© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
On a cold, winter's day in February 2013, I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room watching a big-screen TV. All the news and weather channels were tracking two huge storm systems that were converging on the US northeast, and it was going to be a big (and expensive) disaster. As I watched, I started to think about the impact these storms would have. People would lose their houses and cars, and maybe everything they owned, and even their lives. Businesses would close indefinitely and wages would be lost. If hotels and restaurants were open, there'd be few guests. And so on. What would the cost of all this be and who would/should pay?
I was raised in a semi-desert area of rural South Australia. About the only natural disaster we experienced there was drought on a regular basis and an occasional (small) bushfire. [My, how that eucalyptus tree oil loves to burn!] Of course, from radio, television, and newspapers, I knew that other parts of the world suffered from all sorts of weather-related and other devastating natural phenomena, but they were as remote as those "starving children in India" of whom our parents spoke when we wouldn't eat our vegetables. Even the disasters in other parts of my own country were "off in some other world". However, once I moved to and traveled around the US, these problems got much closer and I got to experience some of them firsthand. Likewise when I started traveling to other countries.
Unlike most people, for the past 29 years, I've worked mostly from home. Without a daily commute or a fixed schedule, bad weather has rarely concerned or impacted me. However, it has "knocked on my door" a few times, as I'll discuss below. And at the end of the main essay, I share my Disaster-Preparedness Plan.
Snow and Ice
While I find that ice is not so nice, I am still fascinated by snow. I was 17 years old when I first saw snow, and I tried skiing without knowing anything at all about it, especially regarding how to stop! The good news was that for the most part, snow in Australia doesn't fall in major population centers; you have to drive up to the mountains to see it and to take advantage of it. Now, however, I experience it each winter and have done so for more than 30 years. Following, are a number of snow and/or ice incidents I recall:
On January 13, 1982, an Air-Florida jet crashed on takeoff from Washington National Airport, and it hit the 14th Street Bridge over the Potomac River; that bridge is a major road from Washington DC to Virginia. The crash was compounded by the Federal Government having let its DC-area employees out early due to the extreme weather, many of whom would ordinarily take that bridge. A friend of mine was living with me at the time and working in DC. It took him some 10 hours to get home the 22 miles (40 kms), and all along the way he saw cars on the edge of the highway that had run out of gas.
One winter, I drove to Raleigh, North Carolina, on a Sunday afternoon and arrived at my hotel as snow was starting to fall. By morning, we were snowed in by the "great Raleigh blizzard of 2000", and the city was shut down. (It wasn't that North Carolina didn't own snow removal equipment; the problem was that all that equipment was in the mountains several hours west, and of course the blizzard completely immobilized the Interstate highways.) Fortunately, the power and Internet service stayed on. Ordinarily, the hotel restaurant served only breakfast, but staff managed to produce several meals each day for the three days that we were stranded indoors. (Amazing how many ways there are to serve waffles and bacon!) Other people in town to attend the same meeting as I were in similar situations in hotels nearby. Finally, streets were plowed and we managed to find a room where we held a 1-day meeting (instead of the planned four).
From pretty much my first personal encounter with ice, I guessed how dangerous it could be. On a couple of occasions I tried to back out of a parking space covered in ice and started sliding ever so gently over towards the neighboring car. One's instinct is to accelerate even more, but of course, that only makes the slide worse!
Regarding freezing rain, I'd parked my car in a parking lot in the morning, but when I came out to go home that evening, a slick layer of ice had formed from the rain. As I stood there trying to unlock my car door, I felt myself start sliding towards the car door. Instinctively, I put out my hand, and my thumb absorbed the full weight of my body pushing into the door. That thumb was very badly bruised and only semi-operable for several weeks.
One autumn, my city resurfaced a major road near my house. However, that winter when snow fell, we had sunny days during which the snow melted into the road surface where it refroze overnight. As you know, water expands when it freezes, and by the end of winter, the new road was completely ruined and had to be resurfaced (again!) the following spring.
The winter before I arrived in Chicago, the city had had a 1-in-a-100-year storm. Whole streets were bulldozed clear and many cars were never seen again.
Twice in 28 years, my townhouse development was snowed in so deeply that we had to have earth-moving equipment come and clear it out by the truckload. The up-side was that the big lake nearby froze over completely and the kids were able to skate. However, the resident ducks and geese were unable to get to the water.
When my son was going to school, we had more than a few snow days when school was delayed one or two hours, or was cancelled. [My friends in central Maine used to laugh at the idea of snow days. "Why don't you just drive them there on the snowmobile?" they'd ask.] With a stay-at-home Mom and with Dad often there too, we didn't have to scramble for emergency childcare like many other parents.
It's amazing to think of the cost of de-icing, plowing, snow removal, and spreading salt or sand, and having all the necessary equipment on hand just in case it is needed.
For many years, I provided consulting services to a paper company in Maine. It generated most of its own power from steam and hydro. In the case of hydro, snow on the ground is money in the bank! And the longer it stays there the better. Have an early spring thaw, and some of that water will be wasted as it has to be let over the dam.
Needless to say, few drivers are trained to drive on snow or ice. The first winter my son had his license, I took him to a large, empty parking lot to get some practice at driving in snow, but without other cars—and crazy drivers—around.
The magnitude of an earthquake is often measured in terms of the Richter scale, which is logarithmic, not linear. For example, a level 6.0 is ten times the power of a level 5.0, which, in turn, is ten times the power of a level 4.0.
My first, but indirect, encounter with this kind of event was when I visited Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala. Now, it's a thriving tourist destination and a place to learn Spanish. However, many years ago, it suffered a number of big quakes, which destroyed thousands of buildings including lots of churches, many of which remain in a partially collapsed state.
The earth moved beneath my own feet not on my first kiss, but as I lay in bed around 2 am in Kamakura, Japan. Over breakfast, I asked my host if indeed there had been a quake overnight, and she replied there had, perhaps a 3.0, but "that happens all the time". Okay, if you say so!
On 2011-08-23, at 1:51 pm, Eastern Time, a level 5.8 earthquake occurred in the greater Washington DC area, and it lasted for 45 seconds. I was working at my desk at home and knew right away what it was. After the first tremor, I stood up and then the second one hit, and that did rock me. Being "a cool, calm, and collected kind-of-guy" I took the backup memory stick from my computer, grabbed my hand-held computer and my wallet and keys, and went outside to the parking lot, where I stood with several of my neighbors. I had just had a lot of repairs done on my 3-level townhouse in preparation for its sale, and my first thought was that work might have been undone. Fortunately, it was not; the whole house had moved all as one. However, in the weeks following, I did get earthquake coverage added to my insurance policy "just in case".
In September 2013, I was lying awake with jetlag in my hotel in Tokyo when my bed started to move. And then the metal coat hangers in my closet started to knock together. I immediately knew what it was, but it was quite gentle, and the whole hotel tower moved as one. Next morning, the front desk staff told me they thought it was a level 2.0 although at the epicenter it had been 5.0. [Note that like some other countries in earthquake zones, rooms in many western-style hotels in Japan come with a flashlight that charges off the main power. It's there to help one find one's way during a power outage caused by a quake.]
Rain and Floods
Back in 1956, the River Murray that ran through my home town (in South Australia) had its biggest flood since dams were built on it. I was not yet three years-old, so have no recollection. I do, however, remember lesser floods during my school years. For years, local-area residents had been pleading for a bridge across the river, and one was finally built. However, the government couldn't afford to raise the level of the access road to the bridge for the several miles that road ran across the flats. Subsequently, when the river flooded, the road leading to the bridge was closed. Sigh!
More than 30 years ago, I had my first adventure trip, to a primitive jungle camp on the Amazon River in northeastern Peru. We started out at Iquitos, the provincial capital. There, I visited a shanty town made up of rickety old shacks that were built on large log rafts. The residents threw all their trash out the open windows. And when the rainy season came, the river rose some 40 feet (12 meters), the houses-on-rafts simply raised up with the water, and all the trash was washed away. It was great town planning!
The most rain I ever experienced at once was 7 inches (175 cms) in a few hours. And although trees and power lines came down around the city, and the lakes overflowed, the power stayed on in my neighborhood. Fortunately, I lived at the highest point of my development, so flooding wasn't a problem and no sewage backed up in my drains.
High Winds, Hurricanes, Typhoons, Tornados, and Cyclones
For many years, I lived in a neighborhood that had many, tall oak trees. Apparently, they are shallow-rooted, so when high winds blew, some trees came down. I had the "pleasure" of helping cut one up with a chainsaw after it fell in my development's playground. I also spend a memorable 4th of July holiday one year helping friends cut up and remove a number of tall trees that had come down in a mini-tornado.
Some 6 weeks after a huge hurricane swept across Florida, I went to visit the Emerald Coast (to witness a friend compete in an Iron Man triathlon qualifier race). As my plane approached Pensacola, I noticed something unusual about the houses. Many of them had bright blue roofs. As it happened, these were blue tarpaulins that had been provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers after the storm had damaged much of the city.
I've experienced 3 typhoons now, two in Tokyo and one on the Korean island of Jeju. The second one, in Japan, flooded much of the subway system and caused my group to cancel its evening harbor-cruise dinner.
In the summer of 2013, I visited the Pacific coast in both Washington State and Northern California for the first time. I was surprised to find that both areas had tsunami warning signs and sirens high up on poles to sound an alarm. In the case of Crescent City, California, the tsunami that resulted from the earthquake (and subsequent nuclear reactor disaster) in Japan, damaged shipping and facilities in its harbor after having crossed the whole of the northern Pacific Ocean! Similarly, that area was damaged and someone was drowned in the aftermath of the 1964 Good Friday quake in Valdez, Alaska.
Once while driving in the US southwest, I saw a tornado way off in the distance, but that was close enough for me. Then several times in my own area, there have been tornado warnings and a couple actually touched down and caused damage, although not too close to my house. However, now that I no longer have a basement, I have no good place to hide if one hits.
On Christmas Day, 1974, Cyclone
Tracy devastated the city of Darwin in the north of Australia. It was a monster system and the biggest the country had ever experienced.
I'm not a fan of high humidity, but I've visited the tropics on numerous occasions. Now I happen to be a non-recovering book addict, and I'm also a big watcher of videos. So imagine my horror when I stayed with a host family in Vera Cruz, Mexico, whose house had no air conditioning, and found their large book and video tape library beset with mold. Many of the tapes were no longer playable, and many books had black pages and were falling apart! C'est la vie!
According to the 14 June 2013 issue of USA Today newspaper, "With $110 billion in damage, 2012 was the second-costliest year for weather and climate disasters …. 11 separate weather and climate events that each had losses exceeding $1 billion in damage. … Hurricane Sandy ($65 billion) and the year-long drought ($65 billion). … In all, the US has endured 144 weather/climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 144 events is more than $1 trillion."
Don't forget that each time you curse at harsh winter weather, that some people's livelihoods depend on it, for example, ski resorts and all those snow-removal workers and contract companies. Besides, snow replenishes the underground water supply that so many of us rely on.
American humorist Mark Twain once wrote, "Everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." How true!
When it comes to weather, what we really want is the Goldilocks variety, not too hot and not too cold, but just right!
I'll leave you with the following poem that I learned way back in elementary school:
Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We'll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!
Weather Emergency Planning
- It's all on computers, so if I have no power, I can't get at it. Have a printed list of emergency contacts.
- Make sure pocket-computer version is up to date; however, that will lose power after a few days.
House is all-electric, so a long-term loss of power is far-reaching. Should I buy a small generator?
- If it's cold, leave frozen stuff in freezers and/or put in ice boxes in the garage, outside, or in snow
- Otherwise, set priorities on what will thaw and spoil first, and cook that and store cooked/uneaten stuff in a cold place
- Gas camping stove; check that I have enough gas bottles and matches; ensure that the gas cooking area is adequately ventilated
Pot-belly stove top
- Read the instruction book
- Make sure I have a supply of (dry) wood
- Get kindling, newspaper, and matches
- Can opener
- Use thermos to keep liquids hot/cold
- See "Pot-belly stove"
- Extra bedding (Arctic sleeping bag)
- Clear snow away from heating/air-conditioning unit, if the power is on
- Gas lantern; check that I have enough gas bottles, matches, and spare mantles
- Flashlights and spare batteries (hand-cranked flashlights)
- Charge cordless flashlights
- Old-style land lines run off the power on the phone line, so loss of power does not automatically mean a problem, but trees could be down on phone lines
- New-style land lines via fiber optic cables typically have an associated battery pack that supports 6–8 hours of talk time
- Can recharge my cell phone from my car cigarette lighter plug provided the car runs, that is. (Don't run the car in an enclosed garage though!)
- Have a portable radio and spare batteries
- Car radio, provided the car runs, that is
- No power or internet/fiber-optic connection, no TV
- None if the power is down
- Maybe none even if the power is up, but the cable is cut somewhere
- Have dry goods and cans on hand
- Energy bars, nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, peanut butter
- Rice and cups-of-noodles are good, but require hot water
- Crackers and cookies
- Eat less!
I have a well, and that has an electric pump; so, no power, no water! No toilet after one flush. No shower. No laundry
- Have 3 gallons of water/per person on hand
- Some canned food is in water/liquid
- Have a store of Gatorade
- Fill the bathtub and other containers beforehand
- Get water from melted snow
- Check emergency stash; can't swipe credit cards anywhere if there is no power.
- Make sure I have smaller denomination bills (notes)
I can get to my mailbox, assuming mail is being delivered.
- Emergency phone numbers
- First-aid kit
- Prescription medications and eyewear
- Fire extinguisher
- Create outdoor pit toilet, if possible
- If I'm supposed to get out to travel, tough; cancel if I can notify clients
- Otherwise, if no phone or internet, then tidy up my home office, catch up on reading, and do some of those long-overlooked administrative tasks
- County snow plow clears the public street, but that might not be a high priority
Trees/limbs down on road or on/around house
- Chainsaw (have gas/oil on-hand)
- Hand saw(s)
- Snow shovel to get out of garage, front door, deck doors
- Have the gas tank full (gas stations can't pump if no power)
- Have sufficient spare gas on hand (in lawn mower gas container)
- Find a safe place to park if coming home and can't get in my street or driveway
- Know how to open the garage door without any power
Store in my vehicle:
- Some energy bars
- First-aid kit
- Pad and pencil or pen
- A blanket
- Extra set of mittens or gloves, wool socks, wool cap
- Battery jumper cables
- Basic tools including a hammer, pliers, and rags