States of Emergency have been declared many times. This has happened often in my lifetime, so I thought that I understood the rhythms over the course of twenty years. But what happened in 2004, no one could understand. I have talked to octogenarians who had never even heard of anything similar to what happened to us in that year. But that was not when Kentucky froze to death. The worst was truly yet to come... In January of 2009, weather reports were grim. January is traditionally worse than December and February is usually the saddest of winter months.
There is an element of excitement about blizzards and storms in this state. They are a test of one's mettle. Survival instincts come into play every spring and fall with cast-off storms from shredded hurricanes and fresh tornados. And while winter storms happen, they are always a lesser evil.
The Sinister family has always been set aside. Though isolated, we live in an area seldom rocked by the worst weather. We had sleds for snow, and one extant but nearby relative always shared their basement in dangerous storms. But no one had generators and that year we did not even have a working central heater.
The great bread phenomenon is well-known here. So called, because on threat of snow, all groceries empty. The bread is the first to go. Hours before a winter storm hits, you will not find a crumb. No pop-tarts or jugs of milk. Cokes are horded and you will not find one liter of bottled water.
Being out of the way, as we are, we buy in bulk. For instance, in 2020, the toilet paper shortage was something that happened to other people. We buy giant packages of 48 rolls or more. So we are always prepared. That's a motto of locals, to be honest. Survivalism and doomsday preppers are common and while we didn't really fit that description, we weren't far off.
I was working as a short-order chef in a local diner called Mott's Cafe. I got off work late afternoon and headed home under heavy gray skies. It was about a twenty minute commute from the nearest city to my home. That should tell you how far out we are. I still had Christmas pajamas and when I got home, you can believe I was quick into something warm. We left the taps running gently, to keep from freezing. We had emergency kerosene heaters fueled for the night, with several back up cans of kerosene ready. We didn't typically have to tap into them as we had a gas line to a blue flame vent-free heater. Plus kerosene heaters can be deadly if not properly ventilated and used sparingly.
I went to bed watching an MST3k episode(<Click Me) with a mug of hot chocolate. It was 22 degrees outside that evening. I woke up to a storm. Not a winter storm, there was no snow. Just rain. The rain froze nearly as soon as it fell. I had seen it all before. If anything, I was happy to know I wouldn't work the next day. Almost all businesses had promised to close their doors. They, nor I for that matter, had any way of knowing it would last for five days without stopping. The next day, all trees were trapped in a quarter inch of cold glassy ice. The grass shattered if you walked on it. The more flexible trees would shiver with the weight and shed frozen rain in a loud cracking creaking sound. Those were the good times. It was still a beautiful thing to see.
By the third night, everyone was afraid. That loud cracking creaking sound was replaced by splintering crashing sounds as all our trees were split. I counted only about 30 seconds between huge limbs crashing to the ground. We all grew to hate that sound and in fact, it is still the stuff of nightmares. Most trees, by the third night, had more limbs on the ground than in the air and all was covered by a half-inch of ice. You could barely see branches anymore, they were just white fingers of ice in Lichtenberg figures. They looked more like thick frozen bolts of lightning.
We had to break out the kerosene heaters, and to conserve heat we shut off most of the house and huddled mattresses in the living room. It was getting hard to breathe, but we had a carbon monoxide alarm running at all hours. We played cards, read books and played board games. We went outside to check on our neighbors, least those we could reach by walking. We cooked with the oven, constantly, trying to add more heat. No one had power. The lines failed the first night. There was no way to know how the rest of the state was doing, or when it would all end.
Towards the end, the rain turned to snow, which was a bit of luck. Our four-wheel-drive vehicles could manage with the extra traction from the snow, so long as we went at a slow creeping pace. But it was almost all for nothing. The nearest city was completely dark. It was abandoned with not another car or person in sight. Two places were open in the whole city. The local Lowe's hardware and one single restaurant who was giving away as much free food as they could afford to anyone who could make it that far. So, by luck, we were able to make it back with Mexican food and bottled water, donated out of the goodness of their hearts and one big goddamn gas generator. It sits to my left as I type this. Since that year, it hasn't been used once. It was still a smart purchase.
But do you know what happened then? It rained. That's right. After five days, with one day break, it rained again. The sounds were getting louder. We were losing more trees. The air in our living room was getting thinner. We posted one person to stay awake, while the others slept. Because, despite the carbon monoxide alarm, we were all getting headaches and having trouble breathing. We were running out of food. We were deep into our tins of food that no one typically bothers to eat. The fruit cocktails, that old can of black-eyed peas from four years ago, the jar of blackberry preserves from 2002 went great on what was left of the saltine crackers. We made homemade glazed donuts just to put some flour and powdered sugar into an edible form.
By the good grace of our new generator we could watch the news where we learned that no less than 35 of our fellow Kentuckians died. Some of hypothermia, some of carbon monoxide poisoning because they thought it a good idea to run their new generators inside their houses. Some from horrifying wrecks, caused by skidding cars across ice.
I'd like to say that that marked the turning point. But it wasn't until the middle of February before life resumed, and even then there were so many houses without power that anyone with working vehicles that could brave the remaining ice, was donating their time to helping out.
That year was the year after Tom Sutton disappeared. The year after his hat was found in Laughter, Ky. The year that the "beast" on his head was finally free to loot and maim. All this mayhem, I couldn't help but wonder what that old man had kept under his hat all those years. But we survived 2009 and so did all our loved ones. Our houses had power and our water lines had water. But we have always kept the generator right next to the house. It's never been moved and hopefully, will never be needed again.
So this year, come winter, wherever you are, be ready and, if praying's your thing, bend a knee that where you live doesn't try to break any records and that mother nature keeps it under her hat.