My First State of Emergency

I am currently experiencing my first State of Emergency as a resident of the US.  Governor Corbett declared that Pennsylvania was in a State of Emergency last night following an ice storm that has felled trees and taken down power lines.  In my township, 88% of residents are still without electricity.  We are very fortunate in that our power outage only lasted 24 hours, perhaps due to the fact that we live next door to an Elementary School which may place reconnecting our area to the grid as a high priority.

The snow was still thick on the ground yesterday when the ice storm came through.  I am not sure anyone anticipated its severity given that the School District was initially just calling for a two hour delayed start.  We then had a call not long after the alarm went off yesterday morning informing us that they had decided to make the day another snow day.  My kids are now aware that all “free” snow days have been used up and that every day lost to weather now will have to be made up in the Summer. They were not happy bunnies.  They actually want to be in school – which is a very good sign indeed.  A few minutes after that call, the power went out.  I often look like I got dressed in the dark but yesterday that was literally the case.  Amazingly I looked no worse than usual.

The freezing rain came through during breakfast.  The last time I experienced rain was when we were driving across the Erskine Bridge in Scotland.  Seeing the windows of your house get speckled with icicles is much preferable to it happening to your car windscreen, to that I can testify.  A thick layer of ice formed across the top of the crispy snow and soon everything was encased in a transparent sheath of glossy ice.  Branches of trees started to groan and creek from the additional weight.  A few in surrounding gardens sheared off the trunk and walloped to the ground below.


I experienced lots of power outages in my childhood.  The late 1970s in Scotland were filled with power cuts for one reason or another and I actually have some very fond memories of the fun we used to have playing games and chatting by candlelight.  The only downside I can recollect was that one year we got a bit short on candles and had to melt my birthday candle, which was a floppy-eared beagle dog wearing a party hat from which the wick protruded.  I didn’t need therapy over it but the fact I can still picture the candle so vividly tells me I was not a happy pixie when he had to be sacrificed to the darkness.  Of course, back then we were more used to making our own entertainment anyway.  We had three TV channels and those did not broadcast all day every day, our phone was so prehistoric it was made of Bakelite and was a party line and I had never even heard of computers let alone game consoles.

My kids were, as children of the 21st century and fans of modern technology, not so impressed by the power outage.  They kept thinking about TV and PS3s and even CDs – all while I couldn’t even make a phone call because our stupid house phones require the internet to function and our internet router needs electricity – and were frustrated that all they could play with were the hundreds of toys we had shipped over from Scotland.  The poor wee mites.  Thankfully the house we are renting has a gas hob so we could eat hot food.  Unfortunately the hot air system requires electricity for the fans to disperse the heat so the house got increasingly colder as the day progressed and as it got gradually chillier we wore progressively more layers of clothes.  Some of the kids even had a steaming hot lobster bath to get nice and warm.

Then the darkness fell and they were suddenly delighted.  The darkness was exciting – so long as they were not alone in a distant corner of the house when it suddenly became intimidating and threatening.  They played Hide and Seek which was even more challenging in the dark and allowed for some unusual hiding places, we ate by candlelight, played charades (the first time my kids have ever played charades – they don’t know how to be old school!) and read Scottish tales by the firelight for bed time.  And the best bit was that they all fell asleep really quickly in the pitch dark.

One of my books which did not make the cut for being chosen to come to America with us was ‘The Blackout Book’, a collection of facsimile pages from texts that were distributed during the Second World War, each full of games and puzzles to keep people amused during the blackouts or when they were stuck in air raid shelters.  That could have come in handy last night but thinking of it also puts this whole State of Emergency into perspective: the Luftwaffe are not dropping bombs on us after all.  Of course, I say this in the light of being among the 12% who have had power restored within 24 hours.  Things are quite difficult out there.  This afternoon I attempted to take the smallest Pict to the birthday party of one of his preschool classmates.  The venue was a few towns further north so we set off with plenty of time.  However, every route I attempted to take, we had to divert because of fallen trees.  My sat nav app was doing a great deal of recalculating along the way.  Eventually it ran out of options that did not involve just bulldozing through tree trunks and I am not familiar enough with the area to attempt just navigating without assistance so I had no choice but to admit defeat and slowly wend my way back to the house.  Hardly any traffic lights were functioning which meant that each junction, even of pretty major intersections, had become a four-way stop.  Some of these had restricted vision in certain directions so I had to hold my breath and slowly edge out hoping that I would be seen by the traffic hurtling along on the perpendicular road.  It’s definitely not pleasant out there.  Although my 4 year old was sorely disappointed to have to miss the party and I was gutted for him, I felt quite relieved to pull into the driveway and get the kettle on for a warming cup of tea.  Relieved and lucky.





Polar Vortex

I did just write an entry confessing to be obsessed with the weather.  The weather phenomenon that prompted the epiphany that I was taking an abnormal interest in weather forecasts was this: the polar vortex.

I had never heard the phrase polar vortex before but suddenly it was appearing in newscasts and on my weather app so it was clearly something I had to pay attention to.  It transpires that it is the label given to an Arctic cyclone and this particular Arctic cyclone had, as a result of the jet stream, shifted enough to create a severe cold front in parts of Canada and America, including Pennsylvania.  As I type this, we are in the middle of it.

We have been lucky to not have the temperature drop anywhere near as far as it has in other affected states but blooming heck it’s still bitterly cold.  Seriously sub-zero.  We had a power cut yesterday morning that had me a bit worried but power was restored after a few hours which was pretty impressive given the scale of the outage and the weather conditions.  Our house, therefore, has remained a cosy haven.  I have had cause to comment before that it is perishing outside or brass monkeys or a whole range of other phrases to describe a low temperature but I have never, ever experienced cold like this.  Words are going to fail me.  Which is a bit rubbish for a blog but never mind.

The wind last night was ferocious.  The house rattled and thrummed as it was battered and bashed by gales, wind whistled through any small gap it could find, a proper banshee whistle.  The howling and growling was the loudest I have ever heard.  I am not a good sleeper at the best of times but, between the noise levels and my paranoid checking of the trampoline, I barely slept a wink last night.  We live next door to the boys’ Elementary School so the whole round trip to drop them off took just five minutes but within that short space of time I had developed snotsicles.  It’s not dignified nor is it feminine but the fact remains that moisture in my nostrils had turned to ice.  That’s a first experience worth noting for posterity, don’t you think?  The walk to take my youngest to preschool is just a little longer but this morning it involved facing into the wind.  My lungs felt like they were struggling to inflate every time I gulped another breath of sharp, icy air and my cheeks were stinging and felt oddly flushed.  I understood why there were warnings about frostbite from lengthy exposure to these temperatures, especially further north.  The smallest Pict started wailing on the walk back home because his cheeks hurt so much from being battered by the frigid air.  I was wearing at least four layers but the little bits of me that were exposed to the elements were pained.  And I got frost on my spectacles, pretty ferns and fronds of ice creeping across the glass lenses.  Beautiful, yes, but not very handy when trying to cross the road.

But for us, of course, this is a short-term thing and not something that occurs often.  For us this is just a phenomenon, something we have to endure for a very brief period. Experiencing just a little of this fierce, biting cold, however, makes me thankful I don’t live in colder climes and makes me appreciate the fact we have shelter from the elements in terms of adequate clothing, a warm house and hot food to eat.  Not everyone in the world has such basic sources of comfort.  Not everyone in this country does.

So this is my first experience of a polar vortex; I am OK with it being my last.