The Rugged KC Ice Storm of 2002

Kansas City Ice Storm 2002

For Once, The Result Matches The Warning

For all thumbnail images, click for a larger version. But be patient, they are over 100K.

Nature can take down a massive oak as rapidly as man can. But it can do it a thousand oaks at a time. We had 36 hours of incredible tumult, after a winter of mild, sunny, precipitation-free days that encouraged us to forget weather can impact life in negative as well as positive ways. But it is surely something forgetten only at one's peril.

Tuesday, January 29, the weather-drums were pounding: Big Storm Coming! Big Storm Coming! Big Storm Coming! We have heard it many times before, and been disappointed many times before. The weatherman who cried wolf is a popular story at work. The storms seemed to split just outside of Kansas City, and both north of us and south of us have had heavy snows this year. We have had almost none. But this time, surprisingly, they were right. Tuesday evening there was a enough freezing rain to make my car, parked in the lot at work, look like an igloo. It took about 15 minutes of whacking to get the windows usable, and the drive home was much slower than usual. Most of the car was still sheathed in ice when I tucked it in the garage almost an hour later.

At our house, one of the joys of anticipating bad weather is school closing. Will they do it? When will they do it? I do not remember school being closed very often when I was a child; in fact, I remember in Milwaukee walking to school and having snow above my head on the winding little walkway that penetrated the snowbanks. But a bus culture, and a more fearful one at that, means school closes at almost every threat of snow. This wasn't snow, but ice. Even more dangerous! Or Platonic ice would be, this, when we retired for the night, was neither particularly slippery nor problematic. Would they close? We woke up very early, but the news was earlier, and the weathermen were pounding their drums ferociously: Very Bad Storm! Very Bad Storm! Very Bad Storm!

The roads were covered with a one inch layer of pellets at 4:45 AM January 30, but it soon began to rain pretty steadily, and that froze as it penetrated the pellets, making a thick, firm, and extremely treacherous surface. With temperatures in the twenties, there was no way this wasn't going to be nasty. The tree branches started to droop, the ground disappeared, and everything was shiny. But because it continued raining, not only did the ground get very hard, icicles appeared everywhere. Rain ran off, then froze. It ran off the ground too, as it could not penetrate the parking-lot like surfaces, forming ever widening slushy rivers. And the branches sagged more and more. We went nowhere. But at least one worry was solved; Thursday's school was cancelled early on Wednesday afternoon. Here's an image of day one, as the icicles are forming and the first little branches are coming down.

Also that afternoon, the bigger limbs started falling. First was the abrupt crack as it split, a penetrating shriek of something dying, then the ice, over an inch thick, was shaken off by the abrupt movement and fell like a barrel of BBs hitting cement, a pounding, skittering echo. Often the branch would come crashing down, breaking others on its way and starting the process all over for the branches it hit, though sometimes it snapped but did not separate, a Mary, Queen of Scots moment as it hung, nearly severed but still clinging in some feeble way. Wednesday night I stood outside in the rain for about 45 minutes, listening and watching. The street light across the street glowed as it lost and regained power, then went dark. Many horizontal branches had fingers of ice hanging beneath, as the runoff froze in alligator teeth hanging from most horizontal surfaces. Two foot long icicles hung from the gutters, the parked cars, the railings, the eaves, and any other flat surface. Lightening far above the low and dense clouds illuminated the entire gray sky.

Sometimes the sky looks silver, sometimes black, but this was a bizarre uniform gray that extended from horizon to horizon, with a glow in the east for Blue Springs and a glow in the west for Kansas City. There were other illuminations as well. Several times I saw what must have been power lines falling or transformers exploding: first a green glow would fill half the sky, then a loud whooshing, humming noise as the light pulsed and vibrated, then nothing. And the trees. groaning and sighing under their burden, would often give up and add another sorrowful noise to the cacaphony.

All night the sound of heavy branches cracking and thudding to the ground woke us up. Trees in every direction were coming down, all around our house, and I wondered just how many there were to fall. We lost power for several hours, and I imagined Cindy staying home in a dark, increasingly cold house with no ability to get anywhere or do anything. Her car was blanketed in two inches of ice and would take a long time to uncover. The roads were full of tree limbs and thick ice floes.

But the morning showed a scene more bizarre than I could have imagined. The mighty oaks, those lofty giants who had looked impervious to the collapse that attacked the softer trees, were splintered and shattered in every direction. A tree across the street was now a large stick. Several years ago, we had an early storm that dropped six inches of snow on trees with leaves still green, and crushed a number of them, including two of my local favorites. This will far exceed that damage. Nearly every tree is broken in some way, though interestingly, the oaks that still have their leaves seem in better shape than those which have dropped them. Some are broken in many ways, standing amid a heap of branches that lie as if tossed randomly. One large branch hit our car, unfortunately parked outside, though which tree it came from I cannot imagine. Fortunately, the thick coating of ice seems to have protected it from the weight, and though the ice was smashed off the car in one small area, the car itself, as far as I can tell on a dark and dreary morning, is fine.

Thursday morning I left early for work, and had no trouble getting there. The business area that I pass, including the Kinko's which was open on Christmas, was all closed, no power. Traffic lights were out, but with fewer cars than usual, it presented no difficulty. The sky was still the uniform gray, eeire and lowering. We had planned a group outing to a movie after work, and went to see Brotherhood of the Wolf. The theater was nearly full, surprising for a subtitled film, but apparently many were folks going someplace warm as they had no power. Well over 100,000 people are electricity free right now in Kansas City, and that does not include all those served by other power companies. Coming home, I saw that no one on our street appeared to have power. Every house lay dark, a gloomy gray sky and a brittle reflective ice the only source of light. Headlights of passing cars caused a prismatic glow as the light was refracted and highlighted by ice everywhere. But looking down the side streets off 37th Street, I saw a 19th Century postcard of ice, hanging branches, and reflected glitter. But no man-made light.

I cannot imagine how this will be cleaned up. We have a cord or two of wood lying in our yard. Neighbors have the same or more, and besides that which is lying on the ground, what happens to the stalks and stems left standing? Where does it go? Will the city help clean up, or are we expected to cut and deliver this. Our friend Gary just re-opened his fireplace; he will have wood for years to spare if he wants it!

The weekend has passed, and we have seen much of the metropolitan area since Wednesday. It appears as if we got it as bad as any area we've seen. There were many mature trees in Independence, many shapes and sizes, but all planted forty to fifty years ago when these homes where built, and they have suffered mightily. There are fewer and smaller trees in many other parts of the area, and in those where there is a comparable canopy, the precipitation must have been less.

We have dragged all our accessible wood to the curb, where a "planned curbside pickup" that has no details yet, will someday take place. The pile extends the entire length of our yard, and portions of the neighbors, about seventy feet long, five feet wide and four feet high all the way down. It looks like, according to my friend Bill, a 18th Century encampment, Fort Ticonderoga or something, with rude but effective barriers on both sides. But there are still many giant branches hanging from the trees, and many more stuck high in the trees, huge logs that will take a crew to remove unless a strong wind yanks them down and starts the terror all over. Nothing of ours will require removal, though probably two next door, including the huge oak that has shaded our garden and pool, will come down.

Only once in this arboreal precipitation did our house get hit, and it was a glancing blow that twisted a gutter but otherwise did no serious damage, as far as I can tell from the ground. Our world is one of trees lying crushed, as if a giant had walked across them, and we are grateful his step missed our house.

We had a powerful ice storm when we first arrived in Kansas City in 1984. We were then living with Cindy's mom and had 8 days with no power. We cooked on her fireplace, ironed with a real iron, and spent most of the time huddled in the kitchen with a thick blanket covering the doorway. This time we are much luckier; the power has flickered almost every day, but we have remained with electricity. There are stores still without, and the entire section of houses south of us is black at night. Which makes viewing the beautiful skies we have had much easier. All the usual light sources around here, the street lights and porch lights and interior lights, are gone. The world is dark, cold, forbidding, and weeks like this make it clear just how small our impact is on nature and how feeble we are when it chooses to act without our interests in mind. We are just a speck on the globe, and though people can destroy a building or two, or even a lot of buildings, Nature can lay low a city in a matter of hours. All week people have labored to rebuild their lives. And how much worse could it have been? Lots.

My neighbor, the owner of the lovely oak tree that is no more, also took a few photos of the disaster. You get a slightly different view of it all, as well as a more comprehensive look at the oak tree in its stages of death. Note how it is resting on his wires, but never tore them. He too kept his power while all round us was in darkness. (Large files--be patient)


March Update: The first pile of sticks disappeared promptly, the second one still garnishes the curb. The oak tree came down, as did a lovely sycamore across the street. The yard feels empty, though the oak was not mine, it cast a huge shadow on the yard. Weirdly open and blue. Now the 40 inch logs lie there, awaiting some final disposition. Woodcarving, anyone?


I still get a lot of traffic on this page. It was a memorable week! If you want to see all the photos, click Here.