Monday, October 14, 2013

Recovery, Reflection, And A Region On Its Heels

This is the last in my "official" pieces on the 2013 October Blizzard. The first two are here and here, if you'd like to read about how things went down at the camp.


The next few days would seem entirely surreal in retrospect.

Everyone had been affected, and it seemed that even on Tuesday (four days after the snow stopped falling) I talked only to people who still didn't have power. The people working at the hotel where we'd crashed the night before were also staying there because their homes were without power; the guy who made my coffee was relieved to come to work where the toilets worked. The woman working at the outdoor store and I talked for a full twenty minutes about our lack of power and how our neighborhoods had fared.

But what was truly astonishing were the stories from the ranchers.

My great-uncle's funeral brought together a huge contingent of area ranchers, and the two topics were Uncle Marion and the blizzard, usually in that order. These ranchers were seeing carnage unlike anything any of them had experienced and it was utterly devastating.

Since the storm was so early, most cattle hadn't been moved to winter pastures yet, meaning they were still in the more distant, usually more exposed summer pastures. Some ranchers had been able to move smaller herds or parts of their herds in, but moving cattle (especially large herds) takes considerable time, effort and in particular manpower -- with the couple of days' notice they'd had, it just hadn't been possible.

The fact that there was so much disparity in the snow predictions meant that ranchers further out in the plains could only rely on the fact that the ground was not yet frozen and it had been a moderately warm week. Besides that, usually the lower end of the predicted range lands in the prairie and the higher end in the Hills. Cattle are fine in six inches of snow, which would have been considerable snowfall for an early October blizzard on the plains.

No one was truly ready for two feet.

By Wednesday, the picture became more clear. The snow was melting fast and each inch that disappeared revealed another field of dead cattle. Best estimates at this point were in the tens of thousands, the number only growing.

These ranchers were out so much more than "cows" -- they were out years of feed, vaccines, time, effort, attention, careful breeding, and some part of every day of their lives over the last three to five years. They were out next year's calves, weeks of cleanup, and in many cases winter feed that had been scattered or otherwise demolished by the weather.

These were losses that were not going to be easily replaced. This was the economic downslide of 2009 that so many saw in their retirement accounts taken out instead in 24 hours of snow and wind.

This was downright catastrophic.

But it spread further. Across the Hills, businesses were assessing the damage as their electricity returned. If they were lucky, they were cleaning up leaks; if they weren't, they were faced with collapsed roofs. Several larger businesses (for some reason, hardware stores seemed particularly hit) saw themselves facing total loss. Even more businesses were dealing with week-long (or longer) power outages and the lost business that came with that, not to mention the lost investments if they had anything that had to be kept hot or cold.

It was about this time that I started to get genuinely angry.

It started because I'd made the mistake of reading some of the comments made on news articles. Not on the local ones, thankfully, but when we finally made it into national (internet) news, we found ourselves assaulted by those who clearly had no idea what they were talking about. People who had never seen 24" of snow in under a day and had no idea what the damage could be. People who had no idea what it took to move 300 head of cattle. People who were, in short, not here -- but for some reason decided their opinions mattered.

What was I thinking?!

That anger pushed me over, finally.

Until then, I'd had a strict "It could be worse" mantra. And by all means, it could be worse, at least for me. The camp was fine. We didn't have power yet, either, but we were getting by. There were plenty of people struggling through much harder situations, including a couple of families whose houses had burned down in the last few days, fire crews unable to reach them thanks to the snow and mud.

And for that matter, we were only out our modern conveniences. Plenty of people the world over lived without them. We could replace the food we'd lost, our furnaces would run again, our water pipes didn't appear to be frozen.


This tree amazed me. It closed like an
umbrella with the snow, but bounced
right back.
Except that in repeating this over and over, I'd managed to guilt-trip myself into thinking I had no reason to be angry or frustrated. I'd failed to recognize, even to myself, that this storm had affected every part of my day-to-day life and livelihood. Sure, I'd been safe in town after Dusty had dug us out -- but I'd been displaced, unable to do anything about the mess at camp but clean up a little and wait. I could only watch as we were forced to call off guest groups. I had basically been rendered homeless and jobless, my very purpose put on hold for some indefinite length of time.

Yes, it could be worse. Yes, it was worse in plenty of places.

But that didn't mean it didn't stink at all.

It took over a week for us to get back to something like normal. We had 201 hours of darkness -- 8 days and 9 hours. Another day before we could have water. We were surrounded by people with varying levels of damage, from sunken roofs to frozen pipes to trees still blocking driveways. By the time we were back in full force, the snow was almost gone and the creek was running steadily through camp.

Now, it's a matter of getting moving again and channeling that anger into something useful. The tree clean-up alone could keep us busy all winter. There's plenty of regular cleaning to do this week, besides the basics of catching up on regular life -- laundry, restocking the fridge, sorting through the bags that ended up in town with us.

And a whole lot less of reading comments on news stories.

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