Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sandy and West Virginia

As Hurricane Sandy flooded the East Coast with boatloads of rain and an incredible storm surge, it picked a half dozen counties in eastern West Virginia onto which it dumped a bit of snow. Much of this came on Monday and Tuesday (10/29-10/30), with lesser amounts later that week. All told, in much of Tucker County, snowfall amounts were estimated between 3-4 feet. The snowfall was extremely fast and the snow was wet and heavy.

We had previously left the farm on Sunday, October 28th after a week of very warm weather, several days of which were well over 70 °F. The ground was warm and many of the leaves on the trees had yet to fall. As temperatures fell below freezing with the oncoming snowstorm, the snow stuck to trees, wires, and buildings. Most of the counties around Tucker County lost electrical power late on Monday and phone service (land and cellular) with it. Outages were nearly total in many localities. Tucker County lost about 95% of its electrical service, as did neighboring Randolph and Preston counties. Many buildings collapsed from the weight of the snow. Temperatures ranged between 25-35 °F.

Roads were completely closed because of the snow and downed trees, and it took an extraordinary effort by the governments and by citizens to get trees cleared and roads plowed. Major roads were cleared in a day or two, minor roads shortly thereafter. Some federal and interstate highways were closed for significant periods of time. Many private citizens worked on clearing public roads. A Ford F-250 with tire chains and a snowplow was plowing well in advance of county and state trucks.

West Virginians are exceptionally self-reliant and community oriented. Nearly every home has some form of fireplace or wood-stove, so heat was not an immediate issue, and many people have portable generators to help manage critical things such as freezers. The phone company hooked a generator to their system so that people regained phone service, but the cellular tower in nearby Harman was inoperable. Down at Camden's Corner Mart, they had gasoline and diesel, but no electricity to run the pumps, so somebody brought a generator and got the gas pumps operational. I was told that people limited themselves to 5 gal at a time to allow everyone at least some fuel. People there know that their own survival depends upon the survival of their neighbors.

Long about Wednesday (10/31), things looked pretty grim. The rugged terrain in the Allegheny Mountains coupled with record snowfall and its effects on trees and electrical poles made restoration of electrical power pitifully slow. Many of the main roads were traversable, but so much of the damaged electrical infrastructure was buried far from even county roads. Realize that there are just over 7,000 people in the entirety of Tucker County. Fortunately, the weather warmed and skies cleared, so repair crews at least had decent working conditions.

Now, I'm sure everyone has seen bumper stickers that exhort "Think Snow," and of course, with more than three feet of snow, there was a surge of skiers heading into the mountains. White Grass "opened" before they even had power, and when they did get power, the place was packed. What a nice early season bonus for Laurie and Chip, owners. By the end of the weekend of November 3-4, hundreds of people had managed their way to Canaan Valley to cross-country ski.

A few of our neighbors on Laneville Road had their power restored by Thursday or Friday (11/1 or 11/2), and although I had called around to others, I had little to go on as to whether we had power. Our power lines come up from Red Creek rather than down the valley like those people to the west of our property. Knowing that I could easily heat our house with our wood-stove and that there was certainly sufficient snow to melt for drinking water, I headed over to the property on Sunday morning (11/4), not wanting to miss the snow. Fortunately, we already had dog food, wine, gin, and a reasonable amount of food already at the house, so I really only packed clothes, some cigars, and a snow shovel. Unfortunately, our driveway is impassible in such heavy snow, and I had left our snowshoes behind when we came back to Columbus on 10/28.

About an hour out of Columbus, a down-the-mountain neighbor from West Virginia called to say that there was no power in the entire eastern end of the valley and that the power company was estimating it wouldn't be restored until Friday, 11/9. I hoped that was an outside estimate. In any event, the driveway wasn't too badly drifted, and I could easily shovel a spot to get the SUV off the main road. I hoofed it up the driveway, to find the eastern half of the house buried in show. Did I mention that the stairs are on the east side of the house? Snow was up to the railings, and was about 4-5' deep on the deck. Good exercise, shoveling wet snow.

Once I got into the house and got a good fire going, I put on my snowshoes and retrieved the rest of the stuff from the car. More good exercise: 0.3 miles and 300 feet vertical up and down the driveway twice. The snow was only about 2' deep at this point. Did I mention that I was doing this for fun? So that I could ski?

By the time I got settled and made a trip up to Canaan Valley to call Cathy, it was nearly dark and time for a Martini. I heated some frozen burritos on top of the wood stove, had a glass or two of wine, and went to bed to prepare for a day of skiing on Monday. It was very, very dark on Sunday night. There was no moon, and the entire hillside across from our property was dark. Amazingly, from two or three miles away, I could see small LED driveway lights shining around darkened homes.

Skiing was great on Monday. The weather was sunny and clear, and for my first outing I had fun going up Three Mile, across Blackbird's Wing, down FR80, and back to White Grass by Timberline Trail, or about five miles. Still no power at the house, and Mon Power was still estimating Friday for restoration. Tuesday was still great skiing, although the temperature was well above freezing so the snow was wet. Still no power; still a Friday estimate. Not a power company truck in sight. Melted snow doesn't taste particularly good, and yogurt with cereal for dinner is less than satisfying. On Wednesday, I skied twice, once in the morning by myself, and once in the afternoon up and down Timberline Trail with Rosso. After grabbing a shower at Laurie and Chip's house, I headed up to see our friends Ben and LE, our "nearest" neighbors with power. Ben lent me an unneeded 1 kW generator and I went back over to their home and cooked a still-frozen lasagne in their oven that evening. It was nice to have lights that evening, although listening to a generator up close is not all that pleasant.

On Thursday morning I discovered that Ben's 1,000 W generator would power my 1,100 W coffee maker, so I had good coffee for the first time in four days. Camden's Corner Mart is very convenient, and they make a decent egg and cheese biscuit, but their coffee sucks. It's brown, it's warm, and it contains caffeine, and you might as well take a No-Doze. Plus, it is a six mile round trip to get it. My neighbor Harvey had stopped by on his ATV on Tuesday and plowed a good bit of our driveway, so I could at least get the SUV up to the house.

Friday morning (11/9), the power company trucks rolled up Laneville Road by the dozen. It turns out that the main line comes down Laneville Road as far as Jake Nelson's, then heads over a cliff down to Red Creek, from whence our power line emerges to head back uphill. The problem was with the lines going over the cliff from Jake's meadow. Well, the workers managed to replace two broken poles, re-string the lines, and get trees cleared by mid-afternoon. With Cathy planning to arrive around 5 pm, and with me not having showered since Wednesday, I thought it prudent to not bet on the power company, so I headed back up to Canaan Valley for a final shower at Laurie and Chip's. On my way back down, there was one last truck by Jake's meadow waiting for the approval to connect the power, and finally, without event, the power to our house was restored at 4:45 pm on November 9th, eleven days after it went out.

In retrospect, what I missed most about not having electricity was not having running water. I could store food that needed refrigeration in the snow, I could use LED lights and candles for light, I could heat the house to over 70 °C with the wood stove, but melting snow in pots sucks, it's inefficient, and the water is lousy. That, and having no feasible method to wash dishes made cooking over even a camp stove impractical. Given that there have been two significant (> 1 week) power outages in 2012 in West Virginia, and given the likelihood that violent storms will increase in frequency, it seems prudent to look at installing a propane-powered whole-house generator so that we can keep the refrigerator running, the well pump running, lights on and phones charged, without having to rely on access to gasoline or diesel fuel. A big LPG tank will run an 8-10 kW generator for a very long time.

I do have to say, however, that I didn't have it very bad, so this isn't a complaint. It is infinitely better to be up to your neck in snow than water.

UPDATE 8/28/13: Here is a picture of our new generator, capable of running the well pump and everything else in the house except the electric furnace.

Westinghouse 7,000 W generator

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