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home : opinion : opinion November 23, 2017

9/11/2017 2:45:00 PM
This Storm Story Beats Hugo

Tammy Wilson
Guest Columnist


Days ago, when we learned that Western North Carolina might be in the path of Hurricane Irma, thoughts of Hugo cropped up on the news and Facebook. How we had to hunker down and do without.

Call that the Storm of the Century if you will, but I vote for the ice storm of 1996.

My family missed Hugo by about 30 hours. My brother had the good fortune of being married on Sept. 22, 1989 in Central Illinois. We returned days later to a dark house and five trees down on our property, the sound of chain saws and no running water. But September is a fairly warm month.

On Feb. 2, 1996 the groundhog did not see his shadow. By early afternoon, freezing rain turned to wintry mix and sleet. An icy coating began to form on trees and power lines. I was working at Lenoir-Rhyne at the time, and offices closed early that Friday.



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Our son Lantz, our fifth grader, had gone to work with me since his school was cancelled. He rode home with me on a slow trek down Robinson Road.

Two things I learned to respect that day: black ice and wintry mix. We arrived to a house without electricity, no running water (we were on a well) and a cold woodstove. The temperature in the house had already dipped to 60 degrees.

Lantz helped me get the wood stove going and hang sheets to block off hallways and conserve as much heat as possible. The storm had come without a thought to power outages and the need to store water, light oil lamps and keep the wood stove banked.

That night, the three of us, our two dogs and our neighbor’s dog that had been left behind, hunkered down on the sofa and a mattress in front of the stove, but our high ceilings kept most of the heat above us.

Life became eerily quiet except for the pop of burning firewood and the hiss of kerosene lanterns. Trees snapped in the weight of the ice and snow. It sounded like gunshots going off. We prayed the trees wouldn’t block our driveway or fall on the house.

Catawba County was quickly divided in the haves and have-nots. Our main goal was to keep the house warm enough to keep the water pipes from freezing. Stores had long run out of generators and kerosene heaters and bottled water.

Meanwhile, Tym and I were expected to report to work on time, so we had to leave extra early. I took a duffle bag with towels and a change of clothes to take advantage of the showers in the L-R locker room.

Like 19th century pioneers, our life revolved around sunlight. We banked the stove and hoped it didn’t burn out before morning. The temperature in the room hovered in the 40s at night.

We were in survival mode—collecting water at work in thermos jugs, buying enough supplies to hold us over. Surely the power would be on tomorrow.

Tomorrow turned into the next day and the next. We ran out of wood; had to borrow some from friends. Before sunset, I’d head to the creek on our property and lower a bucket on a rope to collect water to flush the toilet.

The temperature outside dropped to single digits, our deck became our ice box. I gained a new appreciation for what life would have been like 100 years ago as I slogged in my boots to the creek to gather more water.

By the third day, the novelty had worn off. Driving home to the snowy landscape was beautiful, but driving past dark house after dark house made it eerie. In our development, there were previous few families who toughed it out that week. Lanterns beckoned like they would have in pioneer days. We were the have-nots in a world of haves.

Neighbors who had a generator invited us to dinner in order to use steaks out of their freezer before the meat went bad. Another family offered to keep Lantz while we went to work.

In town it was still 1996. At home, it was 1896, living off the grid. No heat, no running water. No electricity. I came to resent those who came to work from warm homes, lights and warm showers, whining that the ice storm had disrupted their cable TV service.

Doing without is relative.

Duke Energy considers the ice storm of February 1996 as among the worst ever in terms of power outages. Some customers went as long as two weeks without power while temperatures plummeted to near zero. Road cleanup and repair costs alone exceeded $20 million.

Being without power after Hugo wasn’t a picnic, but being without electricity that week in February was something else. We survived. Our pipes didn’t freeze and we learned a lot about the importance of a backup heating system and essential supplies such as nonperishable food, bottled water and lamp oil.

Lessons learned.



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