Monday, February 2, 2009

The Ice Storm: A Memorable Occasion

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
is also great
And would suffice. - Robert Frost

During the first week of February 1978 my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island was struck by a blizzard. The Great Blizzard of "78," as it is still called, hit suddenly and with force. I was at work when the first flakes began to fall. As the minutes passed however, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be an ordinary snow event. The factory I was working in shut down and we all headed for home.

At the time, I was rooming with friends in a town called Warren, a community located on the east side of Narragansett Bay. I never made it home that day; in fact, I never made it out of Providence as the snow piled up so quickly that I had to abandon the car I had bought only a few days earlier on a main street, which fortunately, ran close to my friend Gus' house.

It would be a week before I would be able to drive back out to Warren. While I don't remember the actual precipitation measurements accrued as a result of the blizzard, I do know that the snowfall amount approached four feet; snow drifts from the blowing wind reached to the roofs of people's houses. While snowfall is common in Rhode Island, blizzards are not. This particular storm completely overwhelmed the various cities' ability to cope with the precipitation and the entire state, Providence in particular, found itself completely paralyzed as four lanes of traffic in each direction on Interstate 95 were completely filled with abandoned vehicles all the way out to the City of Warwick and the state airport. Nothing moved. The highest priority became the opening of one airstrip at the airport in order that heavy snow-removal equipment could be brought in from out of state. Once the Mississippi and Georgia National Guards were able to land with their equipment, the slow task of freeing the city began. First, they had to work their way out of the airport and onto the interstate, where hundreds or even thousands of abandoned vehicles had to be towed to specially-designated centers and lots - one by one; this, over miles of interstate leading into the capital city.

Even now, I have to smile when I think of Gus' wife, Natalie, as she put up with two bored potheads who were caught unaware and didn't have anything to smoke. There was not much available that would give us a better attitude about the situation. Oh yes, we were scraping the resin off of pipes, smoking old roaches, walking through the snowdrifts - whatever in the quest for our holy grail.

About a week after the blizzard hit, we heard the roar of heavy equipment coming down the road. Finally our freedom from cabin fever and involuntary confinement was at hand. Neighbors stood at their doors and windows cheering as the plows rolled by in a scene reminiscent of appreciation shown to a liberating army.

Fayetteville experienced one such memorable event this past week as it fell victim to what was perhaps, the worst ice storm in recent memory. There have been others in recent years, but I think this one, in terms of severity, easily tops the rest. Every Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas resident likely has his/her own story to tell. After all, extreme weather events and natural disasters in general, have a way of challenging us - of forcing us to be creative; this, in order to survive. Literally thousands of electric customers were out of power. People tried to stay warm in their homes, trees and limbs came down upon roofs, driveways, power lines, roads, parks, and just about anywhere else one can think of.

Still, these natural disasters have a way of bringing out the best in us as they force us to break out of our routines in order to lend assistance to others and to realize that none of us are really an island unto ourselves. When the things that we ordinarily take for granted suddenly quit functioning, we must suddenly reconcile ourselves to hard realities such as the approach of nightfall, vulnerability to cold, and our dependence upon one another. All in all, this is not a bad thing. The problem is in trying to keep the right attitude when things suddenly go wrong, as they did last week.

It's Tuesday, and considering where we were last week at this time, Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas seem to be recovering quite well; this, with the help of so many electrical and tree specialists from both local and out of state areas. School is open once again, most of us in the urban areas have our electrical service back and things are slowly returning to normal. There is still plenty of work to be done as trees, limbs, branches and debris can be found in just about every body's front yard. As a matter of fact, the whole city seems to have the aroma of a logging camp as the poignant smell of freshly-cut trees lingers everywhere.

It is February, and while winter's bite remains today, it won't be long until spring arrives with its promise of renewal. By May, many of the trees will have sprouted new branches and the canopy of shade will be extending overhead in order to protect us from the summer sun. The ice storm of "09," while not forgotten, will slowly slip into the back of our collective memory. Still, the stories and personal experiences will live on and will be told, not only by us, but by our children and perhaps, even our children's children. These will be stories of survival; and, even though the events of the past week may have been difficult to get through, I believe that the stories, over time, will be told with a sense of pride and with a fond look back at the events of the last week.

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