“We Outlived Wisconsin’s Ice Storm,” Ensign, Mar. 1978, 36
“Ice Storm Hits Washington and Dodge Counties”
“Homes Without Power as Ice Storm Goes Into Third Day”
“Power Out For Seven Days in Parts of Washington County”
My six-year-old son, Jason, gleefully waved the paper in front of me: “Hey Mom, look! That’s us!” And indeed it was. We lived in West Bend, Wisconsin, and in March 1973 we were in the middle of one of the worst ice storms in the state’s history.
Winters in Wisconsin, at their very best, are less than pleasant, but the summers more than make up for it. We live here because we love it, and we are used to snow and ice. Lots of snow and cold was normal, but the worst of the winter was over, we thought—all we had now was that gentle rain. The only problem was the freezing temperatures that came with it. It rained, and then the water began to freeze. The ice build-up began.
On the second day of the storm, the wind started to blow. Power lines, already brittle with ice, began to sway in the wind and snap. Just a few broke at first, and repair crews were promptly sent out from Wisconsin Electric. But the cold and rain continued, the wind increased, and for every line that was repaired, three more broke.
As the storm went into the third day, the electrical poles themselves started to break under the wind and weight of the ice. In one area of Washington County the poles came down for a two-mile stretch. The rain continued, and the repair crews were called in to wait out the storm. Then the huge electrical towers feeding power into the two counties came crashing down, bringing the high voltage lines with them. At one point, one 69,000-volt line was the only power line feeding West Bend, a city of 20,000 people. Before it was over, 5,000 power poles would go down, and repair crews would fix unnumbered line breaks. After three days, the rain finally stopped. But the cold continued, and the ice was slow in melting.
We live six miles outside of West Bend in heavily wooded country. The children and I stopped by the deep woods and listened as the trees groaned under the weight. Massive trunks split to the ground; huge branches broke and fell. We did not stay long. It was frightening, this continual sound of nature in agony. Long, tree-lined avenues in the city were closed as tree trunks and branches crashed into the street, bringing down more lines and starting electrical fires.
When the freezing rain started, and the lights began to flicker, I was optimistically thinking that things like this always happen to someone else. During one of the intervals, though, I did have Troy, one of our twins, fill the bathtub with water, assuring him and myself, “We will never need it.”
For a long time, we had been gathering what we hoped would be a year’s supply of food and necessities. But our family size always seemed to grow faster than our supply. We had six children of our own, five boys and one girl, ranging from ages thirteen years to two years, plus two foster girls, one of whom was handicapped. A year’s supply for ten people boggles the mind, not to mention what it does to a basement!
Then the lights went out and stayed out. For the next six days we were on our own. We had no electrical power. That meant no heat. My freezers were slowly defrosting. Fortunately we had a well. Unfortunately the pump was electric and the well was 238 feet deep. Our furnace was gas, but the fans were electric. No water, no heat, and no lights. But we did have a gas stove, lots of food, lots of kids, and lots of time on our hands.
A telephone call brought my husband, Kay, back from work in Milwaukee. Since he was bishop of the West Bend Ward, there were problems to solve for others, but as a family we set about solving our own.
Water was our main concern. We had lots, but no way to get it. We began making daily trips into West Bend to bring drinking water from the church. Our food storage was kept in large plastic buckets, and they made excellent, tight-lidded water containers. We would always meet other ward families getting water there, and have impromptu meetings in the kitchen, exchanging ideas and solving problems while waiting for buckets to fill.
Water for washing and sanitation came from a creek running through the woods about two blocks from our home. The boys, bundled up in gloves, scarves, and snowmobile suits, went after it, breaking the ice to get at the water. We started a list: “Problems to Be Solved for the Next Emergency.” Water was number one on that list.
The next one was keeping warm. Fireplaces are reportedly the most inefficient means possible of heating a house, but we were grateful for ours, and for the stockpile of wood outside. The family room fireplace literally made it possible for us to continue to live in our home. Thermal drapes helped tremendously to keep the heat in. Our family room adjoins the kitchen. We hung sleeping bags over the exits from the kitchen to the hall and the living room to keep heat in the family room and kitchen. Our fireplace kept us warm with less wood than we would have imagined. However, ways to make the fireplace more efficient became number two on our emergency list.
At night we went upstairs to the bedrooms, doubling up in the beds for warmth. We constantly reminded each other that the pioneers did this all the time, so no complaining was allowed.
The problem of the thawing freezers was temporarily solved with dry ice supplied by the Red Cross, several agencies in town, and members of the Church outside the storm area. Freezers became the number three item on our emergency list.
With our gas stove, cooking was not a problem. In fact, as the days went by, I got the feeling that the children would have loved cooking on the campstove or fireplace to try it out. I didn’t share that feeling in the least. Trying to wash the dishes and greasy pans for ten people in creek water was enough for me, and I was grateful for the luxury of the stove.
Food was not a problem either. We were totally self-sufficient. We had been drinking powdered milk for years, so we were not confronted with child mutiny when it was mixed. They would have preferred it colder, however. Six days was not a complete test of our year’s supply, but we found where we had weak spots. The biggest one, and one that several ward members shared, was no adequate can opener—we had relied on an electric one for years, and our manual one did not work well at all. Many a blister was earned trying to make the old can opener work. The call, “Who wants to open the cans for dinner?” was always greeted with moans and groans. A good can opener became number four on the emergency list. The dehydrated food was great, but when you don’t have an ample supply of water, it is not the only answer. We were grateful that our food supply was varied.
Since we enjoy camping as a family, we had a lot of useful equipment. In addition to using sleeping bags in doorways, we used them for added warmth on beds. We used catalytic heaters on particularly cold days, but carefully—we were well aware of the hazards. Our source of light at night was lanterns and candles. Outside the family room the house was a frigid 40 degrees; outside the house it was 20 degrees. So we stayed in the family room and we learned to talk to each other again. Much time was spent in necessary chores—but there was plenty of time for play. Even with my husband gone—after two days he started working again since we were surviving very well on our own—there were times that nine people in two rooms seemed crowded. We began playing Monopoly regularly around our kitchen table by lantern light, while Old Maid was going on in the family room by firelight.
One of the most annoying things was the lack of clean clothes and baths. My husband could stop off on the way to work to shower and shave, but we were not so fortunate. Hauling the volume of creek water needed to bathe nearly brought on a strike when it was suggested.
Our answer came when we were declared a disaster area, and the Red Cross set up an aid station at the Silverbrook Middle School in town. On our way for water, we’d stop at the school. After an hour of basketball to get the kinks out, there were showers for everyone.
The rest of the West Bend Ward membership survived as well as we did, if not better. Some families had just heat; some had just water; some had nothing at all. But everyone shared and loved it. Wood-burning stoves that had been stored away in basements to be installed “someday” were hauled out and installed in one evening; then the home was opened up to anyone who wanted the warmth. There was usually no limit to the number of people who could be invited: there was always room on the floor. We loaned our campstove to the neighbors up the road who had an all-electric home.
However, some other members of the community were not so fortunate. Some people had to abandon their unheated houses. Basements flooded because sump pumps were electrically powered. Cattle suffered from lack of water, and farmers hand-watered their herds for long, backbreaking hours. Meat and fresh produce spoiled in the stores. When stores did open for a limited time, people shopped in the cold and dark; clerks cranked cash registers by hand.
Because the ward meetinghouse was not heated, we could not meet on Sunday. Oh, how we missed it! Church at home was just not the same. All the ward members felt the same.
Then one afternoon at 5:30, six days after the power had been interrupted, we were just sitting down to dinner when the lights came on. We had seen repair trucks along the road all afternoon and were hoping for their success within a few days. And there it was! For a minute we just sat there and looked at each other, and then a cheer went up. My husband’s sense of humor demanded that he go downstairs a few minutes later and pull the master switch in the basement, once again plunging the house into darkness. The moans and groans and shouts made it well worth his time. However, when our oldest son pulled the same trick a half hour later, it was my husband who was shouting, “What happened now?”
Immediately we set about solving the problems on our list. We bought a generator large enough to run the water pump, the furnace fans, and the electricity on an alternating basis. We made the fireplace more efficient. We expanded our wood supply. We now have a good can opener in practically every room in the house. We’re considering the possibility of a windmill to get water from the well when the generator is being used elsewhere.
How grateful we were for the Church’s counsel to prepare ourselves. What a testimony we have as members of the Church here in West Bend of the truthfulness of that counsel. We saw the Lord’s promise fulfilled: “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” (D&C 38:30.)
As we looked at our eight children after the lights went on and saw the grins on the slightly grimy faces around the table, we realized again the most important part of the gospel. We were a family. We had survived as a family.
That was four years ago. Recently when the ice storm was discussed at a family home evening, Jason, now ten, exclaimed, “That was fun. Let’s do it again.” I’m not sure it was fun. But we could do it again.