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The "Hour of the Wolf"

Surviving Hurricane Sandy - county style

Michael Hillman

"Have you ever heard of the Hour of the Wolf? My father told me about it. It's the time between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning. You can't sleep, and all you can see are the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should've gone but didn't. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart. I've been living in the hour of the wolf for seven days. Seven days. The wolf and I are now on a first-name basis. In times like this, my father used to take one large glass of vodka before bed. "To keep the wolf away," he said. And then he would take three very small drinks of vodka, just in case she had cubs while she was waiting outside. It doesn't work."
Susan Ivanova.

I have to admit, I was looking forward to hurricane Sandy. For what seems like an eternity Iíve been waiting for a rainy day where I would be "trapped" at home with nothing to do but sit in front my fireplace and read. As the forecasted track of Sandy became more and more apparent as the weekend approached, it appeared my hopes would finally become reality.

Having now lived "in the country" for 24 years, my wife and I systemically went through our now well-rehearsed storm preparation routines. Saturday was spent moving everything (that was movable) outside indoors, cleaning rain gutters, stocking up on necessary food and perishables, filling water jugs for the horses, and firing up and testing the emergency generator. I felt I was ready for anything Sandy would throw at us.

Ah the bliss of ignoranceÖ

I fully expected to awaken Sunday morning to a driving rain, at least thatís what the weather forecast had predicted, but instead I woke up to nothing more then a cloudy morning. Throughout the day I found myself turning on the TV to get the latest forecast, and with each new forecast I because more and more convinced that the so-called "Storm of a Lifetime" would be anything but that. I steeled myself to once again be disappointed.

Sunday night the rain finally started, but it wasnít the hard driving rain that was expected; it was only a light drizzle. "What a dud of a storm," I thought to myself.

I awoke Monday morning to a more promising scenario. The light drizzle had turned into a steady rain. My first indication that I might have misjudged the storm came was when I noticed one of the sump pumps was not working. Unlike modern homes, the walls of our old farmhouseís basement are permeable, and in heavy rains, the walls can often look like indoor waterfalls. Without the sump pumps, the basement quickly becomes an indoor pool.

I knew without even looking what was wrong. The float on the sump pump was stuck. I had been meaning to fix it for the past few years, and I was going to get to it eventually, but I just hadnít gotten around to it yet. Fortunately, the water in the basement had not yet reached the height of the heater. Stripping off my shoes and reached into the sump pump pit and unstuck the float. The pump sprung to life. Half of an hour later, the basement was dry. I thought about getting around to fixing the float, but opted for a brick to keep the pump float from sticking againóthat fix should be good for a couple more years...

Mid-Monday afternoon, the winds finally began to pick up and with it, the storm was now officially here. I retreated to an enclosed porch upstairs where I could work while watching the trees bend and sway in the wind. With 20 gallons of gasoline on standby for the generator (enough for at least three days) I was ready for the power outage that was sure to come. Confident, that is, until my wife pointed out that the line that would provide power to the house (the generator was in the barn) ran in front of a half dead maple tree I had been meaning to prune for the past few years. (I was going to get to it eventually, but just hadnít gotten around to it yet.) Needless to say, I spent the rest of the daylight hours with a weary eye on that tree. If it fell, we would lose all power to the house, and with it, the sump pumps. And with four to eight inches of rain coming, I realized the basements might not just flood, but overflow.

In the late afternoon I headed down to Toms Creek Bridge to get some shots of water running under the bridge for the paper. Ever since hurricane Fran in 1996, which resulted in the bridge being washed away, I use the height of the water under the bridge as my gage of the severity of a storm. With more than seven feet of clearance still remaining, this storm was a long way away from being the "worst of the century".

A good gage of the severity of a storm is the height of the water under Toms Creek Bridge.

As I walked across the bridge, I noticed a groundhog crossing the far end. Its home had obviously been flooded and it was seeking higher ground. As I approached it, it gave me a weary look. It was shivering, obviously tired and confused. I watched as it tried to bury itself in a pile of leaves to ward off the pounding rain. As I drove home I couldnít shake the image of the groundhog shivering. Figuring he might like some food, I scooped out a couple of handfuls of feed and headed back to the bridge. The groundhog had managed to bury himself, but its refuge would soon be flooded if the predicted rains continued.

I placed the grain next to his shelter. The groundhog looked up at me with a worried look on his face. After a momentís hesitation, he began to eat the grain. I left, worried about the night that was to come for him.

As night approached, the winds began to pick up. It was time to bring the horses in. For the better part of the day they had huddled in their run-in shed, safe from the pouring rain. But with the winds now reaching gale force, it was time to bring them in. As I went to get the first horse, I was greeted by the flock of finches and sparrows that call our farm home. They were lining every rafter of the run-in shed, seeking safety from the storm.

Knowing the birds were used to picking at the grain spilled by the horses at feeding time, I returned to the run-in shed after all the horses were safely inside and sprinkled grain on the ground for them. They hesitated, but when the bravest of them flew to grab his share, the rest followed.

As the evening grew late, the winds grew stronger. At 8:45 we finally, as expected, lost power. We had lost power at least 8 times before then, but each time the light came back on. This time, my wife and I knew instinctually that the power was out for good. We were in the middle of dinner and finished it by candlelight.

The generator roared to life with the first pull of the cord, and much like the old Green Acres show, I methodically closed breakers to supply power to needed parts of the house, being careful not to overload the generator. I had been meaning to write down the sequence of breaker closings for the past few years, but just hadnít gotten around to it yet.

At 11, my wife went to bed and I settled in to listen to the wind. It was my "Hour of the Wolf."

As I listened to farmís old metal roof bellow in the wind, it reminded me of the very first night I had spent in the house back in 1989. It was one of the worst windstorms many could remember, and I was convinced that the house would fall down that night. It survived, but I was beginning to have my doubts about it surviving the present storm. I began to second-guess myself. Had I done everything I could have to prepare for the storm? What would I do if the roof blew off? What if that old maple tree fell? What if? What if? What if?

I fell into a restless sleep. At 3:30 am, I awoke. The winds had died down and the heavy rain had turned into a lingering drizzle. Donít ask me why, but I got into the car and headed down to the bridge to check on the groundhog. The water had not risen as I had expected, and I found him safe and secure in his temporary leaf pile shelter. "Good for you," I thought.

The birds in the run-in shed were startled when I turned on the lights to check on them, but they stayed in place. All the grain on the ground was gone. They had been fed well.

I turned the generator off and returned to the house. The house was warm, the fireplace was roaring, and everyone was safe and fast asleep. My "Hour of the Wolf" had passed, and her pups were nowhere to be seen.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman