Friday, November 01, 2013

Remembering the Halloween Blizzard of 1991

The Halloween Blizzard of 1991 is the thing of legends. It dumped two or more feet of snow throughout much of the state over the course of two or three days. It left hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans in the dark as power lines and power poles snapped under the weight of the heavy snow.

But those socked in by the snow and multiple-feet-deep snow drifts in the Twin Cities and further north were lucky compared to what those of us in far southern Minnesota endured.

My parents were gracious enough to take me trick or treating for what would be my final time trick or treating. My dad had given up plowing earlier in the day as the cold rain falling made the corn stalk-covered ground too slick to keep the tractor moving. Having heard the forecast, he had the foresight to park the International 966 tractor and attached 5 bottom plow in the large white machine shed sitting toward the back of our building site.

Living in the rural area a few miles outside of the nearby city, I piled into my dad's trusty 1977 Ford F-150, red in color, an got carted around to a handful of neighbors who were always excited to see the few kids in the neighborhood no matter what their age was. I remember my mom being a bit nervous as the rain, coming down heavier now, was beginning to freeze on the gravel roads. Her being right about the less-than-optimal driving conditions lead to an early end to the trick or treating.

The next morning I awoke at the usual time to my mom informing me that school had been cancelled for the day. This news prompted my mom to suggest to my dad that him and I head into town to buy some grocery necessities because we knew the weather wasn't going to be improving anytime soon. I remember practically skating out the front door of our house, seeing the trees in the front yard sagging nearly to the ground with a few branches already snapped and lying on the ice-covered grass. The usual five minute trip in to town took three or four times as long and the town seemed practically deserted.

After returning home, we tried to live life as normally as possible. The local radio station was broadcasting news and closings continuously. My mom's favorite radio station from about 90 miles away was talking about the impassible streets and the heavy snow still falling. We all figured that the rain which was still coming down would turn to snow in minutes or an hour at the most.

But that never happened. I believe it was a bit before the lunch hour when the electricity began to flicker off and back on again. Then after one particular flicker, the electricity didn't come back on. My mom, sensing that this would last more than a few hours, closed the doors at the far end of the house to trap the heat from the furnace which she had been running at increasingly higher temperatures throughout the morning. My mom knows when to calmly panic.

Hours passed as the temperature dropped. Trees continued to bend and eventually snap. The power lines leading to our house sagged further than could be imagined but didn't snap. That didn't help, though, as we found out a few days later when we ventured out to see the damage in our immediate neighborhood and witnessed mile-long stretches of power poles snapped with their now dead wires lying on the ground or across the ice-encased roads.

The days continued to pass and those neighbors with gas or diesel-powered generators pitched in, doing what they could for their literally powerless neighbors. We were given cans or tanks of water while my parents pitched in to help others who were without electricity. After eight days without electricity and with road conditions improving we ventured out for a 100-mile drive to some longtime friends of my parents who had a generator which was sitting unused and were willing to let us borrow for as long as we needed.

After taking an entire Saturday to traverse the still ice-covered roads and highways and eventually crossing into the areas which had received well over a foot of heavy and wet snow and back again, we arrived home where my dad promptly hooked up the ancient generator and, just like that, we had electricity to the most important things in our house. We again had heat, water from our well and hot water. The refrigerator was working again and the items which my mom had relocated from our chest freezers in the basement to nature's deep-freeze (after all, the temperatures following the freak storm barely topped out above zero degrees) were back in their proper home in the basement's freezers. Having finally achieved some sense of normalcy again after eight very strange days, we again ventured out into different areas of our neighborhood. I remember seeing high voltage power lines brought to the ground and the towering poles which had previously supported them snapped off like toothpicks, and even stranger to me was that nobody had even attempted any sort of repair. This project would take weeks or even months to repair and would likely have to wait until the spring thaw to complete.

Again at home and with a radio now powered by sweet, sweet electricity, the news of the day was that the rural electric cooperative which powered the family farm had restored electricity to nearly 80% of their customers. Still, though, our particular area was listed as one of the most heavily damaged areas. We would have to continue to wait until we resumed some sense of normalcy.

Then it happened. A truck from the electric cooperative turned around in our driveway. This truck slowly made its way up our icy gravel road, probably inspecting the lines and poles. About an hour later the electricity came back on. It had taken eleven long days but there it was. The electricity which we take for granted was back and so was our television, though mostly useless as the television stations in our area still had heavily damaged transmission towers or were without electricity themselves. Life slowly returned to normal. We ventured across our icy yard and began to cut up fallen branches and trees. We chipped ice from our sidewalk and attempted to make a passable path or two to our outbuildings and mailbox.

That year, for whatever reason, was a turning point. It took years to recover for my parent's farm. The normal fall tillage work hadn't been completed and was pushed to spring of 1992 making the planting season the following year later than usual. The weather also stayed cooler than normal and wet as well. The crop yields in 1992 suffered due to this and 1993 was the worst year yet. The crops barely got planted in 1993 with the spring planting season lasting into early July. In the fall of 1993, I remember my dad simply plowing corn under late one evening as it was so wet that it was unharvestable... in mid November. That year, coupled with the losses from the previous two years, nearly sunk my parent's entire farm as they again struggled in 1994. Those meager times coupled with seeing what they did to get by in life have made me who I am and no matter how tough those times were, those memories are what keep me working tirelessly to make a better life while I am reminded that hard work, no matter how futile and hopeless it seems at times, does eventually pay off.

Since that time in 1991, my parents have not endured a power outage that long. An event like that is, to me at least, character building. It tests you at every turn and makes life challenging. While I had zero appreciation for the challenges we faced during and following that epic storm, I look back today and realize what it took to survive for those trying eleven days. Not to mention those trying days and years that followed and tested not only my parents but everyone in the area. I remember working harder than I ever had before in those following years to keep the family farm working. We suffered through equipment breakdowns, adverse weather and every challenge that you could ever imagine and while times were meager, we came out on the other side appreciating what we had. I only hope that I can instill those values in my own children and that I never have to go through adversity at those levels again in my lifetime but if I do, I know how to triumph over them.

No comments: