Monday, December 22, 2008

News from Portland, OR

In the winter of 1998 Feather Nester and I (and thousands of others) survived a week of no heat, no power, dwindling food, the National Guard, fear, and extreme boredom known simply as The Ice Storm of '98. I had lived in the Adirondacks for over a decade by that point and had never experienced anything even close to what that was. It was pretty common to be blanketed with ice where we grew up; it's so far north that it would be too cold for most of the winter to snow, so ice was the next alternative. So when they called for an "ice storm" I don't even remember anyone blinking. We were home from college and not that concerned with the status of the weather. Little could deter all of the movie watching and weekend drinking that we most likely had planned.

But we soon got our wake-up call. My mom was at work at the hospital and said that she would buy groceries on the way home from work. It doesn't take long for a house with one parent and an endless parade of visiting teenagers to decimate the food supply. But the storm had hit earlier than we had anticipated and Feather Nester and I had made the one last scrap of food we could find - Bisquick chocolate chip pancakes - for my younger brother and his friend. We lost power a few hours later and at the exact same time my brother came out of his room and said that he was hungry again. Additionally, they had just announced that citizens had exactly one hour to get where they needed to go before it was illegal to be outdoors and a full and permanent curfew would be enforced.

Still not having any idea that the storm would last for more than a day or two, we all made arrangements. My brother would go to my dad's small apartment in the city, we would go to my boyfriend's house (who still had power and very generous parents), and my mom was required to go back to the hospital. On the drive from the hospital to our house my mom was stopped by the police and told that she had to turn around. It was only after pleading with them for five minutes that she was trying to rescue all of her stranded children that they let her pass. So we gathered up a few things and got in the car. At that time we lived fifteen minutes outside of town and had to drive through the center of town to get to where we were going.

Every business and mall in our town is located on one main road and it stretches for miles. The memory of the drive down that road is something that haunts me to this day. There are very few moments that are so burned into memory that they are as fresh as the day they happened. It was the middle of the day, but the entire sky was grey because of the storm and every business and every sign and every light was dark. Not one car was on the road, except for ours, and the stillness was overwhelming. Every branch was cocooned in ice. Before that moment, I never could have imagined a town as vacant as that. And in this day and age where businesses are open on Sundays, holidays, and even Christmas day, to see a town that is completely abandoned and dead in the middle of the day is a sight you can't even imagine until you experience it.

After that drive, the rest of the week was quite dramatic, but less scary. In retrospect, I'm so grateful and astonished at how well my boyfriend's parents took care of us. There were five kids there in all and they managed to feed us all (with no shopping and no power) for a week, and even kept the wood stove burning. We were definitely bored and definitely freezing, but we fared pretty well considering.

The storm lasted for much longer than they had originally anticipated and the ban on leaving your house was firmly in place. There were so many downed trees and live power lines that even walking around was strictly prohibited. My mom was forced to stay at the hospital since no other nurses were able to get in, and my dad and brother lucked out and were the only little apartment on their street to keep their power. At some point they called in the National Guard and I remember feeling such a huge sense of relief that someone - anyone - was here to help.

I reminisce about all of this because my brother and mom are going through something very similar in Portland, OR right now. Although Portland is pretty far north and the perception is otherwise, they literally never receive snow. Rarely even a dusting. They do, however, get rain every day in the winter season. As you can imagine, if the temperature drops for an extended period of time, all of that rain turns to ice or snow and covers a city that doesn't own plows and doesn't salt their roads.

And if you grew up in a winter climate like I did, it's hard to look at these pictures and understand the full weight of the problem because it doesn't even occur to you that a city could go through this and not have the ability to plow or salt. But they've been receiving more snow and ice every day for an entire week now and other than the hill that leads to the hospital, not a single plow has been seen. To compensate for the lack of plows and the lack of salt, they require you to have chains on your tires to drive, but in the face of such weather, it doesn't get you very far.

My brother has been working from home for days now and was without power for part of the weekend. My mom has been able to get to work ok because she works at the one place where not having drivable roads isn't an option, but she was without hot water for several days. From what I hear, the weather is supposed to continue until at least Wednesday night, which is Christmas Eve, and I suspect that means there will be hundreds (or even thousands) of stranded and lonely family members this Christmas.

It's good to remind yourself every now and then of the sheer power of mother nature and how powerless we can be to deal with it, but for the sake of everyone involved I'm hoping that Portland gets a reprieve soon.


Anonymous said...

That's a nice remembrance of the Great Ice Storm of '98. Your brother and I never lost power in town as you say. Love - DAD

die Frau said...

Oh! I hope it all went ok! It's so frustrating to move to a place where YOU know what they should do but the CITY does not, nor does it have the resources to do so.

Hope they managed some merriness!

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