Siege, Part 1



Early in the morning on Sunday, December 22, 2013, I was awakened by an unusal sound. It was almost as if the washing machine was running in the basement, but I knew nobody was doing any laundry. Since the water was coming on and going off at intervals, I suspected it might be the backup water-pressure sump pump we’d had the plumber install when he was here to renovate the bathroom. A little bit later Priscilla woke up because she was hot and asked me to turn on the ceiling fan. The switch was already on. That was when we both knew we had a power outage. A severe ice storm had been forecast for the overnight, and widespread power outages of potentially long duration had been mentioned as a danger.

I went down to check the basement. While our regular electric sump pump wasn’t working, the basement was still dry because the backup was indeed running. We’d fought many battles with invading ground water during our years in Michigan. Situated among the Great Lakes, the state has a high water table. One time we returned from a trip to find several inches of water in our basement. We spent days cleaning up afterwards. We’d realized that we wouldn’t have the time or strength to fight any more of these battles during Priscilla’s illness, so we got the backup pump. Only three months after it was installed, it was doing exactly what we needed it to do.

We realized that we weren’t going to church that morning, so we turned off the alarm clock. This allowed us both to sleep in until 9:00. Then, not knowing how long a siege we were in for, we performed the first task of crisis management when no one is in imminent danger: we inventoried our resources. We still had running water. Our gas stove could be started with matches, so we could boil the water to make hot drinks, and we could cook hot meals. Our “land line” telephone still worked, so we could call friends for help and information. And we had a small generator that would allow us to use at least some electrical appliances.

A generator just like this one was a key resource during the power outage.
A generator just like this one was a key resource for us during the power outage.

A former neighbor had given us this generator when he moved away a few years before. Back in April, before we’d settled on getting the backup pump, I’d brought it around to the side of the house so I could feed an extension cord through a basement window and keep the electric pump running. Only two days before the outage, with the ice storm forecast, I’d started the generator and operated it for a while to make sure it would work for us right away if we needed it. Now, once it became apparent that the power wasn’t coming on any time soon, I got the generator going and plugged in the electric pump, to keep our water bill from being the next cataclysm.

We used the gas stove to make oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast. Then we decided to have “church” anyway, by listening to one of my Christmas sermons from years past. We pulled out our old battery-operated cassette player, since the sermon was on tape. The batteries had expired ten years before. But somewhat to our surprise, we discovered four new “C” batteries in our freezer, where we stored our supply of various sizes to keep them fresh.  So the congregation settled in to hear the message.

After “church” we called a good friend who lived just a couple of blocks away. Her home still had power. Her first response to hearing about our situation was to invite Priscilla and me to come and stay with her family for the duration. One thing we didn’t have was heat—we had a gas furnace, but it had an electric thermostat—and Priscilla’s condition was aggravated by cold. It made her muscles much weaker and caused her to shiver uncontrollably. We knew from previous experiences that if she got too cold, it could take her days to recover her strength once she got warmed up again. However, there was also the question of safety. We’d just done two renovations to provide mobility and prevent falls. So we decided, after deliberating with our friend, that Priscilla was best off at home, and that this was where we should make our stand.

Later in the day this friend brought two space heaters over to us. Temperatures had been in the low 30s (hence the ice storm), but they were forecast to go much lower in the days ahead. Mercifully we owned a good supply of long extension cords. (Priscilla got them so she could roam all over our property with her hedge trimmer and electric chain saw!) I plugged another cord into the generator and ran it through the basement window, across the floor, and up the stairs so we could use one of these space heaters in our living room. The first was a “fan” type, and the second was a “radiator” type. We experimented to see which would be warmer. They seemed to work about the same.

I ran another line to our basement freezer and relocated all perishable frozen items there. I moved the refrigerated perishables out into our garage, which was just about the right temperature for them. I pulled our emergency radio out of our basement “tornado shelter” and put fresh batteries in it as well.  (Yes, Michigan is a tornado state; we’d had one pass within a couple of miles of us a few years before.) We had a large flashlight that we’d also been keeping in the shelter, but only a few weeks before I’d moved it upstairs. I’d realized we’d likely be there when we first needed it, and that it would defeat the whole purpose of having the flashlight if I had to grope my way down into the basement to find it in the dark!

These measures unfolded over the course of the day. Now it was getting to be dinner time. We’d actually cooked a large meal the night before and there were plenty of leftovers in the skillet. We warmed these up on the gas stove and had a hot supper. I put a power strip on the end of the extension cord that ran up the stairs so we could plug a lamp into it along with the space heater (although there would have been nothing wrong with a candlelight dinner, either).

After we ate, I refueled the generator and drove to our neighborhood gas station (mercifully only a few blocks away) to fill all of our gas cans. We had over 9 gallons in reserve, by my calculations enough to make it through the night if necessary. With the situation stabilized, Priscilla sat on the couch reading by lamplight. I sat next to her and, though we had no idea how many more days the power outage might last, I promptly fell asleep—the sleep of a relieved man who has heat, light, and a dry basement.

To be continued

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