Monday, December 17, 2007

The Beethoven's Birthday Storm

It was not much of a snow-event and not, certainly, as bad as some areas had been hit in other parts of the country, but here at Chez Dr. Dick, it was bad enough. The forecast as usual had been iffy, changing back and forth from snow to ice and sleet back to snow to rain and/or freezing rain to the usual grab-all "wintry mix" (or as I once said on-air, "fleet and sleezing rain"). Given that I'm not much of a fan of winter weather -- or for that matter, weather in general (or come to think of it, much of anything) - it was not going to be a pleasant weekend.

It began on Saturday as a Big Delay. Scheduled (as much as one can schedule the weather in Outlook) to begin sometime Saturday morning, by late afternoon it was still a no-show. And the forecast was still vague, no doubt not to panic holiday shoppers. Still, when I stopped at the store after work on Friday night, it was clear lots of people were planning to feast on bread and milk regardless.

So a friend and I went out to engage in a bit of what turned out to be non-shopping, finding stores that were pleasantly not bursting at the seams, then grabbed a bit of dinner before heading over to the Harrisburg Borders. When we left, the sleet had begun and it was a quick trip home before things deteriorated any further.

When I went to bed, the forecast was leaning more in favor of a rain event. Fine.

I woke up to the sound of the cracking of wood. After realizing we had momentarily lost power overnight - only for a split second, perhaps - I looked out the window to see nothing but ice. Ice coating the branches of the maple tree outside my bedroom and study windows, ice coating the branches of the Japanese maple and kousa dogwood in the back yard (see photo), the front lawn coated in what looked like crystal shards, the large crimson king maple out front looking like it had a six-inch buckskin-like fringe of icicles hanging off the lower branches.

On the back porch were several birds - juncos, titmice, chickadees and a female cardinal - so I quickly rushed some fresh birdseed out into the feeder with more scattered across the floor of the porch.

The cracking of wood that I heard might have been branches from the oldest batch of silver maples, trees I've never been happy with, but they were saplings on the lot when my parents began building the house in the late-50s, since then spawning other batches in various parts of the yard. It looked like there was a new trunk but it turned out to be a sizeable branch standing kind of parallel to the trunk but upside down (see photo, below).
There was more sleet, there was more freezing rain, then there was a downpour of just plain rain which apparently was freezing on contact and, once in a while, a snow flurry.

The lights kept flickering, the power going out just for a second but enough that I got tired of seeing the computer reboot before my eyes or having to reset the alarm clock and the microwave every hour or so. Then there was another fierce crack of wood, louder than the others I was hearing all morning and afternoon.

I was most concerned about the maple tree on the east side of the house. It had been a puny three-leaved seedling, a freebie when we bought the ginko, when we planted it and by now if it wasn't too close to the house, it was overhanging too many of the wires running the edge of the property. But that loudest crack was actually half of one of the other silver maples, this one on the western side by the old woodpile, which now stretched out across the yard, lying in front of the mound of forsythia. Smaller branches littered the lawn and fairly sizeable ones will need to be pulled out of the forsythia, though nothing, it seems, will ever harm the forsythia (in time, unchecked, I'm sure there would be no back yard, just one mound of forsythia working its way toward the house).

Eventually, the squirrels showed up at the feeder, later than usual. There are three of them, apparently one family since any more than those get chased off with a great deal of chattering and tail-fluffing. Squirrel Ives easily fills the feeder while the younger one, Hoover, works over the porch-floor. A white-footed one, Nureyev, is capable of making amazing leaps into the Japanese maple.

Though not today. Making it to one of the thicker branches in the middle of the tree, he barely managed to hang on -- looking like the kitten in the famous '70s "hang in there" posters -- and with considerably less grace than usual, pulled himself up onto the branch and worked his way cautiously to a spot he could jump more easily onto the ground. He left without further comment.

Once the freezing rain had apparently stopped (and the sun shone perversely for a few fleeting moments making everything sparkle brilliantly enough to almost take your mind off the potentially treacherous situation), it was a matter of waiting for the high winds - gusts up to 40-50mph in the follow-up forecast. Would the power stay on?

Thousands of people in the area were without power - 46,000 still, the day after the storm - with the prospect of it not being restored till Tuesday or Wednesday night. (Update - as of Wednesday morning, 12-19-07, 2300 in the Harrisburg area were still without power.) One friend told me about the number of trees damaged or ruined by the storm at his place, much worse than mine. The clean-up and its cost were things you tried not to think about: it was enough to be waiting for what else could happen before it was officially over.

At one point, a parade of township firetrucks, ambulances and something called a "Mask Unit" drove through my neighborhood, apparently looking for any tree damage that would need to be reported to PPL or the road crews, prepared to take anyone to the hospital in an emergency, ready to report damage to anyone's house from falling trees. Fortunately, on my short street, they were able to just keep on truckin'...

Another casualty for me was the Christmas Concert by the Susquehanna Chorale which I had planned on attending that afternoon. Though a member of the chorale told me the roads "were wet, not all that bad," I chose to stay in, reading too much on-line about falling trees and branches, then watching chunks of ice (some several feet long) cascade off the wires and branches, shattering onto the roadway. I didn't feel I wanted to try dodging stuff like that with my car, so I got some soup and hot chocolate before settling down on the couch to listen to a late Beethoven quartet (Op. 131 with Guarneri).

For me, in the new old house, it was my first major storm and I will remember it, no doubt, like the first major storm after I had moved into Harrisburg to my first midtown apartment in the early-80s, when the forecast called for flurries and we had something like 24 inches of flurries on Lincoln's Birthday. This one will be the Beethoven's Birthday Ice Storm of 2007.

And winter doesn't even begin until this weekend! Bah humbug, indeed!

- Dr. Dick

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