of them, so when the local authorities are interviewed for the evening news and say, "Don't get out unless you absolutely have to," I listen and stay home. EXCEPT...when I have to go to work. Remember, I work for the post office, and neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night will keep the postal gods from disciplining their employees upon absence. I had the dubious luck one year of having my back go out on the eve of a horrendous sleet event in Nashville. From my bed, I watched the tv stations reporting about the traffic all over town that was going NOWHERE. Nobody could drive in that stuff. My co-workers told me later about how they were stuck for hours on highways. I was afraid everybody would think I had faked my injury, just to get out of driving in that stuff, but, hey, not even an idiot would use three months of sick leave to avoid driving on ice for one day.
So, the kids had their day off from school. The forecast called for warming temperatures and the snow to turn back to rain. Fred had worked a twelve hour shift, and had to go back in to be 'on call' for the evening. Since the roads were still icy when he left for work late that day, and his tires had practically no tread at all, he took my car. He would return in plenty of time for me to get to work the next morning, he assured me. The kids, Drop Dead, and I watched the weather forecast, hoping that the temperature would drop just a few degrees, to give us one more snow day. No such luck; it had already risen to 33 and would rise a couple more degrees the next day. Fred called to see what we were doing; he was bored: the ice was melting off the roads, and the few of them who were on call were just sitting around the office. He expected to be home soon.
We were watching tv when we started hearing strange noises emanating from somewhere outside. Not oh-my-God-there's-somebody-out-there strange, but just what-in-the-world strange. I opened the door, turned on the outside lights, and looked around. A steady rain was falling, but instead of dripping off the trees and eaves of the house, it was freezing on contact and coating everything out there with ice. We had long icicles hanging from the roof already. The tree branches were drooping. "We're gonna lose some trees," I told the kids. The noises we'd heard were the branches cracking under the weight of the ice. Our house had a 'fence row' of trees, about twelve feet from the front door, which ran the length of the house and beyond. "I hope they don't come down on the roof," I worried. Fred called again, and I told him of my fears. "Nah, those trees have been there for years and years; the temperature's warming up, and it's gonna melt right off." But the roads were beginning to freeze over a bit, and he was headed out on a salt run. Ominous.
We continued to hear the cracking of the tree branches and would look out now and then. The porch light shining on the branches of the closest old trees revealed a beautiful sight: the ice glimmered and the strong wind made the trees sway and sparkle like diamonds. The rain was still falling and the accumulation was heavy on the bowing ancient trees. Now we began hearing other noises, loud, but muffled booms. I'd never been in a war zone before, but that's what the sound reminded me of: not-so-far-away cannon and gunfire. After just a few of the cracking booms, I realized what was gong on: transformers were blowing. Trees were coming down on power lines and blowing transformers all over the city. Drop Dead's mother called to say their electricity had gone out. A weather bulletin came across the tv screen: possible winter storm, with ice accumulation, could cause power outages. Well, DUH!
"Watch out, Skipper!" "Thanks a lot, Gilligan."
I told the kids there would be no school the next day. No, we hadn't heard anything yet, but this ice was going to shut down entire areas of the city; I was sure we'd have another day out of school. Fred called and said he didn't know when he'd get home; they were now getting calls to come out with chain saws and cut up trees that had fallen across roads; how was I gonna get to work? I possibly won't go in, I told him. If our electricity goes out, I can't leave the kids and Drop Dead there with no power and no transportation. I called my best friend to tell her I might not be at work in the morning. We lost the phone line while I was talking to her. The transformer that serviced our neighborhood blew with a thunderous BOOM a few minutes later.
Okay, no tv, and it was gonna be getting cold in the house soon. We might as well go to bed, I told the kids. But they were excited and couldn't sleep. We all got under the covers in my bed and talked and laughed halfway into the morning. The sounds of trees cracking and transformers popping continued for hours. Around midnight, we heard a painfully long, slow, foreboding crack, followed by a dull thud on the roof and the sickeningly smooth scratch of ice covered limbs against the glass on the bedroom window. This was getting scary. That tree could crash through at any minute. I had no phone, no power, and no car. (Fred's car was there, but the keys were in his pocket at work.) Drop Dead had fallen asleep before the tree had come down, and the kids finally joined her, but I couldn't rest.
Morning fell on an unfamiliar world. The icy rain that continued to fall had covered everything with a thick layer. I surveyed the damage in the yard: multiple large and small branches down, one hackberry tree split in half and jammed against my bedroom window and roof, another on the roof of Fred's garage-turned-music-studio, and a couple more near the far border of our acre. It was cold inside the house, and, with dread in my heart, I tried the lights. Nope. Tried the phone. Nope. I couldn't even call the post office to tell them I wouldn't be in. I told the kids to stay under the covers and Drop Dead and I slid our way across the back yard to Fred's garage. His band rehearsed here twice a week and used a big kerosene heater for warmth. I knew we had almost five gallons of kerosene; that should keep us warm for a while. Thank goodness the side door was unblocked, and we were able to pry the ice off the lock. It took the combined strength of both of us to get that heavy heater across the yard and into the house. I realized that it would not heat the entire house, so we put it in my bedroom, cracked a window a fraction of an inch for ventilation, and camped out. We brought the coffee table in from the living room and had cold cereal and milk for breakfast, seated on the quilted pillow shams from my bed. We lit candles and placed them everywhere: on the table, the nightstands, the dresser, where their lights reflected in the mirror, and more on the bathroom vanity. We made brief forays into the frozen tundra that had been Prince Charming's bedroom, and returned with Monopoly and Scrabble and Old Maid cards and a few books. We played the games and took turns reading aloud to each other, sang songs and talked. Took a nap and, when we awoke, the freezing rain had ended and the sun was shining. An exquisite horror awaited us outside. Trees were snapped in half all over the neighborhood and had spread their glittering branches across glassy lawns. Other trees had collapsed on rooftops and cars, giving the absurd impression that they had attempted to protect their inanimate victims from the icy rain. Trees that had survived the storm were dangerously arced toward the earth, buildings, and vehicles. The sun shown on every surface and turned the world into a fantastic twinkling fairyland. Disney couldn't have matched the magic that was Tennessee that morning. It was a mesmerizing sight, and we walked the street in awe of the powerful force that was nature.
The temperature continued to climb and the ice began dripping. But the damage was done. Power lines couldn't just snap back into place. At some point in the late afternoon, our phone service was restored and Fred called. He was worn out. All the crews had been called in and had been cutting and removing trees all night and day. He thought he'd be home around 10:00 that night. I didn't have the heart to tell him we had a tree on our roof; he'd find out soon enough.
We opened the fridge and freezer long enough to get out steaks, butter, and frozen broccoli. The thin slushy ice that still covered the gas grill out on the deck scraped off easily. We wrapped large potatoes in aluminum foil, put them in the grill, and closed the lid. After about an hour, I put the steaks on the other side, and put the broccoli in a pot on the side burner. I grilled Texas toast to perfection just before the sun set. Drop Dead and the kids had set our makeshift dining table with our best dishes and goblets, and had the bedroom aglow in soft candlelight. We dined in elegant pioneer splendor. Around 8:30, we took flashlights out on the deck and cooked the same meal again, so Fred would have a hot meal when he got home. In spite of his exhaustion, he enjoyed it and still raves about how good that baked potato was. In fact, we all thought it one of the best meals we've ever had.
By the next morning, the ice had completely melted, temperatures were in the mid-forties, and clean-up had begun in earnest. Our power was restored that morning, but some people in the city were weeks before they had electricity again. My sister, Jane, was one who had no power for a month. She and her son moved in with us for a short time. Power crews and public works crews worked twelve hour and longer shifts, six and seven days a week, for weeks and weeks. It was two weeks before Fred had a chance to cut up the trees in our own yard. He decided to take his overtime in vacation time, instead of extra pay; he built up so much, that he was able to take every single Monday off the rest of that year and part of the next.
The effects of the '94 ice storm were evident for years. Cedar trees, so prevalent along the interstates throughout middle Tennessee, sagged sadly, and broken branches of hackberries, sycamores, and other tall trees lay in massed confusion on the hillsides. Thousands of Bradford Pears, beautiful, but weak, were lost and replaced with young saplings. Newly shingled roofs could be seen in most neighborhoods; I was astounded that our own roof withstood for two weeks the weight of the tree that had fallen on it.
Disaster sometimes brings out the best in people. During the ice storm, and the devastating tornadoes that Nashville has experienced since, the community has rallied in support of those who were hardest hit. Fred reported that during all these events, never a day went by that someone didn't offer food or drink to their crew. A manager of a local Cracker Barrel showed up at clean up sites several days and gave each worker a $25 gift card to his restaurant. Elderly women would step out of back doors with Cokes and homemade cookies for entire crews. Local aid agencies supplied hamburgers for lunches, and coffee urns were set up at all day work sites. Ordinary citizens worked shoulder to shoulder with paid city workers to get branches and trees out of yards and off of streets. At our house, the disaster gave us a unique opportunity to experience the closest thing we'd ever had to pioneering, and, to this day, we cherish that experience. I hope those who are affected by the icy destruction in Kentucky will someday be able to find some reward for their misfortune.