Chill Out! Part 1

A friend inspired this bit of Photoshop magic I performed on my son's truck.


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This coming Saturday is the anniversary of a historic event.  Nine years ago, on that date, the lives of millions of Americans were sent spiraling out of control.  Many found that much of what they had always assumed was dependable and unchanging was actually anything but.

Saturday is the anniversary of, “The Big Freeze.”


On Monday January 27, 2009, an ice storm hit a large portion of the Midwestern and southern US, including our home in the Bootheel of Missouri.  Most of the area was plunged into darkness as power-poles were shattered and lines snapped under the weight of ice two inches thick or more.  Trees that had stood for hundreds of years were splintered.  Houses were without heat as temperatures dipped well below freezing.  Pump stations went down due to lack of electricity, denying water to a lot of thirsty folks.  Toilets didn’t flush and homes slowly filled with the horrible odor.  Then a boil water order was issued when water service was restored.

I gained an education in the days during and after the storm.  Many of the things I learned will, hopefully, help my family to be better prepared for future disasters.  Perhaps they can also help yours.


What did I learn?

The time to prepare is before the emergency happens.  I own both a Coleman© lantern and camp stove.  I always assumed they would be handy when I needed them.  After the power went out, disabling our electric stove and lights, we quickly located the lantern.  We couldn’t find the stove so we had to eat foods that did not require cooking or cook in my mothers’ fireplace until Mom got her electricity back.  I assume one of my six sons “borrowed” my camp stove.  I never did find out which one.


Hardship magnifies personality, both good and bad.  Numerous thefts of generators were documented in our area.  Homes vacated by residents lucky enough to be able to travel elsewhere to weather the storm were broken into and looted.

The flipside of the character issue was exemplified by my (then) 18-year-old son, Andy, and my 10-year-old, Patrick.  After an hour or two the first day “chilling” in front of Gran’s fireplace, the two went to work.  First, they cleaned up the several pickup truck loads of tree limbs in my mom’s yard, and then they went around cleaning up other people’s yards.  Yes, they made some money, but they only suggested a price if the owners insisted.  Otherwise, they let the property owner make an offer and then agreed to it, no matter what it was.

In addition, they helped evacuate an elderly couple to safety and helped move a family whose house burned during the disaster, rounding up furniture and other necessities to help them out.  My sons refused compensation for any of that.


I found that some people have the survivor attitude, and some do not.  While my family was eager to get our electricity back on, lack of it was really only a minor problem for us.  Even while we were still in the midst of our 20 days without power, others who already had their power restored were still complaining about how awful it was.  One of my acquaintances was so stressed out by the inconvenience that I thought she might have a nervous breakdown.  Meanwhile, my family took showers (our gas water heater doesn’t require electricity) in a house that was often barely above freezing; ran the generator to operate our furnace long enough to warm the house first thing in the morning and before bedtime; then slept under lots of blankets.  I never missed a single minute of work at my full time job while others called in several times.


Lack of heat and sub-freezing temps do not automatically mean frozen and burst water pipes.  If your home will remain empty or temperatures will dip below 20°F, shut off the supply line to the house and open all faucets so that the water can drain back.  Flush toilets and pour a little antifreeze in all drains.  If you have a gas supply and a gas water heater, you may not have to drain it, but you should drain electric water heaters that will be at risk of freezing.  Any water heater that is to be drained must have NO heat applied to it so shut off the breaker switch or gas supply to it.  Refill the water heater BEFORE turning the heat source back on.  Otherwise, you could ruin your water heater, and maybe even cause a leak that can damage your house.

An alternative, if temps don’t get too extreme, is to leave the faucets running gently.  Running water comes from buried pipes that are normally above freezing temperatures.  It could be expensive to use this approach if you don’t turn off the heat source to your water heater.  This method works pretty well in a house when outside temperatures don’t get below 20°F at night and daytime temperatures at least approach 32°F.


I learned that common sense is not nearly common enough.  A corollary is that not everyone knows many things that I once assumed were general knowledge.  When the electricity went out, people hooked up generators to run appliances, televisions, etc.  We put the one we borrowed from my wife’s parents in our barn and ran extension cords to the house and my studio.  Several area people, however, were sickened and some died from breathing CO (carbon monoxide) due to improperly placed generators.  While exhaust fumes stink, the carbon monoxide that is part of the exhaust is odorless.  A generator placed on a carport or inside a garage might not be smelled inside the house, but that doesn’t mean that CO is not seeping in around the door or windows.  Along with your smoke detector, you are always best advised to have a working CO detector; even during good weather a malfunctioning gas appliance can emit the deadly gas.


I now know how much maintenance a generator requires.  I’ve used a lot of gas engines over the years, but didn’t know before the storm that you have to change the oil in a generator after only 25 hours of use.  Several people I know of invested $1000 or more in a generator that didn’t last through the ice storm, due to improper maintenance.  Read your owner’s manual!  I’ve also found that generators can be cantankerous.  When the temperatures were low, I would have to stand with the generator we used and adjust the choke until the motor warmed up enough to run without me.  The alternative was to have the generator die before I could get back to the house, then have to wait 10 minutes or more before trying to start it again.


DO NOT wire a generator directly in to house wiring unless you are well trained.  Besides the damage that can be done to your personal electronics, YOU could be responsible for serious injury or death to emergency personnel trying to restore power to your area.  Just because the grid is down doesn’t mean that electricity you put into it won’t go to the first ground it can find, even if that ground is some poor lineman who has volunteered to help get electricity back to you.  Besides, your generator will work much more efficiently if it is plugged into only the appliances you want it to run, and not into miles of downed power lines, leaking the electricity you are producing all over the place.


When the power comes back on, you are not necessarily out of the woods.  Electric company personnel recommended that people turn off the main power switch in their home’s breaker box until they were sure power had been restored to their house, and that there were no dangers to their wiring.  Even after power was restored to our home, we suffered outages daily for a time while the kinks were worked out.  One such “hiccup” caused our computers to lose their internet programming.  It was only a minor aggravation, as my friendly internet service provider talked me through the process and I was back online within half an hour.  Others were not so lucky, as they lost expensive electronics to power surges.


A wood or gas stove, or even the much-maligned fireplace, can be a lifesaver.  High insurance rates precluded the installation of a wood stove when our house was built.  The power outage prevented our gas furnace from heating our house, as, even though the heat was produced by burning LP gas the lighter and blower were both electric.  When my sons and I built my studio in our machine shed however, I installed a gas heater.  The stove in my studio did not need electricity to operate, so my 600 square foot office could have stayed warm the whole time.  My mother refused to leave her home in town for the few days it took her to get power back, so I slept on her couch to keep her fireplace stoked.  When I was at work, my wife or sons kept Mom’s home fires burning.  Thanks to the ice storm and my sons, there was no shortage of firewood.


Speaking of Mom reminds me of another fact.  No matter how well you have prepared, others who matter to you may have failed to do so, and their lack of planning may undo some of your own preparation.  Also, their strategies can directly influence, even compromise, yours.

Mom, with her insistence on shelter in case of tornado, and the fact that she canned food for most of my life, is part of the reason that I have an enthusiasm for being prepared.  In her eighties at the time of the storm, her refusal to leave her home is understandable, even though it added to the complexity of our problems.  Of course you don’t abandon your mother in a bad situation, so we relocated to her house in town until her power and the accompanying comforts/necessities, were restored.  She got everything back within a few days and we returned to our house to live in, what some would consider, primitive conditions, until everything was back to a more normal situation.


Thus ends part one of this post.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it and learned something too.  I’ll post part two next week.



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The photos below are of some I took of the devastation wrought by the Big Freeze.



6 Comments on "Chill Out! Part 1"

  1. Travis Matthews | January 25, 2018 at 11:10 pm | Reply

    Great post! Loves the part about keeping the linemen safe!

    • Thanks. I wrote the original of this before you decided to be a lineman and included that part then. Ain’t I smart! 🙂

  2. Bobby Matthews | January 26, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Reply

    I remember eating in the chow hall when the news broke about the storms in the mid-west. I remember being a little anxious to hear from you guys but at the same time knew you had everything in hand. I remember the winters spent up in Northern Missouri and the summer vacations in Canada. What was a little Ice Storm? Ha ha. My family and many other’s in that area were proof that being prepared before hand, even if that means just a few days of extra food and water can make all the difference.

  3. Good job to all of you that helped out!!

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