Storm Diary
by
Dave Brown
Chaffeys Locks, Ontario
February 1, 1998

This is a not-so-quick look at the last few weeks of hell my wife Cindy and two boys Matt (7) and Spencer (6) endured.

Monday, Jan 5 - Freezing rain the previous night cancels school buses (we drive our kids in as Cindy's Law Office is in Elgin near the public school). Tree branches are breaking off regularly due to ice weight. Power is knocked out to part of Chaffey's Lock later that day (we still have phone and power at this point). I go to work at the family marina a short distance away.

Tuesday, Jan 6 - Freezing rain overnight once again cancels school buses, once again our kids are driven in to school and Cindy and I are at work. Relatively uneventful day.

Wednesday, Jan 7 - Buses are running today. I pick kids up from school at 3:00pm due to timing problems of being at home to meet them at the bus stop. Weather starts to take a turn for the worse and I pick up my father at the highway location of the family business to kill two birds with one stone. Upon arrival at our house, I provide my father with the truck, cel phone, and chain saw in the event the is unable to make it out from his house easily the next day (I will regret this decision later as you will see). He lives about 5 miles down at the end of a private cottage road. Freezing rain starts coming down hard from 5pm on and tree branches begin snapping off with alarming regularity. Bigger branches and small trees are now coming down such that time between occurrences is less than 15 seconds. I spend a couple of hours bailing the in-water stored boats at the marina giving them the best chance at surviving I can. I install new automatic bilge pumps and batteries where they're needed most and cross my fingers (even boats with sound hulls will sink if enough weight is placed on them).

Given that we have huge towering white pines surrounding us, we begin to fear for our own safety, but still we are basically in awe of what is happening. We get the kids into their beds by 9pm to start with, but Spencer awoke due to a cough and came into our room around 11pm. Noise outside is quite alarming and Cindy decides to get Matt as well and brings him into our room. A short time later, we see a spectacular light show on the other side of the canal as a hydro wire snaps from the pole and dances on the ground for hours. While it looked great to us, I'm sure that the people who lived near it were scared to tears. Power to most of Chaffey's was lost when this wire was down, but somehow ours remained on. The phone service went out around this time as we found out when we were unable to call hydro to report the line down.

Thursday, Jan 8 - We got little sleep last night and awoke to a spectacular vision as everything was encrusted with many times its size in ice. Our power is still holding and we count We got little sleep last night and awoke to a spectacular vision as everything was encrusted with many times its size in ice. Our power is still holding and we count ourselves lucky as most are now without. Our power flickers all morning and finally goes out for good at 10:30am. I make my way over to my brother Scott's house to get a generator I know he has stored for a mutual customer (Scott has his own generator). The roads are barely passable and Cindy's car (Dodge Shadow) worked like a little trooper to get me out (remember the truck I gave my dad?). We loaded the large Honda 6.5 kilowatt generator into the hatch back, not knowing how I would unload it when I got home. Cindy and I devised a plywood see-saw to get the generator out and I worked at wiring it directly into the panel. I get basic systems up and running around dinnertime and chuckle at our resourcefulness and think how there's no way this storm will beat us. Big mistake.

That night, the rain continues and trees are now bowing over and touching the ground cutting off our road such that you can't even tell where the road is anymore. Not only do I not have my truck, chain saw or cel phone, but the plow was taken in for welding before all this happened and it would not have been repaired yet either. The rains continue all night again and the trees are snapping like toothpicks and continue to fall all night long.

Friday, Jan 9 - Pine trees have up to ½" diameter coating of ice on each needle. Newspaper reports later say that an average tree was holding up to 2 tonnes of ice. I venture out to see how bad the road is and start cutting away branches and trees with a bow saw. Temperature is still around freezing. I clear about 100 yards of debris in 2 hours and decide now's the time to check on my neighbor and see about getting some help (he's been without power since Monday). He's nervous about even going outside as two smaller trees have fallen on his house already. His wife and 11 month old child are stranded with him. He heats with wood and has a small generator for the basics. We head out with his chainsaw and spend the next fours hours clearing the remainder of our shared road (500 yards in all). We are joined early on by a seasonal neighbor who has come to check his cottage and also has a chain saw. My back is killing me and I was happy to see the end of the road, so to speak. I walk over to the marina and get the old CJ5 Jeep in case I'll need 4WD later.

The generator provides enough power for the pressure pump to operate and we still seem to have plenty of residual hot water in the electric tank. City people will be scatching their heads asking "What's a Pressure pump?". I take a nice hot shower and reflect about how an oil fired hot water heater was due to be installed this morning , the appointment was made prior to our knowledge of the coming storm. The generator does not have enough power to run the electric hot water heater and thus I'm growing concerned about what we will do when it runs out (we don't have a wood burning stove as many of our neighbors do). Ironically, we feel cocky anyway and run the dishwasher. <g>

We have our neighbors over for a nice steak dinner while the storm still rages around us. They also take us up on our offer of a shower. We are quite warm, comfortable and relaxed (the wine they brought assisted in this regard). We are sitting in the living room enjoying ourselves after dinner when a resounding crash was heard on the roof at about 7pm. Matt is in his bedroom and comes out screaming -- so fast that 'there was dust right behind him' (his words). Investigation revealed a hole in the ceiling where a branch penetrated the drywall. The closet ceiling sustained damage as well. Outside, we see that one of the huge Jack Pines (over 100 feet tall) has snapped off about twenty feet up and punched a large hole in the ceiling about 15 feet in diameter. For those of you with capable browsers, these photos were taken two days later (that's a friend standing in the hole in the first shot, that's me in the second shot). I not so secretly wish the tree had fallen on the other half of the house as we had just finished massive renovations on the side it fell on and I was looking for some motivation to get to the other half. <g>

hole in roof


hole in roof


My neighbor headed home shortly after the big event suitably 'primed' for another night of restless sleep. I was still taking it all in stride as we were still quite warm and comfortable. Other trees were leaning dangerously close to where we would be sleeping that night and I opt to move everyone to the floor of the living room to ensure the most amount of wood and support walls are between us and the tree. I am now getting concerned about our overall state of affairs. At this point, we have still not heard from my parents, and my brother was unable to reach them by road despite a full day of cutting. The lake is unsafe to cross with a snowmobile due to the high currents caused by run-off, so a lake rescue is not in the cards right now. The remainder of the evening is spent listening to every branch breaking and falling and hoping our number is not up yet again. I get to sleep around 4am.

Saturday, Jan 10 - I join my brother and many other neighbors in an attempt to get my parents road cleared. We are (thankfully) assisted by someone with an old backhoe. Even small branches weigh as much as 50 pounds and clearing the road by hand would have taken days to complete and taken a further toll on this old body <g>. With the back-hoe, we only have to cut and let him do the clearing. Warmer temperatures and sunshine have arrived considerably reducing the danger from falling tress, but each tree is hung over the road like a cross bow such that each cut is extemely dangerous due to the stored spring tension within the wood. We are trying to work fast and arms tire quickly holding the chainsaw overhead for long periods. The next shot gives you a glimpse of what we faced, but like many shots of sunsets, the picture doesn't do the scene justice. Who's that good looking guy with the beard? He sure doesn't look very competent with that chainsaw.....

hole in roof

We finally meet a crew of trapped residents cutting their way out but my parents are not among them. At this point, I decide to walk in the remainder of the way to see how they are and get my own chain saw to speed the clearing. I meet my parents about 100 yards from their home. They're in good spirits and clearly happy to see help has finally arrived (we were betting one would have killed the other by now). I jump start the truck (battery is dead due to plow switch being accidentally left in down position) and fire up the chain saw. My father and I begin to cut our way out and I carelessly lift my leg over a tree after releasing the trigger on the saw. The chain has not yet stopped as the bar hits my leg, tearing through my track pants and flesh. Surprisingly, it doesn't hurt much at all, but it sure looks awful (about a 4 inch gash). I ask my dad to return to the house and get some dressings to stop the blood flow. I continue to cut a path with some urgency as clearing the road is now required to get me to a hospital. My pants are now completely blood soaked and I'm concerned about blood loss so I finally decide to double back and meet my father to apply some pressure to the wound. We do the best we can given the limited material he has brought back (in boxes that easily look 50 years old). We return to cutting and are pleased to see that crew is nearing from the other side so I opt to wait it out in the truck.

When the route is clear, I head off for home for a quick first aid stop. My mother follows in her Jeep so that she can drive me the remainder of the way (about 30 miles to Smiths Falls). Cindy and I wrap the leg with four cut pillow cases and it feels and looks good. The kids get a big kick out of the wound. I head over to the marina to get some gas to keep the generator running while I'm gone. The dressing we put on slips down my leg (it's like trying to keep it on a funnel) and the bleeding resumes. I head for home again and get another four pillow cases wound tightly and then head for the hospital. Naturally, I put on clean underwear for the trip , you can't be too careful you know.

The emergency ward is busy as expected , Smiths Falls still has no power and I appear to be the only moron with a chain saw injury. I wait my turn in the waiting room and have some fun lifting sprits by retelling my story to others. I start to feel a bit faint and notice the tell-tale trickle on my ankle that tells me the dressing has slipped once again. I ask an acquaintance beside me to see if they can find someone to re-dress the wound until a doctor is free. A nurse cuts off my track pants (two pairs now destroyed). She has a look and decides that my bleeding all over the waiting room is not good for patient moral. I'm moved to a private room and feel guilty over the expedited service and privacy. They apparently don't want me bleeding in the halls either where others on gerneys patiently wait their turn. While I'm pleased that I'll be taken care of sooner than expected, I feel quite guilty for queue jumping with a somewhat self-inflicted wound. Not quite so guilty to give up my spot, however. :-)

The doctor freezes the area, asks jokingly how clean the saw blade was, and begins flushing the wound with sterile water. Meanwhile, I'm trying to figure out when my last tetanus shot was (something I get often in my line of work). I think it was about ten years ago when I split my knuckles on a piston flying out of a hydraulic press. I opt for the 10 year booster and find it hurts more than the initial cut and subsequent cleaning of the leg wound. I wonder aloud why she couldn't have injected it into my now frozen thigh. Seven stitches later (well, it LOOKED bad) and I'm in good spirits.

sexy shot of wounded knee
It's worse than it looks -- really!!

We get supplies from various stores and head for home. We stop for gas in Portland and have to wait 45 minutes in a long line-up (pumps are being powered by a small generator). We're lucky in that gas was being rationed earlier in the week but today we get to buy all we can carry , 9 cans in all.

That night, I spend a few hours at my brother Scott's house wiring his generator directly to his electrical panel so that he can get water pressure as well. All goes well and I head for home and a good nights sleep as the freezing has not yet come out of my leg.

Sunday, Jan 11 - Leg hurts today but I'm a tough Canuck, so I grin and bear it. Word spreads quickly of my battle injury and I frequently remind my parents of my 'taking a bullet' on their behalf. Went to Crosby to see how flooded the basement of the store and my sister Jaynie's house was. We took Scott's generator with us to run the sump pump.

That night, we mom and dad over for dinner and a shower (separate events, of course). Played Mexican dominoes and reflected that we're having more visitors now than we have all year. Events like this bring out the best in people but also the worst as many BBQ's and generators were being stolen from needy homes. I locked mine to a nearby tree that day.

Monday, Jan 12 - I decided to head into town and visit with the local oil supplier to see about taking my oil fired hot water heater home and installing it as far as I could. I suspected the installers would not be that busy until power was restored when they would have to relight flooded oil burners in hundreds of homes. It appears I was right as a van arrived home 45 minutes after I did. I supplied the electrical while they busily modified the vent from the furnace and tied into the fuel supply line. I insisted they move onto other jobs and I would complete the plumbing hook-up myself. I headed into Kingston with a list of needed supplies. Got home at 7:30 with take-out pizza and went to work. Threw the switch for heater on at 12 midnight and it shut off 15 minutes later fully hot. Gotta love the recovery rate of these things. I took a well deserved hot shower (first since my injury). There are few things in life as sweet as a hot shower after a couple of days of ripening. :-) Cindy had one afterwards and I started to feel we were once again beating this thing.

Tuesday, Jan 13 - We let all the neighbors know that we had hot running water and all were welcome to drop in at any time to grab a shower. While people were reluctant at first, we now have a regular clientele passing through. We are grateful to be able to return the kindness that was given to us many winters ago when our underground feed froze for three months and we relied on others for a similar kindness.

I solicited a volunteer by way of my tenant in the marina apartment and spent the better part of the day removing the fallen tree from my roof. We shoveled as much snow as possible out of the attic then rolled up the remainder in the insulation and tossed it out as well. Much of the drywall is soaked and will have to be replaced. We tarped the hole and await my brother's construction crew to make repairs at a later date. Other outbuildings containing customer boats (seven in all) are damaged, but the boats remained protected. It turns out insurance will cover all damage to all buildings and the sting of paying the premium a short time ago goes away. :-) No damage at all to any marina buildings or customer boats I'm happy to say. Heard a few stories about damage to others stored privately though (obligatory marina plug here). <g>

I began to think about getting the computer from the marina, over to the house so we could prepare for the upcoming Toronto Boat Show. As it turns out, the generator had no problem supplying the computer, ably assisted by the UPS (Uninteruptable Power Supply) to bridge the gap when we had brown-outs due to large demand start-ups like the furnace or water system. This document is being written while the Honda happily hums in the background (as it has done for 8 straight days with stops only for fuel and an oil change).

The final blow for me with this storm came when I was carrying my precious 17" monitor through the store and the cord caught on the counter top. This snag violently ripped the monitor from my hands and sent it crashing to the floor. I would gladly have traded another saw cut to my leg undo the damage that lay before me. I pieced the casing back together as possible on the kitchen table when I got home and plugged it in while holding my breath , and it worked! A little duct tape and she'll be as good as new. :-) With the computer working, I now prayed for early phone service to get a much needed Internet fix. Spent the rest of the night doing business related work on the computer.

Wednesday, Jan 14 - Spent the day doing spreadsheets and entertaining shower guests. Phone lines came up around 4pm and I was able to log on and get 63 e-mail messages. Got a message from a customer concerned for our welfare and could not reach us by phone. Responded briefly to important ones and then lost phone service again at midnight as Bell took the generator back to the depot to prevent theft. Spent time talking to worried friends and relatives. Getting phone service back makes everyone feel so much less isolated.

Got my fur up when I read in today's paper that non-unionized hydro utilities (whose own service was now restored) offers of help were being refused by Ontario Hydro (who are unionized). Needless to say, the public outcry caused some quick back-pedaling with the Hydro Union claiming it was a 'communication' error. They were offered help on three separate occasions and all three times they refused it which begs the question , "What part of 'How can we help' doesn't Ontario Hydro understand?". My politics are driven even farther right since the November teachers strike and the Christmas postal strike. I hereby make this solemn promise that I will do everything in my power of the next year to make myself less dependent on these individuals and let the market rightfully deliver their fate. What goes around, comes around.

Thursday, Jan 15 - Phones are back up with a promise to Bell from the community that we'll guard the generator with our lives. Did some rewiring in the basement in preparation for Cindy to run the household circuits while I'm away working at the Toronto Boat Show , I leave for Toronto tomorrow and don't know what I'll do about laundry yet. We hear reports of anywhere from 3 to 7 days before hydro will be restored in our area. Got five inches of powder snow today. Still no plow. Cindy took the boys to school and went to work herself (Elgin has power and is getting back to normal).Tomorrow's another day. :-)

Friday, Jan 16 - Worked through the night last night getting ready for the Toronto Boat Show, went to sleep at 5am and got up at 10am (no distractions at those hours). Finished labeling the electrical panel and put the cover back on so Cindy would have no trouble or danger switching circuits. Made up a list of what items could be run simultaneously and what couldn't. Had a few more locals pass through for showers. Reviewed generator operation with Cindy re: gassing, oiling, and cold starting. Left the family behind (large guilt complex growing within me) and headed for Toronto with my father at 7pm. I drove half-way, he drove the balance while I slept. Checked into the hotel at 11pm.

Saturday, Jan 17 - Got woken up at 6am by Cindy calling to say the generator had quit. Gave her some things to try and she was able to get it restarted (after topping up the oil). When registering at the boat show, I met a cousin who worked at a Honda dealership and he knew immediately what was wrong and how to cure it. I immediately phoned my brother (waking him) and relayed the info so that he could make the necessary modifications to his own generator and mine. Got a call later in the day confirming the problem was as thought, and that all was OK once again. During the boat show, I talked to many people and when they asked where my marina was located, I tell them near Kingston. Many are aware of the ice storm, but surprisingly, few are fully aware of the extent of the severity or that we country people lose our water supplies in a power outage as well.

Cindy tells me that the army dropped in Saturday and Sunday to verify we were getting by OK (we'd have been dead long ago if we weren't).

Epilogue, Jan 18 - Feb 1 - The rest of the week went by with Cindy performing the usual routines of filling the generator with gas and preparing meals that could be done on the BBQ or microwaved (I was still at the boat show). In our daily phone calls I sensed she had just about had it with the current situation and she indicated that power had better be back on soon for the sake of her sanity. Power came finally came back up on Jan 21 in the afternoon thus bring our count to 14 days without power.

Got home from the Toronto Boat Show Jan 26 to find the marina water system had burst due to freezing, leaving my tenants without running since the storm began. I left for Kingston with parts in tow and find the pump housing must be ordered. Eventually got all the parts on the return trip the next day, and aside from the $500 cost in parts (I did the installation) we're finally getting things back to normal around here.

In summary, 23 people have died as a result of the storm to date. There are heart attacks related to clearing tress, to hypothermia, to carbon monoxide poisonings caused by people running their generators in their houses or garages to keep them from getting stolen. A number of deaths are related to fires caused by candles and unattended wood stoves. One man died while trying to heat his house with his car. Farmers have lost millions in livestock as cows die of cold related illness and lack of drinking water. Dairy cattle are drying up as farmers milking machines are inoperable without power. One farmer lost 13 cattle to electrocution when a felled power line charged the steel grating in the barn. He narrowly escaped himself. Rural areas will be without power for weeks to come as Hydro must worker harder to service these remote areas.

From our local paper, I learn that Hydro used the following materials to get power back in the entire region (for those who may still doubt the severity of the storm):
  • Poles Replaced: 10,750
  • Insulators: 84,000
  • Transformers: 1,800
  • Wire/cable: 2,800km
Overall, this whole experience has been a positive one in that it has highlighted a number of things for me. First, humans rely far to much on this cocoon called infrastructure to survive and work -- I no longer take little things for granted. This storm also allowed me to see the best in people (and the worst). I cringed at the pettiness of some who had nothing but criticism for others who were not quick enough to act, all the while diminishing their own responsibility to take care of themselves. I got to feel the comraderie of working for the benefit of others without an expectation of pay or reward for the effort other than the pride in completing a job well done.

- Dave (dave@brownsmarina.com)




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Contact Information:
Brown's Marina Ltd.
1641 Chaffey's Lock Road
Elgin, Ontario, K0G 1E0 CANADA

Tel: 1-800-561-3137 (toll free)
Tel: 1-613-359-5466 - Fax: 1-613-359-6376
EmailComments: send me email: dave@brownsmarina.com