Surviving A Snow Disaster At Home
A personal experience
Today’s news cycles expose us to disasters almost on a daily basis. So much so that it is easy to become complacent about these things. We can forget that these are indeed real events that happen to real, and usually unsuspecting people. Just like you. And just as frequently as the disasters themselves, we are reminded to be prepared. Surprisingly, most of us still are not. Because of this, even the most sophisticated homeowners and their homes can get caught off guard when they occur. And the sneakiest, most brutal perpetrator of all is Mother Nature.
I was harshly reminded of this by a sudden ‘”freak” snowstorm in my hometown of Roseburg, Oregon. A place that supposedly “never gets bad snows”.
It started off Sunday morning, February 24, 2019 as a light but steady rain. It was my birthday and I celebrated by sleeping in a bit then going for a late-morning Benedict breakfast out. After breakfast the rain picked up, so I drove down to the river to see how high it had come with all the recent rain. It was up pretty high! There is a place here where two rivers come together and now, in full flood, it’s very impressive to watch. Mixed in with the rain were flakes of snow that drifted down and became a slush on the river park roads. Having seen the rising river, I headed back to the house and parked my SUV in the garage.
About 2PM the temperature dropped. The steady rain transformed into giant, fluffy flakes of snow. These snowflakes stuck to everything and built up quickly. I had a great view of the storm from our kitchen window. I set up my laptop on the counter, made a nice hot coffee and leisurely watched the snow softly piling up.
Over the next few hours, the snow depth increased quietly and steadily, then dramatically. By 5 PM the weight of this wet sticky snow began to take a toll on the local oak trees. Every few minutes the snow’s muffled silence was broken by an echoing sound of a limb breaking off from a tree and thudding down. Close by, I could hear the drawn-out snaps of a tree splitting completely apart. It was my neighbor’s front yard oak and part of it blocked his driveway. I discovered later, but unknown to me at the time, a falling limb had deftly wiped out a section of our pasture fence.
Just after 6PM another falling limb or tree somewhere in the neighborhood snapped our powerline and the house went dark and silent. Cell phone and internet service went away as well. In only a few hours, the day had turned from a cozy watching of snowflakes, hot coffee in hand, to an ordeal. The weather had been creeping up on us all day, and had finally reached the tipping point.
Now it was snowing heavily, getting cold and it was dark. When the power went away my first thought was “oh shit, what now?” Later, I would ask myself why I was not better prepared? But for now, I had to act. Sunlight was already fading when the power died so my first reaction was to find a flashlight. The first drawer I rummaged in had one. I tried it. Dead. The next drawer had a small flashlight with about ten little LED bulbs. It felt light and cheap. It worked great!
Next, I looked for some candles because you can’t chase away gloom in a house with just a flashlight. Six drawers and two cabinets later I hit the jackpot in our laundry room. My wife had an entire supply of big candles for just about every occasion known to man. Most were big, brand new, rather overpackaged and with strong fragrances like sandal-woody, mama mango or vanilla dew me. I may have some of these wrong. Funny smelling or not, they would give off the light I wanted so I got them all out and I was very happy.
Now I needed something to light the candles with. Matches would work but, where were they? I remember seeing log lighters everywhere in the past. I didn’t know why until now-the candles. The Wife thinks of everything.
The first log lighter I came across looked promising but in fact became a flame thrower in my hand. I tried using it to light the first three candles and almost burned the house down before deciding to find another. Using the cheap, but great-working little flashlight, I located a working lighter in my tool chest of all places. It worked flawlessly for the entire ordeal. In short order I had a candle lit in the bathroom, two in the bedroom, two in the living room, one in the dining room and six in the kitchen. I now had plenty of flickering light and it smelled like a message parlor.
At this point, it was close to 7PM and except for my glowing candles, it was dark! Outside, there was no light visible anywhere on the horizon. But then it was snowing so hard I’m not sure I could have seen anything anyway. Power was obviously out everywhere and that meant it might be out for a while. Meantime, I was getting hungry. Food.
The couple days earlier I had splurged and brought home a fantastic looking prime cut rib-eye from the store. I noticed as I was getting the steak out that the refer was dark inside. Naturally, no power. I made a mental note to leave the door closed as much as possible to conserve the cold. This turns out to have been a good decision.
Now how to cook? Our cooktop is natural gas with electronic igniters. No problem with the power out, I just used the log lighter. Worked like a charm. Now I can cook. The best steaks are pan fried anyway so 15 minutes later my steak is ready along with a can of stewed tomatoes and a beer (it’s my birthday after all.) Not a four-course meal but close and not bad either. No birthday cake, thank you very much. But I did have candles!
Note: An electric cooktop would have been a problem. If you have an electric cooktop in your home, it will be useless once the power is out. Get a back-up propane camp stove and keep it where you can get to it easily. A two or three-burner model is best (plus some extra propane bottles) especially if the outage drags on for any length.
In the glow of my candles, I was fed and had my wits about me, so I decided to take stock of the situation.
- Snowing hard, no end in sight. Bad
- Trees down and all roads blocked. Bad
- Alone and no means of communication. Bad
- Battery low on my cell phone. Bad
- Battery low on laptop. Bad
- 4wd SUV parked in garage with full tank. Good
- No heat. Bad
- No hot water. Bad
- Cold water available. Good
- Food available 1-2 weeks. Good
- Electric coffeemaker. Bad
- Gas cooktop. Good
The score was 8 to 4 with the “bad” winning. At this point in the ordeal, I had no way of knowing how long I would be without power, nor that I could not get out with my car. Even so, it occurred to me that I had better get creative.
Once power was gone, I was immediately made aware of how much this new and otherwise state-of-the-art house depended on electricity. In an instant this nice cozy warm and well-lit home, became dark, foreboding and was getting colder by the minute.
- The gas fireplace in the living room was on prior to the power outage but it went out immediately along with the power and was now cold. The remotes had no effect in getting either of the fireplaces to come back on.
- The electric floor heat was also out for the duration. This did not concern me since the home is well insulated and I knew it would hold heat for quite a while. The forced air furnaces use an electric blower to move the heat throughout the home, so they were dead.
- The demand water heater also uses electricity to ignite and circulate the hot water and it was dead. The gas cooktop has electric igniters, but I found a way around that right away with the log lighter. The water pump runs on electricity of course. The outdoor hot tub is electrically heated. All the appliances, disposers, toasters, coffeemakers and the six refrigerators are all electric. The garage door operators are electric, and the two kitchen faucets operate hands free electrically. Basically, everything that makes a home comfortable and fun to live-in these days needs power, even the bed.
During the first hours I secretly doubted that power would be out for very long. It never is around here, so my strategy was mostly short term. My thinking was to just get by for a day or two till the utility crews could get the power back on. I knew the home was well insulated, so even with power off it would not get cold for at least a couple days anyway. I’d wear a jacket if needed and go to bed early.
What I really needed was to keep my phone charged in case the service came back on. That was easy enough to do with the car charger. But since I had my car parked in the garage, I had to open the garage door and point the tailpipe outside. The garage door operator was dead, so I had to open the door manually by pulling the red emergency cord and pushing the door open.
The snow kept up for two solid days and piled up about 10-12” in depth. It blocked my driveway preventing escape by car. Even if I could have gotten out there was nowhere to go. The falling trees had blocked roads and knocked down power lines up and down every street for miles in every direction. I learned Tuesday afternoon from an incoming text, that the damage from this freakish storm extended from Eugene to Ashland OR on the I5 corridor.
I was wrong about the house cooling off slowly. With the warm floors off, the bare tiles became cold and acted like a heat sink literally sucking the heat right out of the house. It got cold as hell surprisingly fast.
The cold was bearable though for two reasons. First, I kept two big pots of water boiling all the time. This kept the kitchen fairly warm and also provided instant hot water to cook, make coffee and wash with. I kept the pots filled with snow from the patio just outside the kitchen door. Second, I went to bed early. The foam bed with flannel sheets and two comforters was a pleasant surprise. It was toasty warm and comfortable every night without fail.
Our hometown had been soaked with steady rains for weeks before this big snow. The weight of the snow easily uprooted big, tall conifers from the soft ground. Just outside of town, at some of the higher elevations thousands of pine, cedar and Douglas fir trees lay everywhere. This effectively closed every road and trapped people wherever they happened to be. In the lower areas, the oak trees had big heavy outstretched limbs ripped off by the snow.
Tuesday morning the storm slowed long enough for some folks to go outside and assess damage. I could only venture out about 110 yards on foot and it wasn’t pretty. Trees had flattened cars. I was worried about a beautifully shaped oak in our front pasture, so I went out and knocked the snow off of the most precarious looking branches. This was not an easy chore I’ll tell you, but it may have saved our tree.
Power lines were laying startlingly in the roadways. Cars were driving over them. As mentioned above, my neighbor’s oak tree had fallen in front of his garage door. I had a faint cell signal and my outgoing cell transmissions were garbled and incoherent. But I could get incoming information clearly. A call from my wife who was travelling in AZ with our horses, informed me to brace myself. Another storm was heading our way.
My wife’s prediction was right, of course. By Tuesday late afternoon things got worse. Temperatures dropped and once again it started snowing. By nightfall another 4-5” was laying on top of the first batch.
We live in a horse centric community. There is a community area that includes a nice big barn with both outdoor and indoor arenas for all of the residents to use. Sometime during the night, the snow load became too much for the big indoor arena roof and it collapsed.
A close-by neighbor said it sounded like an explosion, but with all the other turmoil going on just assumed it was another big tree going down. No one ventured out into the cold storm to investigate. Our home was just 300 yards away, and I did not hear anything. The damage was discovered the next day by one of the homeowners who was going in for a ride. She was very fortunate to have missed the big event. Seven horses were in the barn at the time and must have been pretty startled to see their roof fall in. Fortunately, none of them were hurt.
Wednesday morning was spent trudging through deep snow to lead seven frightened and nervous horses three hundred yards to our barn for temporary shelter. For the rest of the morning, neighbors pitched in to clear the heavy snow off the surviving barn roof. By late Wednesday afternoon, the third day everyone was cold and exhausted. All power was still off. Across the river from our property a cell tower had been reactivated and now provided cell phone service and some limited internet. I was back in contact with the rest of the world.
After a quick search online I learned that my fireplace models should have had backup battery systems that allow them to work without power. Duh!To get to the back-up system, the front panel had to be removed and a heavy access plate disassembled. I thought this was an awful lot of work just to service the batteries. No wonder they were dead. When I finally got the plate off, I found the system and the problem. There were no batteries installed in either fireplace. The installer had left them out. A quick rummage through the drawers again found a box of new AA batteries and in 10 minutes both fireplaces were running full out to give me HEAT! After three days in the cold I felt like I had hit the lottery.
Now I had a phone, internet and heat. Things were looking up. About that time, my wife sends me a text reminding me that there was a small Honda generator sitting in the back of our horse trailer. Wow, I really had hit the lottery. It was full of fuel and in less than 15 minutes that little 2200-watt generator was running.
I used it to power up the garage refrigerator because its cord was easy to access. I cleaned everything out of the built-in kitchen fridge and jammed it into the garage fridge. One problem remained with the generator. I had no extra cans of gasoline for it. No matter, I was so elated with having some power that I did not let that bother me.
Once I had the generator working, I had to figure out how to best use it with the remaining gas. I guessed it had maybe 3 hours of running time, max. So I put out a call for more fuel. Meantime I let the generator run for an hour on the refer, then decided that I would plug it into my Navien on-demand water heater. Bingo, in literally 10 minutes I had an endless stream of hot water flowing and the first shower in 4 days. I was really living high now.
I was still in the dark with just temporary power but once the extra gasoline came everything was good. Rotating the generator to various jobs would keep the computer and the phone charged, the one refrigerator cold, and I could take a hot shower. Bravo!!
On Friday, 116 hours after going out, the power finally came on again. I am reflecting back on this several hours later, while it is still fresh. I’m glad it’s over for me but I am also sure there are people out there still without power or food and likely in worse shape than I ever was. My heart goes out to them.
Emergency Hacks For Winter Survival At Home
Here are some lessons I learned about surviving a snow disaster at home.
- No matter how prepared you think you are for a disaster, you probably are not!
- Don’t trivialize weather warnings from the experts… no matter how many times they have been wrong.
- Electricity is a fickle friend. Ask yourself how things will work if it goes away?
- The first day is the hardest.
- If power goes off in winter, this is what you’ll need… right away:
- A handy flashlight with good batteries.
- Spare batteries of all sizes
- Candles, about 20 or 30 big chunky ones
- A working log lighter or matches
- A gas cook stove (non-electric)
- Food, keep enough for 5-10 days
- Eat fresh and frozen stuff first save cans for later
- Small Honda generator and 100’ extension cords or bigger generators if possible
- 10 gallons of gas
- 50-100 gallons of gallons of water
No matter how well your home is constructed, I can tell you now right that all modern homes are too heavily reliant on electricity from the grid. You realize this very quickly when the power goes off. Electric sewer ejectors, electric warm floors, gas furnaces (have electric fans), gas on-demand water heaters need electricity to ignite and circulate the hot water, gas fireplaces and cooktops all have electronic igniters. All lights, ventilation, pumps, tools, garage doors are electric. When the power goes off, you will need to have a back-up plan for each item.