Our part of the country isn’t known for major snowstorms. So, when the weather forecast issued a winter snow warning, I didn’t think much would come of it. I assured my wife exactly that.
I was wrong.
Although short by north woods standards, the storm was intense and dropped three feet of wet, heavy snow on the region in about 4 hours. It broke over 600 power utility poles in our rural electric co-op service area alone, knocking out power to some 98,000 people locally for anywhere from three days to a week and a half.
The rest of the affected multi-state region suffered similar damage. With temperatures in the teens, that was a dangerous situation for the people who suddenly found themselves with no heat, light, or running water. This was compounded further by the fact that our region, not being used to big snowstorms, wasn’t prepared to deal with one.
The power co-op had to bring in crews from other states, and the county roads went unplowed for days. That left it up to citizens to fend for themselves and get out with chainsaws to remove fallen trees from the roadways. In other words, everyone was on their own.
Sort of like they would be in a major SHTF scenario.
We hadn’t lived in our little house on 5 acres out in the country for very long, so there were a couple of critical preparedness tools that we didn’t have. For one, we had no generator. For another, we had no wood stove. Both are important when you have no electricity in the winter. Another problem was that without electricity, we couldn’t pump water from our well to the house.
Not Completely Unprepared
Just because you can’t do everything to be prepared, you should still do everything you can. I’m an old Boy Scout who always took the motto ‘Be Prepared’ seriously. I have also lived under some pretty rough conditions around the world in my lifetime, so I try to be as self-sufficient as possible.
I’m well-trained in survival skills, and I’ve passed a lot of that on to my wife. I’m also increasingly cynical about the future of society. So we were not totally unprepared for the crisis we suddenly found ourselves in and did have some supplies to enable us to survive in the event of anything from a short-term emergency up to TEOTWAWKI.
The snowstorm and related power outages started in the minor emergency category and gradually, over the days, got more and more serious. It reached a point where we were relying on our preparedness to get through it.
I thought it might be worthwhile to walk through the episode to review what went wrong and what went right. Just like training in the military, you should never pass up an opportunity to conduct an after-action review to improve your ability to respond to any situation.
Day 1: Monday
The power failed at around 9:00 am on Monday. We’d just finished breakfast. We’ve had power failures in the past that lasted from a few hours up to 22 hours. But nothing over a day, so we hoped this would be no exception.
As it turned out, I was wrong again.
Fortunately, we were prepared with emergency supplies that included:
- portable propane heaters
- propane camp and butane backpacking stoves
- bottles of propane and butane
- battery powered lights mounted in strategic locations around the house
- plenty of batteries of all sizes
- two fully charged lithium chargers for charging phones
- supplies of drinking water and utility water for things like flushing toilets and washing
- food that was easily prepared with boiling water for a minimum of mess and effort
- warm clothes and sleeping bags
- 4-wheel drive SUV with a full tank of gas (Always keep your gas tank full)
Even though I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, I wasn’t overly concerned. Only time would tell how well we were prepared and what shortfalls would become evident.
Kind of Like Camping
When lunchtime came, it was actually kind of fun setting up the camp stove and whipping up a nice hot lunch. It was sort of like camping. Houses hold a certain amount of heat, which diminishes over time, but it wasn’t all that uncomfortable the first day with a propane heater to keep the chill off.
We read, played handheld video games, and kept ourselves busy without our computers. When night arrived, we lit candles and used the battery-powered lights around the house. We prepared supper and enjoyed some hot drinks before bedtime.
Anyone who has camped in the winter knows that the only time you’re really warm is when you’re in your sleeping bag. The same holds true for a house with no heat during a winter power failure, so we went to bed early. We read a little by the battery-powered lights before going to sleep.
Day 2 – Tuesday
Tuesday morning dawned cold and wintery. The heavy snow weighed down the tree branches like a scene from a Christmas card. We had multiple large branches down in our yard and lots of trees down in the nearby wood line.
We ate our usual cold breakfast with hot drinks. In any survival situation, it’s important to keep up as much of your normal routine as possible. It passes time, and it’s good for morale. So, we went out for our usual morning walk to put out bird seeds for the wild birds. The snow was beautiful, but it was obvious this had been a serious storm. A walk down our long unpaved driveway revealed that there had been no attempt to plow the county road we lived on.
No Help from the Power Company
I called the power co-op to see when they estimated they would have the power restored. The recording told me to go to their website for information or to report a power outage. I’m not sure why they thought people without power would be able to sit at their PC to check a website when there was no power or internet. But such is the logic of our modern age.
I had no desire to run my phone battery down trying to open their website on the poor connectivity where we live. I eventually reached a live person who bluntly informed me not to expect the power to be restored at least until the end of the week, possibly longer.
We had a fair stock of propane for heating and cooking. I set up a system to ration it so we could make it last. As I mentioned, a house without power will retain a degree of heat, but only for so long, I knew it was going to get colder in the house, even with a portable heater going.
Be Good to Yourself
In any crisis, it’s important to treat yourself to whatever good things you can to maintain your physical and emotional well-being. Another walk through the snow indicated that our road still wasn’t plowed, but there had been some 4-wheel drive traffic.
We decided to see if we could get to town 10 miles away. Maybe there were some restaurants open, and a big meal would be nice. There was a lot of snow, but I just shoveled a path to our SUV, and we climbed in to break a trail down our long driveway to the road.
It pays to have a 4-wheel drive truck or SUV. You may not need it very often, but when you do, you do. There was evidence that people had tried to get out of their driveways in cars and even a front-wheel drive SUV without success.
Having a 4-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance to negotiate deep snow and rough terrain can be critical in an emergency. The snow was heavy and deep enough that even an all-wheel drive car would never have made it to the end of our driveway.
Between the snow and downed trees, it took us longer than usual to get to town. There was power in town, and after several tries, we found one of our favorite restaurants open. It was good to enjoy a big hot meal in a nice warm setting.
Most People Fail to Prepare
Since we were out anyway, we decided to check out a couple of stores to see if there was anything on the shelves. It was pretty much as I expected, with a huge crowd of people in lines with carts full of whatever they could find. We took one look and walked back out.
In most emergency situations, whether they are natural disasters or man-made crises such as pandemics or social unrest, most people will not be prepared. They will crowd the stores desperately trying to acquire everything they never bothered to stock up on before the crisis hit. Add to this the fact that supply chains will be overwhelmed or otherwise impacted by the same crisis, and stores will very quickly empty out. That is when people will panic and start to get aggressive in their frenzy to get whatever they can get their hands on. Fortunately, we always buy extra wherever we go shopping, so we didn’t need to worry.
Back home with a full stomach and the warm feeling that we were better prepared than many people, we settled in for another cold night. We spent the evening talking by candlelight and were very glad we had the battery lights mounted in places like the bathrooms, kitchen, and bedroom.
By now, the house was cooling down noticeably, so we used the propane heater to keep the worst of the chill off. We dressed for warmth in warm fleeces and thick socks. The smarter of our two cats curled up in front of the propane heater while the other one lay burrowed under a blanket on the sofa.
Paradoxically, even though it was cold in the house, the food in the freezer was beginning to thaw out. The ice cream was a complete write-off, but we hoped the other frozen food would be okay. After a light supper and some hot drinks, we went to bed.
Alcohol is Not a Good Thing
My wife was texting with her family and friends in Europe, where she grew up, and one of them jokingly suggested we get drunk so we wouldn’t notice the cold. This is a good time to point out that this is not a good idea. Alcohol may make you think that you’re warm, but in reality, it does just the opposite.
Drinking alcohol causes the blood vessels just below your skin to dilate, increasing the flow of blood and body heat to the limbs, which causes a sensation of warmth. But this actually leads to heat loss, resulting in a lower core body temperature.
You might feel like you’re warm because your skin is warm, but your vital organs aren’t getting enough blood to work normally and keep you warm inside. Caffeine is also not recommended in the cold because it is a diuretic, which causes you to urinate more, thereby losing body heat. Hot cocoa, herbal tea, and decaf are all good drinks to have to warm up when it’s cold.
As we went to bed, we were still hopeful that the power would come back on within the next 24 hours. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
Day 3 – Wednesday
Wednesday morning was noticeably colder in the house when we woke up, and we spent some extra time lying in bed since that was the warmest spot in the house. Getting up to use the bathroom in the night had been reminiscent of going to the outhouse or getting up while camping to crawl out of the tent into the cold night.
We could see our breath in some parts of the house. Getting out of the warm blankets to quickly get dressed was bracing, to say the least.
Maintaining a Routine
In any long-term emergency, it’s important to try to maintain as regular a schedule of activity as possible without doing things that may jeopardize your health. Getting up, getting dressed, and having breakfast, then going out to feed the birds helped us feel more normal. There was no undue risk, and it helped sustain a positive emotional state.
It’s all too easy to become discouraged and even depressed in a situation where you are never truly warm, can’t prepare the kind of meals you are used to, and have very little to do to keep busy. Worse, you are at the complete mercy of others, in this case, the power co-op, to rectify the situation.
The Freezer Paradox
It was ironic that the house kept getting colder while the freezer got warmer. It was apparent that the food in the freezer was not going to stay frozen much longer. Rather than just let it thaw out and go bad, we loaded it all into a cooler full of snow, and I buried it in a snowdrift in the shade. Most of it survived, although there were a few things we had to discard.
The road still wasn’t plowed, but by now, there was a well-packed set of tracks into town, so we ventured out to find another restaurant for a hot lunch. While some experts might counsel that it is better to stay put in an emergency, that depends on the type of emergency. If it is a disaster like an earthquake that has caused widespread damage, then if your home is intact and well-supplied, stay there.
In our case, while travel had its risks, such as slippery roads and downed trees, they were manageable. One of the greatest difficulties was two vehicles passing in opposite directions on a one-lane set of wheel ruts. At one point, we and another truck hit side mirrors passing by each other, but we both just kept going.
In our case, the rewards outweighed the risks. A nice hot meal and the warmth in the SUV and restaurant outweighed the minor risk of the 20-mile round trip.
Thinking Outside the Box
We weren’t out of propane…yet, but I thought getting a few more bottles would be nice. I knew that there wouldn’t be any available in any store in town and that the gas and time expended trying to find some would be wasted.
I decided that supplementing our supply of propane would require some thinking outside the box. There is a KOA campground off one of the roads between our house and town. Maybe they would have some in their little store. We decided to check.
The campground was a disaster area. There were trees and power lines down everywhere. I later found out that two motorhomes had been hit by falling trees. One of them was totally destroyed, but fortunately, no one was seriously injured. They had no power, including in their little store, but I didn’t let that stop me from checking.
I found the owner driving his ATV and explained that I was a neighbor and that I was trying to find some one-pound propane bottles. I offered to pay them in cash. He, being a good ol’ country boy, was more than willing to help out. He took me into the dim store and “sold” me a few bottles of propane. Since they had no power, they couldn’t ring up the sale, and he and I agreed that I would come back and pay for them once the power was on.
The Importance of Keeping Some Cash Around
This is another critical lesson – always keep some cash around. There could be plenty of reasons why you can’t access your money in the bank. Power failures, outages in the credit card and banking network, or any number of reasons businesses can’t or won’t accept debit or credit cards could leave you in a bad place.
I’ve run into this several times in the past and have been able to pay cash for things I needed even though, in this case, I didn’t have to. This brings up another lesson: it took a week for the KOA to get their power back, but I kept my promise. I returned to pay for the propane keeping my sense of honor and making a friend in the process.
I felt better about our supply of propane bottles, but that evening was a bit grimmer than the previous two. The house had lost more of its heat, and keeping warm was getting difficult. Warm clothes, the propane heater, and hot drinks kept us going, but it was certainly not pleasant.
Nevertheless, we were better off than some of our neighbors. I say ‘neighbors,’ but no one really lives right next door to each other. Everyone where I live, has at least a few acres, and none of us know each other well. But we could see the house across the road.
It was a sight that will stick with us forever. The two people who lived there sat in their car most of the day and into the night with the engine running to stay warm. The car was stuck in their yard and never moved throughout the ordeal, but they clearly decided that was the best option to stay warm. Eventually, as it got late, they would go back inside their house, probably to huddle in bed and try to sleep.
Given that their car was, without a doubt, warmer than the inside of our house by now, we decided they were probably just as well off as we were.
Sitting in a Car for Warmth
Just a quick thought about sitting in your car with the engine running to keep warm. It’s better than freezing to death, but engines create carbon monoxide that can kill you. Most people realize that if the car is in the garage, it is not advisable to sit in it with the engine running unless you can ensure there is adequate ventilation.
But the same goes for a car that is sitting in a snowbank. With snow packed around the car, there’s no air circulation. Instead, the snow creates a pocket under the car that can trap the exhaust fumes and cause them to seep into the passenger compartment. One would think this is common sense, but just about every year, there are stories of people getting stuck in the snow and dying from sitting in their cars with the engine running.
Day 4 – Thursday
Thursday was day 4 of no electricity, and the morning dawned cold. It was in the mid-forties in our house when we finally summoned up the courage to get out of our warm bed. Oddly enough, it didn’t seem as bad dressing, so I guess we were getting used to the situation, at least mentally.
We’d charged our phones while driving back and forth to town, but by now, most of our other electronic devices were low on juice, and the lithium power sources were depleted. We also wanted a hot shower, both to feel clean and just for the luxury of feeling the hot water on our cold bodies.
We had breakfast and set off for town to try to rent a motel room long enough to charge everything up and get a hot shower. After four days, they had finally plowed a single lane down the middle of the road, so the trip was quicker than usual. We could stay the night, but we still wanted to be in our own home, even without electricity.
The first place was full, so we had to go to a motel that personified the name “Flea-Bag Motel.” But since we weren’t spending the night, it would do. We showered and charged everything up, then went out for lunch.
As we drove home that afternoon, I commented to my wife that it would be ironic if the power was back on when we got home. Sure enough, when we got back, the power was on, and the ordeal was over, at least for us. Some people in our electric co-op didn’t get their power back for another week, so we considered ourselves fortunate.
A Dress Rehearsal
I’ve done a lot of winter camping, hunting, and mountaineering. I also spent years in the army in hostile and cold environments, not to mention years doing private security contracting in some nasty places. Afghanistan is frigid in the winter. So much of this incident was more of the same to me. My wife doesn’t have the same experience, so it was new to her. Still, we both noticed how our joints began to ache after several days in the constant cold.
Although unpleasant with the potential to be a dangerous situation, a power failure in the dead of winter rates well below a crisis like a catastrophic natural disaster or major societal breakdown. As such, it provided what turned out to be an excellent ‘dress rehearsal’ to see just how prepared we really were. What we discovered was that we were in pretty good shape in some ways, but there were some definite places we could improve our preparedness.
In the military, you always do an after-action review following a significant operation. It gives you a chance to look at everything in hindsight and determine what went well and what could have gone better. It would be foolish not to do one now.
You Never Have as Much of Anything as You Think You Do
We ran our propane heater steadily the first day and night, not realizing how extensive the damage to the power grid was. We believed the electric co-op would get the power back on within a day or so. Once we realized that wasn’t going to happen, we began to ration the propane. Eventually, I decided to find some more. Thinking outside the box in going to the KOA netted us a few more bottles.
I’ve replenished our supply and added an adaptor to refill one-pound propane bottles directly from the 20-pound tank for our BBQ grill. That provides a greater supply of propane at a lower cost per bottle.
The same went for water. We had several 5-gallon jugs of water for washing and flushing the toilets and several cases of bottled water for drinking. Living in the country, we have our own septic system, so as long as we had flushing water, we could use the toilets. We flushed as seldom as practical to preserve water. We still had water when the power came back on, but I have added more to our supplies.
The lesson is to decide how much of everything you think you will need, then add at least 50% more to your estimate. No one ever starved from having too much food.
Your house will hold the heat for a couple of days but will cool off over time. Eventually, it will become as cold inside as outside if you can’t generate adequate heat to keep it warm. You must keep your core body temperature above 95 degrees F, or hypothermia begins to set in. You’ll begin shivering uncontrollably. Once your body core reaches 85 degrees, you stop shivering and get drowsy. Below 85 degrees, you lose consciousness, and it’s all downhill from there.
Wear warm clothes and a hat even in the house. If you must ration heating fuel, don’t ration it to the point that you get too cold to recover. And don’t be afraid to stay in bed since that is where you will be warmest. Heating water for warm drinks is well worth the trouble and the expenditure of fuel since it will keep your core temperature up.
It can be easy to slip into a pattern of surviving off sandwiches and other cold food if you are not prepared. Having a camp stove makes it possible to cook a meal, make hot drinks, and warm water for washing. All these things keep your health and spirits up. If possible, treat yourself to a hot meal by going out to eat. By day two, people with 4WD trucks had managed to beat a path through the unplowed roads to get into town, so we went out to eat at whatever restaurants were open. It made a difference, both physically and emotionally.
Take Care of Yourself Emotionally
There’s more to getting through a survival crisis than just the physical aspects of survival. Always ensure that everything you have that is rechargeable is fully charged. This includes phones, lights, handheld games, lithium chargers, and anything else that might be useful and keep you from feeling isolated. Spending evenings sitting in a cold, dark house with nothing to do can be depressing. That depression will increase as the days go by.
It’s important to keep yourself and your family members occupied. Handheld games, board games, and even reading in bed by the light of a headlamp or battery lantern will go a long way to keeping everyone’s spirits up.
It Could Have Been Worse
Our power came back on Day 4, but there were still people without electricity after more than a week. Our little rural electric co-op was not prepared to deal with the storm. Neither was the local government. The result was no electricity in sub-zero weather and roads that weren’t plowed for days. We were on our own.
One factor that made it easier for us is that we have no children. Two adults could cope with the cold and dismal conditions much easier than a family with even one child. Something to think about if you have children at home.
Fortunately, as far as I know, no one died from exposure or the inability of emergency services to reach them. That is a good thing.
But many people were not prepared for a loss of power in the dead of winter. All one had to do was look at the crowds trying to find food and emergency supplies at the stores that were open and at the neighbors sitting in their car to see that. I think it’s a safe bet to say that most of the people scrambling for supplies after the crisis had started went home disappointed.
No doubt, they had a rougher time getting through the emergency than the people who had prepared in advance. As for us, the experience was an excellent practice run for a more serious crisis that showed us areas where we needed to improve our preparedness.