3 Big Storms & Weathering the Unexpected (Part 1)

by mdiehl on November 8, 2012


The weather here is growing frigid. No big surprise. I live in the Snow Belt.

We have storms. We’re ready. We know how to “do it.”

But southeast of us, in NYC and New Jersey, where people are still without heat, power, or even any shelter, the prospect of a nor’easter loaded with wind, cold and snow is frightening when you’re in its path after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

Part of my family was caught by Sandy and it was their first experience in the unexpected trials and inconveniences of a major storm. I say “inconveniences” because thank god, they didn’t lose anything that can’t be replaced and were able to hole up together, although they were out of power for five days. It’s interrupted their work lives and social lives (they’re young Urbanites) — and made them less dismissive of what a storm like that can do.

So they’ve learned some lessons.

Every storm teaches us lessons about ourselves. It’s how we get through them that leaves us with valuable information — like how strong we are, how afraid, how unwilling or willing we are to accept discomfort or deprivation. How to be resourceful and ingenious. What we’re willing to sacrifice. How much we’re willing to share.

It got me thinking about the worst storms I’ve been in, and what I’ve gained from them.

1. A tropical storm in Florida.

When we first moved to Florida, we were invited to a gathering at a friend’s home. There were several Northern “ex-pats” there. A hurricane was forming south of us, and speculation was whether it would hit us — we lived on the beaches of north Florida, outside Jacksonville. Some of the guests shared their experiences of being in more than one hurricane.

We heard about how the wind is driven horizontally, so that it is forced into the doors and window frames. How you should crack open windows on the leeward side of the storm, because the barometric pressure can explode houses outward. One couple said they just pack their camper and head out of Dodge, to wherever it’s safe, until it’s over.

I thought about what preparations we’d need to make. We taped up our sliding glass doors — never do that. The residue from masking tape takes forever to get off glass. Plus, our whole pool side of the house was made up of sliding glass doors, so it would hardly matter if masking tape was there.

We had one “inside room” that didn’t have a window — the powder room. Could we all fit inside in case of a tornado?

The main thing I thought about (after the fact that I’d do anything and go anywhere to keep the boys safe) was — how fast could we pack and what precious photos could we bring in our “Wagon Queen Family Truckster” — our boat-sized Pontiac Parisienne station wagon? How could we take care of our dog, Sunny? Could she and our cat live in our car out in a parking  lot for awhile if we had to go to a shelter?

Turned out, in the five years we lived in Atlantic Beach, Florida, we escaped about 4 major hurricanes.

Several, however, turned into tropical storms. That means that the winds are below 75mph — but it rains and blows for days non-stop.

Tornadoes can form at any time. The thunder and lightening is fierce. Power went out regularly at the beaches from wind and salt build up on the wires.

During one of our worst tropical storms, I was alone with the boys while TJ worked in NYC for Ohlmeyer Communications & ESPN.

I remember the streets flooding. We lived on the (chuckle) “highest point” in Atlantic Beach. Our 1960 home was built on an old railroad bed, so we had a hill to the street in front and a slope from the side. We lived on a corner, so a large whirlpool would form at the storm drain. The ocean wore away the dunes and the wind whipped the sand into a stinging, abrasive wall.

The worst part was at night. Outside, in the Jurrasic Park-like neighborhood we lived in, the pool sat pumping away, filling with rain. Our home was about 4″ up from pool level, so I had to be sure it got drained off on a regular basis through the storm. That meant going out at at 3 or 4am to get the pump going. And emptying the filter basket, which on a good day could be filled with unpleasant critters. Poisonous snakes needed to take shelter, too. And in Florida, they liked curled-up hoses.

So I’m out there in the pitch-black, whipped with wind and rain, scared to death to start the pump and risk getting electrocuted by the relentless lightning. BOOOM! Crash! HOWL!

But I did it.

WHAT I LEARNED: Preparation is key. You have to think ahead. Fill the bathtubs with water, have batteries and food on hand, leave everything and get to safety if you have to. Abandon ship if necessary. Whatever. Batten down. Make a plan and be ready to change it if necessary. Chances are, you won’t have to do what you prepared for. The storm will pass. And you are a lot stronger and braver than you know.

2. The 1991 Ice Storm in western NYS.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night in March, 1991, to the sound of what seemed to be gunshots. We ‘d moved up from Florida to our new home in Canandaigua, NY, about 35 miles southeast of our hometown of Rochester.

March can be treacherous in our part of the state. You can have rain and wind, warmer days, blizzards — this time we had a heavy freezing rain when we went to bed the night before. The worst, I think, is ice.

The gunshots I heard were tree limbs exploding. Cracking. Crashing. We awoke to a dazzling sight. A horrible sight.


Ice up to 2″ thick coated everything. Outside the surfaces on the ground were one big ice rink, dangerous to try to move on.

There was no power. No heat. The trees in our yard — beautiful 30′ white ash trees — were still standing. Our 1900 Victorian home had no damage. But we had an electric stove and a octopus-ancient furnace that had an electric ignition, so the heat wouldn’t come on.

We had three fireplaces and not one was useable (they all needed to be re-lined and unblocked).

Strangely, some friends had power about three blocks away. They invited us over for dinner and some warmth. Then we went back to our cold, dark house and lit candles (always a fun thing for young boys) and bundled up in sleeping bags and blankets.

Our LAN line worked. I don’t remember how. But we talked to my parents in Rochester,whose side of their block had everything – heat, power and CABLE! We decided to brave the ban on travel and try to make it to Rochester. This time, TJ was with us and we traversed a countryside that looked like it had been hit with an atom ice-bomb. Trees lay flattened, shattered, fallen against others like wounded soldiers. Power lines draped off titled, hanging poles. It was like No Man’s Land — Mother Nature had waged war.

We stayed for a week, nine of us in my parents’ 1400 square foot house. My mom called it “The House With the Rubber Walls,” because she and my dad always found a way to fit anybody who came there.

The worst part was going outside and seeing what devastation the ice had done to the gorgeous old trees that filled the neighborhood and the adjoining gem of the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Highland Park.

This was my neighborhood. I grew up there. Our first home (TJ’s and mine, bought after his rookie win in San Antonio on the Tour) was just around the corner.

The only way to get anywhere was to walk. The trees and wires (many of them live) blocked streets and sidewalks.

The sun came out and created the most blinding, dazzling beauty — as if everything was coated with glass and diamonds.

I wanted to see our old house. The house where I’d spent the first 10 years, growing a family. I adored that house. I’d had a small white ash tree planted in our front yard. The street was well-known (like all the streets in our neighborhood) for its century-old maples, oaks and sycamores which arched over the streets like cathedral halls.

My brother had walked up and looked down that street. “Marce, don’t go up there,” he warned. “You don’t want to see it.”

But I did. It was a part of me, the shade trees and the neighbors and that little tree that I used to sit on my front steps and watch grow as my little ones played outside.

Huge limbs had crashed down. Many of the maples were so damaged, they’d have to be cut. The streets wouldn’t be the same for another 30+ years.

And my little white ash — now owned by someone else — was split in two down the middle to the ground. It really wasn’t “mine” anymore. That piece of life was gone. It was time to make a real home in Canandaigua.

WHAT I LEARNED: People share a disaster. They share what they have, they figure out how to get around the obstacles, they give what they can, they work together. The sun comes out, the ice melts and the debris gets cleaned up. Power is restored. It’s about how you handle what you lose. You have to let go of what you had. You have to accept that it will be different for a long, long time. In fact, it will never be the same. But other things will take their place. Good things. Life can cut the cord to things. And even when your heart is broken, you still have so much more out there waiting to be loved.

The third storm comes next… in Part 2.


Photo credits: Boat tossed by storm onto golf course – Auburn Univ. Turf Grass Management; Ice Storm 1991 on Crawford Street/Rochester – WIXT News


What’s one of the worsts storms you’ve ever been in? And what did you learn from it?

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