Ice Storm Diary – 2009

Kentucky, and other states, were hit by a severe ice storm January 26-28. Electricity is out in Tatertown, and probably will be for over a week. I’ll report some random observations here as I can. In an effort to conserve laptop batteries, I won’t be online much, and I won’t even be able to type stuff offline for later posting. So I’ll just post what I can remember as I get a chance, as in this message today coming from the relative comfort of my workplace.

For those fortunate enough not to know what an “ice storm” is, it is when atmospheric conditions conspire to allow rain to become chilled as it falls, freezing on contact with the surface. One result is hazardous driving conditions. Driving on ice is far more treacherous than snow, and ice is much more difficult to clear from the roads.

Another problem is a heavy build-up of ice on things like power lines and tree branches, causing them to break. The broken power lines obviously cause outages. The breaking tree branches cause a variety of other problems, depending on where they fall. They can break fences, crash through roofs, demolish vehicles, take down power lines that haven’t already fallen under their own weight, and sometimes even kill people.

Having painted that gloomy picture, I should hasten to add that so far I have suffered only the inconvenience of having no electricity (which also means no heat and no hot water) during a cold spell. Members of my family are basically in the same position, although those who have to care for livestock find the situation a little more inconvenient.

Trying to remember when it all started, I guess it was Monday or Monday night, when we started getting a mixture of snow and freezing rain. I don’t remember what conditions were like on Monday, but I don’t recall anything challenging. That story began to change overnight.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, my employer implemented a system to alert students and staff in emergency situations. Although its use and reliability has been somewhat questionable, it swung into full action Tuesday morning. About 5:50 AM, my cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and ignored it. A few minutes later, it chimed to tell me the unknown caller had left voice mail. So I listened to the message, which was the alert system telling me I could sleep in a little and report to work at 10:00 AM.

Driving conditions were a little interesting, but I made it to work with nothing interesting to report. Some other co-workers also straggled in, while others stayed home with kids who were out of school. As predicted, the freezing rain kept falling all day, thwarting the best efforts of road crews and campus physical plant workers to make streets and sidewalks safe for travel. .Since it had been a while since I registered with the alert system, I decided to check my registration. I found that my cellphone was the only “immediate” contact it had. It also had an incorrect office phone number, which I had tried unsuccessfully to change, and a low-priority email address.

After some trial and error, I managed to update it. (Changing information didn’t seem to work, but deleting and adding did). It wasn’t long before I got confirmation that the new information had taken effect. Shortly before 3 PM, my cellphone chimed with an e-mail message, telling me to go home at 3:30. Shortly afterwards, I received email at my work address telling me the same thing. Then my office phone rang, with the same message. Finally, as I was walking out the door at 3:30, my cell phone rang, and the voice told me to go home at 3:30.

The trip home was challenging, but fortunately uneventful. As I lay in bed that night, I optimstically hoped the crashing noise I kept hearing was snow and ice falling off the roof as it melted, instead of the falling tree branches that it really was. Around 4:30 AM, my optimism was dashed as I realized I had no electricity. After several busy signals (at 4:30 AM!) I managed to reach Bluegrass Energy’s outage reported system, which responded that they were “aware of outages in (my) area”. Their awareness, along with the swamped phone lines in the wee hours of the morning, confirmed my fears that this was going to be a widespread outage. About 5:00 AM, my cell phone and land line rang minutes apart, telling me not to go to work.

The relief of not needing to go to work was negated by the realization that, in spite of knowing what was coming, I hadn’t bought any kerosene. And I was going to need my kerosene heater to keep the house above pipe-freezing temperature. So, after dragging myself out of bed and feeding the horses, I braved the icy, branch-strewn roads. This was definitely a white-knuckle trip. At one point, a branch snapped and swung down right in front of me. It didn’t break all the way, so I grazed under it instead of taking it in the grill. I made it to town and got my kerosene, as the freezing rain changed to snow. On the way home, the light layer of snow on top of the ice was extremely frightening.

While in town, I called my parents to see if there was anything I could do for them. They were surprisingly cheerful, considering the circumstances. Naturally, their power was out too. They’re 82-83 years old and neither one of them drives any more. They’re out in the sticks, with no electricity and icy roads. They at least have a wood-burning fireplace insert to provide some warmth, but that won’t be enough for the approaching weather. They had a kerosene heater, but no kerosene. Mom said they might need some at some point, if this keeps up. Their only landline phone is a cordless model that won’t work without power. I was talking to them on their cellphone, whose battery was dying and they have no way to recharge it. I offered to bring them some kerosene and a corded phone, but they said they didn’t think they needed either yet, unless “this goes on for a while”. At that point, I hadn’t read the newspaper to realize just how wishful that thinking was.

The newspaper says the statewide outage is the second-worst in history. The last major outage shut us down for over 10 days, so I don’t expect this to resolve soon. Looking at Bluegrass Energy’s website this morning, I see some daunting headlines:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
STORM UPDATE, 10 p.m.: Outages drop to 28,000 as crews work through the night to restore power

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
UPDATED 11:30 a.m.: Crews work through snow, ice to restore power to nearly 29,000 members

So in about 12 hours, they’ve restored power to about 1000 out of 29,000. One of the articles says they expect full restoration to take “several days”. Their math looks very optimistic.

On my way home with my kerosene, I encountered the guys who live on the farm and help my brother with the cattle. They were stopped in the road talking to a neighbor. They approached me and asked if my tractor would start, as they hadn’t been able to find one that would and they needed to feed cattle. I said I thought mine would probably start after being plugged in for a while. I said I’d go home and plug it in and they could come get it after about an hour. As they drove away, I suddenly realized: “DUH .. plug it into WHAT?” I don’t know whether that thought didn’t occur to them either, or whether they just thought I had a generator or some other power source. Considering their own futile efforts to start their own or find anybody else with one that would start, they should have been less likely to forget that plugging in block heaters was not an option.

So I went home and filled my kerosene heater, which required an hour after filling before it could be lit. With an hour to waste, I figured I might as well see what I could do with the tractor. I found a can of ether, gave it a quick squirt, hit the secret cold-start button on the injector pump, and it started. It might not be so coöperative in a few days when temperatures drop into the single digits, and it doesn’t look like electric heat will be an option then either.

Pondering this, along with the thought that my truck probably isn’t going to start anytime soon, led me to another question. What if my only vehicle was a diesel which needed electric heat for cold-weather starts? Or what if it was a plug-in hybrid, or some other type of electric vehicle which could not travel far without a boost from the electric grid? I had not previously considered the electric grid’s unreliability as a strike against electric vehicles, but it
would suck not to be able to drive for a couple of weeks.

That’s about all I have to say for now. I may have more to say as the outage continues, or I may recall previous events that I haven’t mentioned here. But that’s it for now.

Update … since probably nobody has read this yet, I’ll just post a quick update here instead of a new entry.

I just talked to my parents. I called their cellphone, and my sister answered. She had swapped phones with them so they could have a working phone and she could charge theirs. So then I called her phone and Mom answered.

They now have kerosene, although they have not yet lit their heater. I’m less worried now, since they told me it’s a new one. After the trouble I had with mine, which hadn’t been used since the last ice storm, I was afraid they were going to wait until the weather got really cold and find their heater didn’t work. My problems eventually required dismantling the heater, cleaning it, lighting it while it was still in pieces, and then re-assembling it while it was lit. Now that I know theirs is fresh out of the box, I feel a little better.

The power line from the transformer to their house is down and has pulled the meter loose, so in addition to BG Energy, they also need a private electrician to fix that. They’ve already had an electrician look at it, and now are waiting for the county road department to take out a tree which is blocking truck access. Their phone line runs the same path as the power line, so it may be out too. With their phone non-functional without power, they don’t know. I’m going to take them a phone this afternoon, which will either give them more reliable contact with the outside world, or let us know that they also need ATT to come fix the phone line.

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