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How I survived the ice storm-- and more

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 15, 2008

 Having been out of touch unexpectedly for a few days, I think I owe you all an explanation. And boy, do I have an explanation! Let me tell you about my weekend.

It began early: at about 5 Friday morning, when I fell down the stairs.

This was not just a little slip-and-slide. It was a full scale, head-over-heels tumble down 18 steps.

How did it happen? Honestly, I'm still not sure. I wish I could watch the replay. But we don't have video cameras installed in our home. Even if we did, they wouldn't have been running, because the power was out.

That's where the story begins, really: when the power went out.

We'd had unpleasant weather here in north-central Massachusetts on Thursday: raw, cold rain. The predictions were for still worse weather overnight, with the rain turning to ice as the temperature fell. Ice storms can be nasty, but they are not uncommon here. We weren't thinking too much about the weather as we went to bed, even though the rain was now torrential and the temperature was indeed falling.

At about 4 in the morning the telephone in our bedroom gave off a loud beep. It's programmed to do that when it loses power. We woke up and looked at the clock-- which of course read 12:00, having just lost power and re-set itself. But at least the clock was running; the power loss was obviously just a momentary thing. We rolled over and tried to get back to sleep.

After a while the phone beeped again: another power loss. This time the clock dial was black. The power really was gone. Having been roused twice in quick succession, we were now completely awake. No idea what time it was now. I groped my way over to my dresser to pick up my watch, which has a luminous dial. Then, as long as I was up, I decided to take a walk down the hall to the bathroom.

As I went out the bedroom door I guess I was looking at the dial of my watch. Then I think I looked backward, to watch the rain sluicing down against the hall window. Then I turned around to face the bathroom. Or so I thought. I'd made this same trip down the hall thousands of times-- although usually not in complete darkness-- and I felt fairly confident as I moved forward. I thought I was right at the railing when I took a step and there was nothing under my foot.

Suddenly I didn't know where I was nor which way I was facing. In a fraction of a second my mind raced: If the stairs were here, then the wall must be… there! My arm shot out, but it was too late. For the next few seconds I was somersaulting downward, completely unable to figure out which of my limbs were where. I was aware of loud noises, made by my various body parts slamming into the wall, the stairs, the railing. Then I landed in a heap on the first floor.

For a moment I lay there in a daze, waiting for the pain to hit. At least now I knew where I was; that was a small comfort. But I didn't know whether I could move.

Back upstairs, my poor wife Leila had gone from a groggy half-asleep state to a bolt-upright red-alert when she heard me fall. She rushed out of the bedroom-- in the dark, remember-- and asked: "Phil, where are you?"

That was easy: "I'm at the bottom of the stairs."

"Are you all right?"

The truth is that I didn't know the answer to that question yet. I was still taking inventory. I had rolled over gingerly, wondering what was broken. No stabbing pains. Good. I slowly got to my feet. No problem. Good. I moved my arms, my legs, my head; swiveled my hips and shoulders; stretched my back. Everything worked. Amazing.

By now Leila was downstairs with me, having taken a more conventional route. She found a flashlight. I used the bathroom-- that was the original plan, remember?-- and wandered around a bit, double-checking to make sure I wasn't seriously injured. Lots of bumps and bruises and scrapes-- I'm still stiff and sore in places now, 3 days later-- but no major damage. My guardian angel must have been very busy for those few seconds. I could easily have been killed in a fall like that. To escape without a broken bone seems miraculous. Thank God.

As our hearts stopped racing, Leila and I looked outside, and it was immediately obvious why we had lost power. Our driveway was covered with a thick sheet of ice. (It was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but we obviously wouldn't be able to get to morning Mass.) Not just the driveway: everything. The trees were all thickly glazed. The rain was still pounding down, freezing everywhere it landed.

We went back to bed and lay there listening to the weather. Every now and then we'd hear a loud "Whooosh," as a tree branch sagged and let down a cascade of ice. Then there were louder noises, like pistol shots, as other tree limbs simply snapped under the weight of the ice.

Soon I realized that I couldn't possibly go back to sleep. The adrenaline rush from my accident was still having its effect, and the noises were too interesting to miss. I got dressed and came downstairs-- carefully. The whooshes and pop were becoming more frequent. Small limbs-- and some not so small-- were exploding off a fir tree in our back yard. In the distance I could hear crashes as larger limbs and trees came down. The main portion of a cherry tree behind our garage came down, missing the rabbit hutch by inches. (The poor little critters must have been scared out of their wits.) It came to rest against the garage; the only real damage was the loss of a gutter.

Eventually I put on a slicker and boots and walked down the lane to check the damage. There was still plenty of whooshing and popping; I was keeping an eye on the trees around me. There were some branches across the lane, but nothing I couldn't toss aside. The storm was easing now, and we'd escaped without significant damage.

Others around us-- many others-- were not so fortunate. Roads were closed; homes were damaged; live power lines were writhing across sidewalks, sending off menacing sparks. Power was down everywhere. No one had heat or light, except those few with their own generators. The temperature was just above freezing, and headed back down. Many thousands of people would be without power for days; many still are.

We spent most of the weekend in the kitchen, around the woodstove. Leila, who is a culinary genius under ordinary circumstances, showed her versatility, using just the stovetop to prepare excellent meals. During the day we hauled firewood and cleared debris and visited friends and checked on neighbors. At night we read aloud by candlelight and went to bed early, sleeping under extra blankets. To be honest, we had a great time! Daughter Bridget, 11, was bitterly disappointed when the power came back on.

All in all it was a weekend of adventure. I've seen more impressive winter storms-- 2-foot blizzards and massive snowdrifts-- but nothing anywhere near this destructive. It's good to be reminded of how a natural disaster can disrupt people's lives, and how neighbors pitch in cheerfully to help each other in times of genuine need, and how very comfortable our lives are when we do have heat and light and hot water. I'm particularly grateful that I was able to witness the whole thing standing upright, even being helpful here and there, despite what really should have been a catastrophic fall. Thank God for… many things. 

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