A time of heroes: Surviving the storm of the century


INTERVIEW with a survivor:

Question: What was your first reaction upon learning that the storm of the century was coming your way?

Answer: I wondered how bad a storm had to be to get a storm-of-the-century rating. Was a storm of the century worse than a mother of all storms? What about a world-class storm? Wouldn't a world-class storm be worse than a storm of the century?

Q. What did you do?

A. I wrote a note to Richter.

Q. Richter?

A. The man who invented the Richter scale for measuring earthquake violence. I urged him to invent a storm scale so people will know what they are up against.

Q. What measures did you take to prevent calamity?

A. I went to the grocery to buy wine.

Q. You ignored warnings from your TV weatherman and your TV doctor not to drink alcohol because it gives you a false sense of warmth when you are trapped outside in a blizzard and in danger of freezing?

A. I never drink wine when trapped outside in a blizzard. I just wanted to be prepared in case howling winds failed to blow the roof off my house, and I found myself trapped snugly inside by a roaring fireplace.

Q. At the grocery did you buy anything but wine?

A. Yes. I bought clothespins.

Q. You intended to hang laundry on the line despite warnings that the storm of the century was coming? Was this a symbolic act of defiance of nature's whimsical cruelty?

A. I would have bought some food if there'd been any left, but the store was packed with people buying the last of the food and carting it away by the truckload. When I saw all the shelves bare I thought, "I'm going to starve because of this terrible storm and "

Q. You had no food left at home?

A. Only a six-week supply.

Q. The spectacle of panic shopping made you panicky too?

A. I wouldn't say panicky, but when I saw all the food shelves empty, then saw the last of the toilet paper and scouring cleanser being hauled to the checkout counter I thought I'd better buy anything I could find.

Q. Even clothespins?

A. What's so silly about clothespins? If the storm of the century had destroyed the nation's power grids, it would have been the end of electric laundry driers. People would have to go back to the old-fashioned clothesline. With clothespins I'd be in a powerful bargaining position now.

Q. You deny that media panic about an impending calamity affected your ability to think coolly?

A. Cool was my middle name as the calamity approached. Coolly following advice issuing from my TV set, I stocked my car with blankets, food, water, flashlights, snow shovels, sand, high-intensity gasoline lanterns and a canary.

Q. A canary?

A. If the canary dies I know the car is filling up with deadly gases, so I can put down the windows to clear the fumes, wrap myself in the blankets and let the water freeze solid, thus providing heavy weapons with which I can bludgeon desperadoes who try to steal my food and flashlights. With the gasoline lantern and snow shovels I'm ready to bury these marauders by lantern light under six feet of snow. The weight of the sand will keep them from floating to the surface.

Q. You were planning a long drive?

A. Are you crazy? The TV was warning everybody not to drive. What's more, I'm a terrible driver even in good weather, and I lack the killer instinct necessary to cope with crazed desperadoes likely to commandeer my car if the storm of the century turns out to be the mother of storms. No way do I leave my roaring fireplace.

Q. Am I correct, then, in saying that it was base and lily-livered cowardice that accounts for your survival?

A. Plus the wood that made the fire roar, and the wine that was ignored by the locusts at the supermarket.

Q. You felt no shame at all?

A. Not until my Iowa friend Winokur called this morning to say that in Iowa their storms of the week make our storm of the century seem gentle as a summer shower.

Russell Baker writes a column for the New York Times.

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