Journal of an Ice Storm



The Night the Power Went Out In North Carolina

Greetings, friends!  I decided to write down the tale of when Jack Frost decided to come for an extended stay in North Carolina – and, believe me, he makes a poor houseguest.  It was certainly a week of adventure down here in Durham, but it seems that very few people outside of the state were aware of what was going on.   I’ve written this journal of my experiences to help people understand the event that was the Ice Storm of December 2002.  Having finished writing it, I’m not sure if it’s intended for anyone other than myself – it’s probably deathly dull.  But then, the event itself was an exercise in boredom and stir-craziness.  Read it if you like.


*           Wednesday, 12/3/2002, 8:00 am: I took my car into the shop to have its 45,000 mile check-up, a bit early in the month, but I wanted to get it done before driving up to Maryland for Christmas.  There was some snow or freezing rain in the forecast, so I got it in early, hoping to pick it up before having to drive in whatever weather there would be.  People on the radio were making jokes about those silly folks who go to the grocery store and stock up on bread and milk the day before any little weather problem is predicted.  I wasn't worried, the forecast seemed fairly average for winter, and I figured if anything big were going to happen then these southern folks would be much more alarmed than the situation warranted.  (I can say “southern folks” with impunity, having come from a very long line of North Carolinians!)



*           Wednesday, 12/3, 2:30 pm: I went to pick up my car, and as I drove off the first snowflakes started falling.  I went up to my apartment and turned on the lights on my tacky white artificial tree, congratulating myself on having set it up early.  The snow was falling in big white flakes, and was sticking right off the bat.  I turned on some Christmas music, and started cooking some food for the soup kitchen, something I do once a month for my church.  I stuck it in the freezer and started wrapping presents, having already completed my Christmas shopping.  I put the last of my Christmas cards into the mail.  I was ahead of the game, and could only grin at the folks who would have to endure the crowded malls over the weekend.


*           Wednesday, 12/3, 5:00 pm:  The snow had started changing to sleet, and the 1.5 inches we accumulated were being tramped down by the heavy sleet.  I decided not to brave the roads and these southern-folks-who-don't-know-how-to-drive-in-snow, skipping a church dinner I had signed up for.  I felt slightly guilty, but decided it was too warm and Christmas-y in my apartment to negotiate the few blocks of slush to get to church.  I watched some TV and went to bed.



*           Thursday, 12/5, about 5:00 am:  I was awoken by a noise - my printer turning on.  Then it turned on again.  Then again.  I realized that the power must have been fluctuating, so I got up and turned off all my power strips, unplugging one when I couldn't find the switch in the dark.  As I moved to the front room where my big windows are, I noticed the CCB tower a few blocks away blinking on and off in time to my own power fluctuations.  I stared at the downtown skyline, and then at the power lines near my building, which were covered with icicles.  This looked a lot grimmer than when I had gone to bed.  Still, I figured, the power would probably be back on in a few hours.  I went back to bed.


*           Thursday, 12/5, 8:30 am:  When I got up, the power was still out.  I thanked myself for my hoarding habits, and thought I had enough water to last a couple of days.  (I was used to well water, which stops working when the power is out.)  I had plenty of cans of food, and some crackers and bread, and chips and some salsa.  Also, there were leftovers from the dinner of pasta I had cooked the night before.  I had plenty of batteries, a boom box and a Walkman that would let me listen to the radio, and a Coleman battery-operated lantern, plus lots of candles.  This was the perfect time to do some reading, research for my novel.  I felt quite lucky to be a statistic of all the recent layoffs, as I didn't have to worry about whether or not I needed to go to work, or even find a shower, since no one had to see me that day.  The power would be back on soon enough.  It was pretty warm in the apartment, as I get a lot of sunlight from sunrise until about noon, especially in the wintertime.  I had at my disposal four blankets, two quilts, two sleeping bags and a down comforter, so there was no need to panic.  Plus, the cats add a lot of warmth, and one or both of them usually sleep with me at night.  I got in my most comfortable sweats and added a t-shirt for an extra layer, and set about reading by sunlight.



*           Thursday, 12/5, 12:30 pm:  After reading for a few hours, I decided to find out why the power wasn't on yet by listening to the radio on my boom box.  I tuned into my favorite 80's station, which was playing music.  I wasn't sure how old the batteries were and how long they would last, so I thought I would listen to an AM station, although I didn't know which one was for the Durham area.  I eventually found one for the Chapel Hill area that was talking about the weather.  I then heard the disheartening news that Duke Power was increasing their report from 1 million North Carolina residents without power to 1.5 million.  My cheerful outlook suddenly took a turn for the worse.  They were predicting that everyone would have their power back in three to five days.  This did not improve my mood.  Still, I thought, I was clearly on the same circuit as the CCB.  I would be first on the priority list.  It would only be a few hours' wait.  I went back to reading, which suddenly wasn't as engrossing as it had been.


*           Thursday, 12/5, 2:00 pm:  The room was definitely getting chillier now that the sun had passed over to the other side of the building.  I got out a little snowcap with ear flaps, thanking myself for this impulse buy of a couple of winters before, and snuggled down into my sleeping bag on the couch.  A knock on my door broke my isolation, and I went to the door looking very strange in my sweats and messy hair, with the snowcap on my head.  The hallway was completely dark, and I couldn't see who it was out of my peek-hole.  I opened the door.  It was Sabrina, the apartment manager, who said that two of the four apartment buildings in the complex had power, and she had opened one empty apartment so that people could warm up.  She gave me her cell phone number, although she said it wasn't charged.  I told her that I was worried that I couldn't get back into the building once I left, since I didn't have a key to the stairwell and had only ever used the keypad-protected elevator before.  She asked me if I had tried using my door key on the stairwell.  I thanked her, feeling sheepish.  After she left, I decided that going outside at this point was not high on the priority list.  I made a few phone calls on my (thankfully) mostly charged cell phone.  Three of my Duke friends had moved onto campus, which had power, whereas their homes did not.  The weekly game-playing session that was scheduled to meet at my house was, thankfully, cancelled.  But the next one, on Saturday night, was still on.  I could leave messages on my friend Jack's work voice mail, which was fortunate, as none of my friends carry cell phones.  I left a message saying that my cell phone would be turned off most of the time to conserve its battery, but that they could leave messages there.  I also called my mother and my father, and gave each of them my status.  Apparently my grandparents in Greensboro were no better off than I was, and so neither one of us could give the other shelter and warmth.


*           Thursday, 12/5, 3:30 pm:  I turned on the radio again, where callers were talking about the trees that had fallen onto their cars and houses, and saying that they had not yet seen a power truck.  I realized I had been quite fortunate only to have the inconvenience of a power outage.  The list of cancellations and closings was lengthening.  A curfew in Durham was set from 6:00 pm until 6:00 am, which was unprecedented in the area.  The forecast was for a low in the 20's overnight.  Suddenly I thought about my fish in their aquariums.  I checked the temperatures on the aquarium thermometers.  Normally the electric heaters would keep them at a nice warm 82 degrees, but they were hovering around 72, the bottom of the green range, and starting to dip into the yellow.  At this point I started to pray that the power would come back on so that my fish wouldn't freeze in their tanks.  A few dead snails were floating at the top.  The snails were an unwanted infestation that had come along with the live plants in the tank, and I thought, perhaps this is God's way of solving my snail problem for me.


*           Thursday, 12/5, 5:00 pm:  I made the discovery that toilets still work when the power was out, for which I was truly thankful.  My experiment with flushing was somewhat dangerous, but I figured since I had two toilets, I had a reserve in case it didn't work.  I thanked God for city water and sewer.  I also discovered that it is very hard on the eyes to read by candlelight.  This was great research for my novel, I told myself, as they didn't have power on the Outer Banks during the Revolutionary War.  What on earth did they do to entertain themselves at night?  They didn't have HBO.  They didn't have the Internet.  They probably didn't read or sew much by candlelight - or perhaps their eyes were better than mine from not watching TV and surfing the web.  Or maybe they were just bored all the time.


*           Thursday, 12/5, 6:00 pm:  I was bored.  I kept thinking of Steve Martin in L.A. Story where he writes in black magic marker, backwards, on his window:  "Bored Beyond Belief".


*           Thursday, 12/5, 7:00 pm:  I went to bed in all my clothes, with almost all the blankets and one cat.  I got too hot, so I took the sweatshirt off.  This was okay.  It was like camping, only indoors.  And with a softer mattress.


*           Friday, 12/6, 5:50 am:  My watch alarm went off, waking me in time to catch the 6:00 am status report that the radio station was giving.  The news was not good.  They had actually made negative progress overnight with restoring power.  They would fix a line, and another tree limb would drop on it.  All of the hotels with power were full, as far out as Goldsboro.  There were shelters around the area, although not many people had used them overnight.  Gas stations and kerosene stations with power had lines that took hours to get through.  The warm weather in the lower 40s forecast for the day would help melt the ice, but the low of 18 predicted overnight would cause refreezing on the streets.  The power company estimated that 90% of homes would have power restored in 5 to 7 days.  My mood, at this point, was grim, and I huddled on the couch with a cat, and felt sorry for myself.



*           Friday, 12/6, 7:00 am:  The room was beginning to warm up a bit now that the sun was up.  I reluctantly went over to my large aquarium in the living room, hoping I wouldn't see dead fish.  The fish were there, moving very slowly, and the temperature had dropped to 62 degrees, just under the minimum acceptable level for tropical fish.  My two favorite fish, angelfish named White Eye Guy and Sunny, stared balefully out at me through the glass.  They might as well have said, "Mommy, why are you doing this to us?"


*           Friday, 12/6, 8:00 am:  After stewing for a while, I decided that "God helps those who help themselves," and that I had better do something to help save my fish.  I poured the water out of a gallon jug and into a large mixing bowl (although why, since I knew the water was running at this point, I'm not certain), and headed across the street in my same sweats and pants that I had worn the day before, and the same silly snowcap.  As I entered the other building, I became instantly jealous that these people had power.  If I had had power, I could have been watching a movie, or checking my email.  Or taking a hot shower.  I didn't understand why these buildings had power and we didn't.  Weren't we all on the same circuit?  Why did my building, on the same circuit as the CCB building, not have power when these guys did?  I grumpily filled the gallon jug with hot water, and trudged back over the ice to my building where (thank goodness) my key did actually work in the stairwell door.  I bumbled back down the dark hall and fumbled with the lock for a while in the pitch black.  Should have taken a flashlight.  I used a cup and another big plastic mixing bowl to empty about a gallon's worth of water from the 15-gallon aquarium in the living room, then poured the hot water in.  I wasn't sure if this would shock the fish too much, so I poured it as far away from the fish as I could manage.  I hadn't emptied quite enough water, so I couldn't pour in the entire gallon of water, but it came close.  I looked at the thermometer, and after a couple of minutes, it read 64 degrees.  The minimum acceptable level for tropical fish.  After about five minutes of feeling frustrated, I realized that I hadn't put the dechlorinator into the water!  I had killed a group of five fish this way early in my experience with Durham city water.  I raced to the office, where the dechlorinator was, and poured a few drops into the tank.  The fish were looking fairly ill anyways, so I had no idea if this was timely enough to save them.  After a while, it became apparent that they were not going to die immediately.  I cursed myself for my carelessness, and decided that I would do whatever it took (and be as careful as possible doing so) to save these fish.  I went back for another jug of water, for my smaller, 6-gallon tank in the office, and this time put the dechlorinator in before filling the jug.  After getting that tank up to the minimum acceptable level, I wrapped the tops of both tanks in saran wrap to help hold in the heat. 


*           Friday, 12/6, 10:00 am:  I called my mother and complained at her for about 20 minutes, wasting the cell phone battery, but I realized that I could go recharge it in the empty apartment.  She was very comforting, but there was nothing she could do to help except listen to me complain.  She suggested I call my friend and Associate Rector of my church, Cathie, who lived in the apartment complex, and in one of the buildings that had power.  I hadn't even thought of that.  I had so engrossed myself in my little frozen world that I didn't think to ask for help. 



*           Friday, 12/6, 11:00 am:  I realized that I had to change my attitude from feeling helpless and isolating to actually using whatever resources I could find.  I hadn't even attempted to step outside the apartment until that morning, for God's sake.  I found Cathie's cell phone number and called her.  She answered, and immediately offered help, warmth, and coffee.  I said, "What I really need is a shower."  She invited me to come over, and I packed up my shower things and headed over.  En route, I got a call from Jack as my cell phone was still powered on, and I arranged to come to campus that evening and watch a Duke Women's Basketball game, and have some human interaction. In the middle of the phone call, I ran into Sabrina, who told me that she had opened two more apartments, especially for showers.  She said people could even sleep there overnight if it got too cold.  She also said that the Italian restaurant there in the apartment complex would be open for lunch.  The confluence of events convinced me that getting out and finding what was available had been an excellent choice. 


*           Friday, 12/6, 11:45 am:  After a hot shower, I felt worlds better.  As my cell phone continued to recharge, I discussed the fish situation with Cathie and her friend Julie from Burlington who would be staying at her apartment.  We toyed with the idea of moving the fish to Cathie's apartment, as it already had two extra cat guests that belonged to Julie. But moving the fish would be quite a chore, and I was worried that the delicate ecosystem of ammonia-devouring bacteria would be imbalanced and I would have to re-cycle the tank, which might be worse for the fish than the temperature problem.  I began to feel that my recent aquarium-keeping hobby was too difficult for my puny intellect.  Since adding warm water hadn't killed the fish, I decided that would be the best means of keeping them alive.  Cathie and her cell phone were leaving shortly to lead a youth retreat in Burlington, where apparently the power was still on, leaving Julie with no phone access.  I had met Julie before, and she was extremely nice, saying just to knock if I needed anything.  I thanked them both and left, feeling lucky to have people who were generous and willing to help.  I also felt that I needed to stay with my animals, being their caretaker.  When I got back to the apartment, I checked the temperature on the tanks again.  It was back down to 62 degrees.  I knew I needed to add more hot water, but I couldn't face it just then.  I was going to go get something to eat.


*           Friday, 12/6, 1:30 pm:  Ah, a hot meal.  I ordered extra food so that I would have leftovers for dinner.  After eating nothing but bread, chips, raisins, and peanuts for a day, I was more than pleased with the lentil soup and penne pasta with sausage and marinara sauce.  I had two glasses of wine, which seemed a bit extreme for lunch, but why not?  There were only two other customers there, and the staff was milling about in the dining area, discussing the power situation and whether or not they would stay open for dinner that evening.  It was freezing in the powerless restaurant, and they were only able to cook because of the gas stove.  The owner, a woman about my age, decided to close up and to take some wine and tequila home with her.  She invited the staff to sleep at her house, since she had power.  I envied their camaraderie.  I spoke to them about my fish situation, my sole obsession and purpose for being at this point.  They sympathized, which was really all I was looking for.  I overheard one of the staff mentioning that he had eaten dinner at a local Irish pub the night before, which was serving by candlelight.



*           Friday, 12/6, 3:00 pm:  After filling the tanks with a gallon of hot water one more time, I decided to drive by the Irish pub to see if it was, in fact, open.  All of the stoplights were out, and Gregson Street, a major residential thoroughfare, was blocked off.  Almost all of the big old trees at the Durham School for the Arts were demolished.  I turned onto Main Street, and parked along the road.  The pub looked closed.  I tried the door, and it opened.  The bartender was stacking chairs in the darkness.  I asked if they would be open for dinner, and he said, "Not this evening."  Phooey.


*           Friday, 12/6, 3:30 pm:  I called Jack and left a message stating that I would not be at the basketball game.  If this is what the few blocks surrounding me looked like, I didn't want to try to make it all the way to West Campus.  Besides, my fish needed me.  I determined that I would refill the tank every two hours, all night long, if that was what it took.


*           Friday, 12/6, 5:00 pm:  I stared out my windows at the Durham skyline for a few minutes, very miffed at the darkened CCB building, which was surrounded with skyscrapers that had power.  I refilled the tanks again, and went to bed.


*           Saturday, 12/6, 5:50 am:  My watch alarm went off.  I let it beep, and went back to sleep.


*           Saturday, 12/6, 7:00 am:  I got up and turned on the radio.  People were complaining about the lack of power trucks, and the people who have power turning their Christmas lights on.  Other people were calling up to complain about the complainers.  The power company was saying that people should have power restored by next Thursday.  The only place with kerosene in the vicinity had sold out.  The shelters were nearly full overnight, and someone had died overnight from carbon monoxide poisoning from burning charcoal in a grill in their bedroom to keep warm.  It was going to be colder today than yesterday.  Things were not getting any better.  I turned off the radio and laid in grim silence on the couch under a sleeping bag.       


*           Saturday, 12/6, 8:30 am:  I decided to get moving.  One useful piece of information that the radio had provided was a caller who said that if you don't have power, there may still be enough warm water in your heater for one or two fairly warm showers at this point.  I hadn't even tried the hot water this whole time.  I went to the kitchen sink and ran the warm water for a moment, and sure enough, it was good and warm.  I didn't want to look at the aquarium after my failure to keep to my water schedule overnight, but I braved it and there were the fish, fins barely twitching, in a stupor of cold at 56 degrees.  I immediately started carting water back and forth to both aquariums, raising the temperature to 64.  I thanked God for warm-blooded pets like cats that can take care of themselves.  I decided that the heroine of my book would have a cat.  Nobody in Revolutionary War times had tropical fish.



*           Saturday, 12/6, 9:15 am:  I checked my cell phone messages, and called up Mom to complain some more.  She made an odd suggestion - why not just come home for a while until the power came back on?  Part of me objected to her use of the word "home", as though I was not home already.  Another part thought that would be highly irresponsible of me, to run off without a care for the cats or the fish, leaving them to fend for themselves, which clearly the fish at least couldn't do.  The much bigger and smarter part of myself said:  Screw the fish.  Go home to mommy.


*           Saturday, 12/6, 10:30 am:  After changing the water in both tanks sufficiently to bring the temperature up to a nice and toasty 74 degrees, rewrapping the tanks in fresh plastic wrap, putting enough food and water down for the cats to last a month (including the mixing bowl full of distilled water from the aquarium-refilling jug, see it did come in handy!) and packing hastily, I wheeled my suitcase out to the parking lot, and made for Maryland.


*           Saturday, 12/6 - Monday, 12/9:  I spent a wonderful weekend in Annapolis, visited many friends, went to a Christmas party, and enjoyed the remains of a gentle six-inch snow that didn't knock out any power lines.  I even managed to land a new job.  I'm not kidding.  It was the best weekend ever.  The only thing that didn't happen is Mr. Right riding up on a white horse with an engagement ring.  Monday morning I called down and found power had been restored, so I came back in the late afternoon, entered the apartment, found the fish were all alive and well, and turned on every light in the apartment.  I put my new angel tree-topper on the Christmas tree, and turned on the Christmas carols.  I thanked God for power.  The only problem was one of my cats, Zut, who had missed me so much that she yowled most of the night, forgetting I was back. 


*           Tuesday, 12/10, 12:00 am: I sang Happy Birthday to myself, lying in bed with Zut standing on my stomach getting a nice neck rub.  I think she'll forgive me.



I hope you all have very Happy Holidays!  And don't forget to buy milk and bread and batteries the next time they predict snow.



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