Sunday, March 3, 2013

Rurification 101: The Blizzard of 1996!

March in this part of the country is a dismal, deceitful month.   It's not that we don't have heavenly weather sometimes, often even.  It's that just as we begin to think that spring is actually here, nature turns testy and spits in our general direction.    That often happens this time of year.

This is the story of the March blizzard of 1996. 

It was memorable on a lot of levels.  Mostly because this is how we began the real change from being citified to being rurifed.   Those of you with real rural experience will laugh at how silly we were - we laugh at ourselves, looking back now - but the only cure for inexperience is....experience...and there's only one way to get that.    

And this is how we got it. 

The first week of March 1996 blew in cold.  Really cold.  The second week was beautiful and the things in my garden fairly lept out of the ground.   The third week of the month we had twenty inches of snow in a day.

There is a saying in Indiana:  If you don't like the weather, stick around for five minutes and it will change.   So, when we hear threats of severe weather, we all watch the sky and the weather stations and we don't get too panicky.   Most folks out here are well prepared for weather emergencies with extra food, candles, and a heat source.   People have assorted generators, kerosene and propane heaters, wood stoves, spring fed water systems, chain saws, etc.      Most of the weather related inconveniences are due to the power going out and summer storms are the most frequent cause.  

It was only our second winter out here and we were just getting used to the regular power outages. We were still thinking about generators, kerosene heaters, wood stoves, etc. We were thinking a lot about getting prepared, but hadn't actually done much preparing. 

[Sigh.] We did have an excuse. A tiny, adorable, 3-week-early, excuse. I had a brand new baby just over 10 weeks old and I was recovering from a C-section. Lily was still only around 7 lbs. We had spent most of the last year doing some major remodeling on the house to get a room ready for her. 

That third Tuesday morning of March it began to rain. It would rain all day they said and maybe it would get cold enough to turn to snow that night. Not to worry.

We didn't worry.

We did comment, however, when the rain turned to snow at 7:00 am that morning as we were driving into town to work, Eric and the baby in his little truck and I in my little car. And we commented again when the snow began to accumulate immediately and we had a couple of inches by the time we arrived in town. And our comments turned to exclamations when by 11:00 am they were predicting over six inches. 

At 11:00 I got out of class and headed to my husband's workplace, which was right off campus. My mother, who worked at the university where I was teaching, called us there and said she was leaving the office immediately and that we should drive home together or follow each other. Eric decided to leave work early, leave the little truck in town, go home in my car and follow Mom.

My parents at that time lived a few miles beyond us. They were building a house on their very lovely piece of property and were staying in a mobile home at the edge of the property until the house was further along. 

Now, you in the north may be wondering why all the concern about a few measley inches of snow. When I moved from the north I wondered the same thing. Then it snowed and I realized that many people in southern Indiana have no snow-driving gene. The really sad thing about this is that most of them don't even realize they are missing that gene and get in their cars and drive in the snow anyway, endangering the rest of us who really do have the snow-driving gene.

It's very sad. 

The other reason we worry about multiple inches of snow is that our county is not very good about plowing. The winter road maintenance budget is very small and the plows aren't called out unless absolutely necessary. When they are called, often they are just instructed to lay a little sand on the up lane of the really bad hills. Heaven help us on the rest of the road. 

There were two really bad hills on the way to our house and then another two the rest of the way to Mom's house. If there is enough snow on the ground, the road becomes to slick too get up all the way. On a normal straight road, one could simply gather a little speed and zoom up the hill, but in our county none of the roads is straight enough for that to work. If by some miracle you can gather enough speed coming around the corners, you have to remember that none of the roads is graded the right direction and centrifugal force might just send you into a ravine. Very stressful. This is why we were anxious to get home. 

At any rate, on that day Eric and Lily and I went home in my little car and Mom followed in hers. By the time we got halfway home, the snow was so deep that we were plowing it with my car. We continued our exclamations over the depth of the snow and the speed at which it was continuing to accumulate. My little car was a Toyota hatchback with front wheel drive, which made it a little easier to handle than Eric's little rear-wheel Toyota truck. However, my little car weighed about the same as a cow and that's not heavy enough to get up slick hills reliably. When we got to last little town before home, Mom pulled ahead of us because her car (a big, heavy Oldsmobile) could plow the deeper snow better and because it was heavier. We drove in her tracks. As we approached the second bad hill to our house, the one that we have gotten stuck on before, my exclamations turned to a refrain of 'Oh, my gosh, oh my gosh, ohmigosh, ohmigosh...' and I envisioned the three of us walking the rest of the way to our house. Eric's exclamations turned to speculations on the possibility of our making it up the hill given the fact that our wheel base was smaller than Mom's and which track, left or right, he should aim for. Eventually we made it to the other side. At the bottom, Mom took off straight to stay on the blacktop, and we turned onto our road. 

We could see where our road had been driven on, a single set of tracks, straight down the center. We prayed that we wouldn't meet anyone going the opposite direction. We got home at 12:15 and had no electricity. We called Dad and told him Mom was on her way. He told us that power was out all over the county. As we were talking, Mom drove back by our house and zoomed up our hill. Obviously, she had been unable to get through on the blacktop. At this point I was glad she had her car phone, because I knew that if she couldn't make it on the blacktop, she wasn't going to make it going the gravel roads and I figured we'd have to go dig her out. I was wrong. She not only got home, she got home in decent time.

I think she has two snow-driving genes. 

At this point, Eric and I began to wonder how long our power would be off. We had no other heat source and the temperature outside was dropping quickly. The people at REMC had no idea how long it was going to take to get power back on. Since we had an infant and the snow was continuing to accumulate, we had to make a decision soon. Should we risk it and stay home, or go to Mom and Dad's where they had a kerosene heater and hole up in their mobile home for the night. If we stayed, it would be cold, no question. If we went, then we had to get there somehow. Either we had to drive or they had to come get us. At 4:30 we finally decided to go. We called Mom and she said she'd come get us. I packed enough stuff to get us through the night because I knew that the way the snow was piling up we wouldn't get back before the next day, even if the power did come back on. Eric fed the animals and secured the barn.

[Wah-hahaha! We thought we'd get back the next day! We were so cute.]

Mom made it back to our house on the gravel roads again. We loaded up and took off. A couple of miles down the road, her car started to get hot and we smelled burning rubber.

Oh, joy.

We turned up the heat all the way to cool off the engine. We didn't dare stop and soon that car got very warm inside.

No problem. We opened the windows.

Problem. The wind was blowing very hard outside and as we wound around the roads, the wind would blow snowballs inside the car.

Snow. Balls. I'm totally serious.

So, first I would open my side and then as we curved and the wind would blow in, Mom would open her side and I'd shut mine. Then we'd curve back around and do the whole thing again. Our fingers never left the automatic window buttons. Synchronized window opening. A new Olympic sport. 

We made it to Mom's house safely and as we got there, their power came back on, so we were very comfortable for several hours. We lost power again late that night and it stayed off. 

It's funny how one reacts to the loss of something so integral to daily living. I found myself thinking that pretty much the only thing I could do was sit and stare out the window and play Pass the Baby. [And let's be honest. We were at Gramma's house. Who had the baby?] We can't play on the computer; we have no electricity. We can't bake some fattening comfort food; we have no electricity. We can't make a pot of tea; we have no electricity. We can't go to the bathroom because we can't flush the toilet; we have no electricity. We can't wash the dishes; we have no electricity.

As the dishes and the snow continued to pile up, morale bottomed out. 

Now my parents and my husband and I are smart people and it wasn't very long into the day before we started shedding our citified functional fixedness and finding ways to do the things we wanted to do. Dad brought his small generator from the barn to the house so that at least we could run the pump to have water for flushing and dishes. It was a relief to get all of the dishes washed and the mobile home straightened. It was also a relief to go to the bathroom and flush. 

I realized that the kerosene heater was as good a cook source as a gas stove, so Dad started a big pot of hamburger vegetable soup with the stuff that was defrosting in the freezer. It was an obvious solution to the hot food difficulty. After all, we had soup stuff and a soup pot and everyone had cooked soup all day over a camp fire.

However, though soup is good food, we felt a deeper craving. A craving for, dare we say it aloud...
Hot bread. Comfort food of the Gods.

The solution to this problem was less obvious. Even if one has all of the ingredients for bread, which we did, none of us had ever even heard of someone baking bread on a campstove much less a kerosene heater. Not to be prevented from having hot bread, I said we could cook rolls in a pie dish and invert a larger pan over them so that there would be room for them to rise. It was enough to get Eric to start the dough. In the end, Eric put the rolls in a deep skillet and covered it with its own lid. The lid rose with the rolls. To brown the tops, Eric just flipped the rolls over in the pan after they were done and left them just long enough to brown the tops. They were ambrosia.
Morale soared. 

Meanwhile it just kept snowing. We never saw a plow. All day Wednesday we stayed in and waited and watched and counted inches. When Eric and Dad tried to get back to our house to feed the animals, they found the road blocked completely by trees and limbs knocked down by the twenty inches of heavy snow.

Twenty inches in a day is a lot of snow for southern Indiana. 

Rumor had it that power wouldn't be back on until after Friday. We realized that we hadn't brought enough diapers to last more than a couple of days and since I had shed all of my functional fixedness, I began to look pointedly at Mom's dishtowels. Mom hid the dishtowels and began to encourage Dad and Eric to please find a way to get back to our house. 

Late Wednesday night, the power came back on and stayed on, but Thursday morning we had no phones [very unusual out here!] and we were desperate to get out and check things out. Dad and Eric set out in Dad's big truck again to get to our house. People living along the road had gotten out their chain saws and moved enough trees to let one lane weave around them. We still hadn't seen a plow.
They made it all the way to our house. Our neighbors, knowing that we were snowed out had come down to make sure the animals were fed and had taken Newton, the dog, back with them. Actually, Newton, who loves to race cars up our hill and who was delirious with joy at seeing people again, simply raced them up the hill. There was so much snow that they couldn't go fast enough to outrun him and he ended up racing them all the way back to their house. Thank heaven for thoughtful neighbors.

Eric picked up more diapers, bottle liners and cleaned the eggs and milk out of our fridge. My little car was almost invisible under the snow. 

That afternoon Eric and Mom went in to work and made it all the way in the long way. The state roads had been plowed and were not only clear, but also dry.

The county roads still hadn't been touched. REMC hadn't repaired many lines because the roads hadn't been plowed. Roads hadn't been plowed because trees were in the way. It was a classic case of passing the buck. People got out and started clearing the trees themselves, which was probably what the county administrators were waiting for anyway. 

The roads looked like a tornado had hit. Branches, vines, power lines and trees were down everywhere. What power lines weren't down were being shorted out by trees and branches that had fallen across or were leaning on them. The power line system in this area is a lot like the old Christmas tree light strings. When one light goes out, it shorts out the whole string and you have to check one light at a time to fix the short. The power lines had to be checked from pole to pole all across this half of the county. 

On Friday, it was over 50 degrees again and things started to melt fast. Eric and Mom went to work. Dad had some errands to run and since I hadn't been out of the mobile home in days, we took Lily and went into town and then over to our house to take some more hay for the sheep. It was spectacularly beautiful.

While driving back to our house we found that a tree had fallen across the lines near a neighbor's farm and it had snapped the whole pole down. The problem was obvious and relatively simple to fix, but since no plow had been down the road, we had to hope that the neighbors had notified REMC themselves instead of waiting for the county to come check it out. The problem with calling REMC was that people were trying to call in from all over and it took some people three days to ring through and not to get a busy signal. Late that day, we saw the first plow.

At our house I just stood and listened to the splat, splat, splat of the rest of the snow melting and falling off the trees. I unearthed, or rather unsnowed, a shovel and cleared a pathway to our door and cleared off half of the deck.

Dad and I walked around the house to see if there was any damage. We found one section of guttering that had fallen down under the weight of the snow, but there were no signs of water damage in the house anywhere. We were very fortunate.

Creeks started to rise and people worried about flooding. We still had no power. The county started to plow in earnest, even the gravel roads, to get REMC through. That night, Eric brought the truck home from town and dug the little car out.

By Saturday, it was warm enough at night to move back home even without power so we packed all of our stuff, took one of Mom and Dad's kerosene heaters and went home. We met the REMC guys finishing reattaching the wires after replacing two downed poles down the road from us. That gave us hope that we'd have power by the end of the day. As we drove past our neighbors lane though, we saw that there were a dozen more trees leaning on the lines through there. REMC had to disconnect their line completely to get power to the rest of us until their trees could be pulled down. By afternoon we had power again. It was heaven to sleep in our own bed.

This story should be over but this being Indiana, the very next night, Sunday, another storm system blew in and we lost power again, this time to a thunderstorm. The last thing Eric did for me on Monday before he went to work was bring in a bucket of water so I could flush the toilet. Later, as I sat on the toilet bemoaning the fact that yet again we had no power indefinately, I was alone with the baby, I had a sinus headache to kill Godzilla and I had to fill the toilet with yucky creek water to flush, I saw something swimming in the bucket.

Yes, swimming. A very large tadpole thing with big spots.

Oh yipee. Eric had brought me company.


  1. Did you save the tadpole??? Great story Robin, hate it when we lose power. Not having toilets that flush is the worst. We've been fortunate this year here in the North East. I love your Mom and her snow driving gene!

  2. Ah, remember it well... We had 17 inches in this part of town, and the most memorable thing for me was the the university closed. I danced. But it was cold, and there was no power for at least two days. Snow just might be the great city/country equalizer.

  3. You've lived my dream of being snowed in for several days. Enjoyed reading this post!

  4. Wow! Just wow. This was right after Son1 was born and so I don't remember a whole lot of that bad weather. Back then, we lived within walking distance of campus so hubby could still get to work and I was was laid up with my fourth degree tearing a a new baby. :P

    You had QUITE the adventure though! What a great read! And I'm half-giggling and half-grimacing at the thought of flushing that tadpole. LOL!

  5. I remember that week too. I was a 4th grader at Grandview Elementary, and it was the week after Spring Break, for Spring Break I went to my grandmas in northern Indiana and I wore shorts and dresses. On the day it started my class was scheduled to go to Honey Creek, the antique school near Bloomington. I got dressed in my handmade dress and bonnet, then mom gave me a shawl to wear with it to stay warm, and I wore cowboy boots. We took a picture in the yard as the snow was just starting. When everyone was gathered at school and ready to go with our lunches in baskets and no plastic at all, the teacher told us she didn't think we could go on the field trip. Then we were sent home at 1pm, my mom picked me up. That night the power went out, and we stayed home all of Wednesday, on Thursday my dad went to work at Otis and my mom and I went into the office she worked in on campus, with the siamese cat who couldn't stay home with no heat. Actually that may have been friday? I do know the power came back on while we were there.


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