Monday, January 28, 2008

The One Where We All Nearly Died...

It was cold. Record-setting low temperatures rolled across our region, and the local meteorologists warned of the impending storm.

The storm was beautiful, at first. Glittery and sparkling, the ice grew thicker and thicker on everything. But then it became too thick, too heavy. It became deadly.

It was very nearly deadly for our entire family.

And we are still recovering.


Back in early December, the ice storm swept across our state, bringing everything to a halt. Trees of all kinds splintered and fell, coated in ice. Power lines were snapped, power poles toppled, leaving literally a million households alone in our state in the cold and the dark. Streets and roads were impassable - some from the ice itself, but most were blocked by fallen trees and poles. School was out for more than a week, and many employers told their workers to stay home - there was no electricity to run the businesses.

Our electricity went out on the first day of the storm, around 5:00 am. The Wrench sighed, and pulled on warm clothes to go out and fire up the generators; it was too cold to wait too long, and from listening to the radio, we knew already that power outages were already massive.

If you had a natural-gas water heater (we do) you at least had hot water. If you had a generator, you could also have heat.

Generators were at a premium. If you happened to be fortunate, as we were, to have not one, but two generators, you could be warm, with lights, a microwave to cook with, TVs, and even the height of luxury - indoor refrigeration (it was so cold that any food placed outside froze solid) - but it meant that you were in an eternal search for gas stations that still had pumps that were running. By the time the power was restored, we had a total of 14 gas cans; when we would find an open gas station, we filled up to insure that we always had enough gas to continue to run the generators. It became our daily "treat" - we would put the empties into the minivan, and go out looking for an open station. We would fill the cans, and get everyone a snack to have at home. We did what we had to do to live.

But by the time the power came back on, we were all almost dead. Literally.

I know what you are thinking. You think that it was the generators. Ironically enough, it wasn't.

It was carbon monoxide.

But it wasn't the generators.


It started innocently enough. At first, Twinks had a headache, but we all attributed it to the never-ending noise of the two generators. They were well away from the doors and windows of the house, but sheltered at the far end of the front porch. They ran constantly, only stopping when The Wrench would shut down first one, then the other for either maintenance (oil changes) or to fill them. He worked tirelessly, around the clock in the freezing cold to keep the rest of us warm. Typically, about every 4 to 5 hours he would go outside to maintain the generators. I cooked on a single electric burner, with a crock pot and an electric frying pan. By the second day, My Mom had a headache, too. We learned that if we turned off the big TV in the living room, and one of the electric space heaters, I could run a load of laundry in the washing machine. We hung it inside the house on makeshift lines, but we had clean clothes.

By the third day, I had a headache. Never-ending, throbbing, pounding. I assumed it was stress. Twinks was sleeping all the time, complaining that there was nothing to do but watch TV. The land line telephone was out, and cell service was so overloaded that if you could get through, typically it was just to voicemail, which would arrive at the recipients phone between 2 and 24 hours later. Cable TV service was erratic; we played videos and DVD's whenever the cable was out.

For all of our hardships, however, we thought we were in pretty good shape - after all, we had the two generators.

The Wrench didn't have a headache until day 5. We all felt lethargic, and My Mom and Twinks were coughing. Their heads hurt, and they had lost their appetites.

We even briefly considered that it could be carbon monoxide poisoning, but dismissed that possibility because we had moved the generators as far away from the house as we could (without risking them being stolen) and we had double-sealed all the windows and doors as best we could. Remember, though - we are still remodeling, and it seemed as though there were a million little places where cold air could seep through. Slowly and methodically, we plugged them up.

Slowly but surely, we all seemed to get sicker and sicker.

On day six, our electricity flickered back to life. We celebrated by running the dishwasher (I was so eternally tired of washing dishes by hand, it was a celebration for me) and The Wrench celebrated by turning off the generators, and changing the oil in both of them. We ran the central heat, everyone took a hot shower, and I got the laundry caught up quickly; the dryer was another rediscovered joy for me. My headache seemed to ease a little - I thought it was because the never-ending thrumming of the generators had been blessedly silenced. I was in the middle of cooking dinner when it happened. Eight hours after it came on, the electricity went out again.

The Wrench sighed, and fired up the generators.

Two days later, I would have sworn that I was on the verge of insanity. My head hurt so badly that I couldn't think straight at all. Twinks had huge dark circles under her eyes, and had nearly quit eating. My Mom was terribly disoriented and quiet. I sent them out regularly with The Wrench to find gasoline and groceries, figuring that the fresh air would be good for them, even going so far as waking them in the middle of the night to go out. Day and night were meaningless, anyway; the generators were so loud that sleep was nearly impossible.

In the end, those trips outside the house may have saved their lives. Those little "fresh air" excursions probably saved all of us.


The power finally came back on for good, and after a few more days, we unplugged the generators and put them away, and began to clean up the storm damage to the house and the yard. We all gradually began to feel better, and at first we thought it was because the generators had been silenced. The noise had been so loud, so pervasive that even the cats had seemed relieved when it was quiet again.

Work resumed on the remodel as well. The plumbers came just before Christmas to install the new hot water heater for our house. The lead plumber came down the hall, frowning. His carbon monoxide monitor kept going off while he was working in the utility closet. He told us that the closet was improperly vented; he wanted permission to correct the issues by placing a fresh air vent through the attic, out to the eaves. He explained that because of the way the closet was built, it would be very easy for carbon monoxide levels to build up inside the closet, and he showed us how the lack of any door seal at the bottom of the closet would allow the carbon monoxide to flow easily into the house. He told us that the 25 year old hot water heater was likely the primary source of the carbon monoxide - but that during the ice storm, when the furnace wasn't running, the pilot light of the furnace may have contributed to the problem also. Because the furnace didn't run during that week (and thereby stir the air inside the utility closet) the carbon monoxide levels continued to build and spill into the hallway that serves the bedrooms of our home.

I didn't even ask him how much it would cost. Just fix it so it can't ever happen again.

We were lucky.

Very, very lucky.


The utility closet has been completely revamped, and the new hot water heater is properly installed and vented. We are working with the electrician on installing a single whole-house generator that will run off of natural gas; it will be seamless, and there will be no need for The Wrench to ever schlep gas cans for a generator again. We also had the HVAC contractor double check all of the ductwork, old and new, to insure that carbon monoxide cannot leak into the ductwork.

We have learned our lesson.

Our headaches are nearly all gone, as are all the other side effects. What lingers for me is the sense of how very close we came - and how very easy it was to convince ourselves that we were safe, and that the problem was not carbon monoxide. We thought that the generators might be a problem, and we took the steps we thought would prevent the problem. So it wasn't the generators. It was the house itself that nearly betrayed us.


I'll be back soon, with more stories from the last two months. I appreciate those of you who took the time to write and check up on me; although we were all very, very ill before it was over, we will all be fine. And hopefully, I'll be back here regularly again!


Chuck said...

Wow. I knew it had been a while since you posted, but I figured life was just keeping you busy...didn't count on a family near death experience. I'm glad my mother has a carbon monoxide detector at her house. I'll check the batteries on that thing next time I visit.

Kelly said...

Man, that's scary :O

So glad to "see" you again--alive and well :)

teneal ann said...

Eep! I'm glad you're alright. Same as Chuck, I thought life was keeping you busy!

Glad to know everyone in the family is doing better.

Fab Grandma said...

I am so glad that things turned out ok. And, I am so glad you are back to writing. I have missed you.

thestraightpoop said...

Holy cow, girl...I am so glad you and yours are okay...what an ordeal! How scary. I hope you're feeling much better these days.

Suldog said...

Wow. That's quite a story. I'm glad you're all OK, and also glad to see a posting from you again, of course. God bless.

Rurality said...

Holy crap! It's an amazing story -- so glad it turned out well.

Melinda said...

Thank God you're all okay! Been checking occasionally to see if there were any new posts - glad to see you back :)

Hope you're all feeling better soon.