Thursday, 26 December 2013

Prairie Girl Preparedness and the Ice Storm of 2013


Both my parents can trace their lineage back to Russia, and my mother also back to Romania.  The winters were harsh and life was not easy.  People had to be resourceful, thrifty, and careful in order to be able to feed, clothe and shelter their families.  In the mid-to-late 1800's through the early 1900s, both my parents' families fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe; coming to Canada to build a better and safer life for their families.

Which leads me to the story of my Mama...she is a prairie girl - born and bred.

She comes from hearty stock, with great-grandparents and grandparents who homesteaded on the Canadian prairies in the late 1800s.  That's well before the modern conveniences of electric wiring in homes, indoor plumbing and the like.

"Saskatchewan sod house, circa 1900";
photo source: 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sod_house

Bubbie Gertie's parents - Isaac and Clara, together with their 2-year-old son William, emigrated from Russia in the 1882, and lived in a soddie, which is a house made of sod (thickly-rooted prairie grass) and mud.  My great-great-grandfather Isaac worked with the CPR - Canadian Pacific Railway - working his way from very humble beginning to ultimately open 4 retail stores in Manitoba - on Main Street in Winnipeg,  in Plum Coulee, Altona and MacGregor.  They raised a family of 7 children, including my great-grandmother, Bubbie Gertie, and helped to build not only a strong and enduring family, but strong and enduring Jewish community.

They are some of my ancestral teachers.  They taught Bubbie Gertie how to achieve the perfect balance between maintaining a budget and meeting the wants and tastes of a family.  Living in the harsh conditions of the prairies - bitterly cold winters, dry hot summers, and the occasional drought, they learned to prepare for the unexpected.

There was always canning, and preserves.  There are recipes that I have discovered but not yet had the time to make myself - jams, pickles, etc.  These items lasted for years, and rounded out meals.  There were dried goods too.  As long as they were stored properly, they never spoiled.

Here is a quick family lineage refresher for Mom's side: Zaida Isaac and Bubbie Clara were parents to Bubbie Gertie.  Bubbie Gertie married Zaida Sam and they moved from Winnipeg to Regina, where they had Bubbie Lou.  Bubbie Lou married Zaida Bernie, and they had my mother, Carol Joy.

I used to love going to my grandparents' basement in Regina.  It was not finished, but there were so many interesting nooks and crannies to explore.  There was the cedar closet - which was huge.  It smelled so different in there, and there were so many pretty dresses and gowns to discover, not to mention gorgeous furs to touch (my Zaida Bernie was a furrier).

Then there was the food storage section - which took up a third of the basement.  There were 3 upright freezers, plus a chest freezer, and at least 1 upright fridge that formed an L shape along 2 walls. Oh, and don't forget the oven and stove.  And there were 2 long tables - probably 15 feet in total, that ran parallel to the wall of upright fridges and freezers.  These tables were used for preparing baking and meals en masse.  Walk down a little further and you reach a room that was floor to ceiling shelves of dried goods and pops (soda for all you non-Canadians!).  It was so exciting to go in that room, and look at all the yummy bags of chips (I remember Ringolos), and canned spaghetti (I remember Spaghettios) and Fresca!  These were all things that I only ever saw when we were in Regina, and never knew could be had in Toronto.

Funny, as I share this with you, I think of our own basement.  I think of our cantina (cold cellar), and the chest freezer and fridge in the storage room, and realize that I don't just model myself after Carlo's parents...in fact, our storage room is virtually a replica of my grandparents' basement.

Mom had the same storage, stockpiling and emergency preparedness mentality - it came from years of living on the prairies.
  • You need to keep a candle and heavy blankets in your car trunk in case of a white out.  Why?  In case you are suddenly in a white out while driving.  The blanket will keep you warm.  The candle will tell you if the car is filling with carbon monoxide.  See Mama?  I was listening.  
  • You need to have fresh batteries in your flashlights, and big, solid, free-standing, 24-hour candles that will take you through a power failure.  
  • You need enough bottled water to last 3 days.  
  • You need crank radio in case the power is out and your batteries die.
  • You need to have an extra propane tank, or 2, for barbecuing - to cook and heat food and water. 
  • You need lots of canned goods, dried goods, and prepared foods in case there is a power failure. 
  • Have some cash money available, in case there is no way to access your bank. 
  • Keep your gas tanks full.
  • Have a land line telephone that's plugged directly into the wall - cordless phones won't work during a power failure.
So...as Y2K (year 2000) approached, and panic was rising that our computer-dependent society was going to crash if computers accidentally reverted back to 0 (1900 instead of 2000 for those of you too young to remember), my mother began preparing.  And the rest of us?  We laughed.  Seriously...like anything so archaic as a 3-day power failure could happen in this day and age?!?  Really, Carol...

But, much like The Little Read Hen, my mother kept on stockpiling and preparing for an emergency.  And Y2K finally arrived.  As midnight approached I found myself holding my breath...the clock struck midnight...and....nothing.  Poor Carol Joy...we all teased her that she was an alarmist.  And, as the amazingly good-natured person she is, she just smiled and kept on.  She replaced the water, checked the batteries, kept a little cash stash, maintained full tanks of propane and stockpiled her dried and canned goods.  

Then, one beautiful sunny summer day in 2003, August 14th to be precise, Mom was watching Sara and Becca while Dad, Davie, Carlo and I were all at work.  I was in the inner office of our building - no windows - and all of a sudden everything went black and silent.  I don't remember how we discovered that the entire Eastern Seaboard was powerless, but we did.  We all filed out of our offices into the hallways, and down the stairwells, to our cars.  We drove out of the downtown at a snail's pace - a drive that typically took 20 minutes took over 3 hours.  There were no traffic lights.  There were no subways. We gave people lifts home - others started the long walk uptown.  People got out of their cars and started directing traffic in the major downtown intersections.  We used our cell phones while we could, before circuits overloaded and lines went down.  Carlo was up north, and made it back to our place, where he stayed.  He told me to get to my parents' home and just wait it out there with the kids.  

Meanwhile, Carol Joy, the ever-prepared prairie girl, went into emergency mode.  She kept the kids entertained, opened her emergency stores, filled all the bathtubs with water (in case power failure prevented pumps from running water after a certain point), and waited for her troops to come home.

My parents were prepared, and their house became ground zero for my parents, Sara, Becca, me, Davie, Lena, and some of their friends.  Mom and Dad had so much food and water, and they took care of us all.  Mom was gracious about it, never pointing out that we were no longer teasing her.  She just took care of her family.  And, without even realizing it, I learned an invaluable lesson.  

I think it was about this time I really started laying supplies.  Our cantina stockpile grew.  Our freezers became full.  We have water, candles and flashlights.  And when I hear a storm is coming, I lay in more supplies...just in case.  

Last Saturday my cousin Michael - also grandson to Bubbie Gertie, and a prairie-prepared planning kind of person - messaged me to ask if I thought we'd really lose power with this coming ice storm.  He was in Edmonton, his family planning on meeting him there on Monday.  I told him I doubted it would be bad, but then something twigged in the back of my head, and I messaged Dad and Davie to make sure they were prepared...just in case.  

Remember, we've just moved into our new home.  Our stockpiles are low.  I went out and re-stocked everything.  Or so I thought.  Now we were ready.  

Sunday morning I awoke to power.  "See? It was hype", I told myself.  Then, at 8:45 a.m., as Becca and I were getting ready to leave for her dance performance, the lights flickered and went out.  The power was out.  

I took her to dance, and as we drove down the street, my low fuel light came on.  Panic set in as I heard my mother and husband's voices ringing in my ears...how many times have we told you not to let the gas go below a half tank?!?  All I could think about was that the power was off and there would be no way to pay for gasoline.  I dropped Becca at the theatre and they had power!!!  I drove directly to the closest gas station, passing streets with power, and some without, hoping all the while that the station would have power and I could fill up.  They had lost power, and regained it!  I was so lucky.  I filled up and made a mental note to NEVER let the tank get that low again...EVER!

Driving along the streets was so strange.  It looked both beautiful and catastrophic at the same time.  The glistening icy trees were so pretty, until you saw the huge broken limbs - fallen into the road, onto cars...

Ice Storm 2013 (22 Dec 13)
I came home to a powerless house.  We are so lucky - we have a gas fireplace on each floor, enough to keep the house temperature from falling too low.  I am not sure what we did to pass the time, but then Becca called to ask to be picked up - they'd lost power at the theatre, the alarm was going off and they had to evacuate.  I brought Becca and a couple of her friends home with us.  And we waited.

Davie, Dad and Katie had all lost power the night before.  My in laws had power and heat, but no phone or cable.  Of greatest immediate concern were Dad and Davie - they have electric fireplaces, which weren't operational. The temperature in their homes was quickly dropping. 

We offered our home to all of them...we had some heat, lots of food and tons of room.  Everyone was OK.  Kate and her kids were huddling by the fire making the best of a bad situation, Davie had moved Lena and Abby to his in laws, and Dad finally accepted our offer to come and stay here.  

By then, our power came back on.  We were so fortunate to have only been powerless for 7 hours.  Carlo and Sara dashed out to the store and laid in a supply of large glass-chimney candles, I started to bake and cook prepared foods in case we lost power again, and Becca and her friends got ready for the second dance show, in case the theatre regained power.  But it never did regain power that day.  The kids made the most of it, had a sleepover, and thoroughly enjoyed the Ice Storm of 2013.  

Meanwhile, Dad walked down 24 flights of stairs, carrying clothing and a briefcase (in case Court was open the next day - and it was) in a completely darkened stairwell.  He lost his footing when trying to make way for a child walking up the same set of stairs, fell down a flight of stairs, hit his head and banged up his knee.  Davie was walking up that same set of stairs and found him at the 11th floor, being tended to by the man whose grand-daughter Dad was making room for.  He is fine, thank goodness, and only suffered superficial cuts and scrapes.  

This storm was brutal.  Dad was without power for almost 48 hours and David for 72 hours.  Our old neighbourhood was without power for close to 96 hours.  The trials and tribulations that so many people endured to protect their families and homes from the freezing cold temperatures are both heartbreaking and heartening.

As late as yesterday, friends were still reporting being without power, their house temperature plummeting to 43 degrees.  And yet somehow, through all of this you hear amazing stories of people opening their homes and hearts to others, to keep one another going through these difficult times.  

What a story we will have to tell our grandchildren one day.  And just to close the story with a bang, literally: we came home from Carlo's parents' home on Christmas Eve, and as we were closing up the house at 11:30 p.m., we heard a loud boom and felt the house shake.  Carlo and I checked everywhere...no trees had crashed into the house, and our second-story deck had not collapsed.  It was very frightening, and made even more so by the fact that we could not find an explanation for it.  

The next morning, it was all over Facebook.  People in York Region had also felt and heard the boom, but at different times and different geographic locations!  

The mystery was finally solved last night...we experienced a Frost Quake.  Otherwise known as a cryoseism, this phenomenon often follows ice storms.  To paraphrase Wikipedia: when water seeps deep into the soil and rock, freezes and expands.  The build up of pressure and stress on the surrounding rock is ultimately relieved explosively in a cryoseism.  


To sum up, I learned some lessons during the Great Ice Storm of 2013:
  • My mother is always right, and she taught me well - follow her rules above...you'll be glad you did;
  • We need my father to live on a lower floor...in case of emergencies;
  • Plan for the unexpected...you never know when you might need it;
  • Have a land line telephone...thank you Becca, for insisting that we keep a land line when we moved, and that we have a "Golden Girls" wall phone in our kitchen; 
  • Make sure to help others wherever you can; and 
  • Respect the awesome power Mother Nature.
I am hoping that with the passing of the ice storm, settling into our new home, and the holidays being over, I can finally get back to discovering family recipes and sharing them with you.  

I wish you all a wonderful winter break, filled with power, warmth, family, fun, friends and fantastic food.  May the upcoming year bring you and your loved ones health, happiness and good fortune.