Winter Weather Leaves Thousands Without Power or Water

Even though the winter of 2009-10 isn’t yet half over, it has already been one to remember in South Dakota. Temperatures have been even colder than usual, inches and inches of snow have fallen, and even when the snow hasn’t fallen, fierce winds have blown around what was already on the ground. There is something seriously frustrating about shoveling the same snow more than once!

We traveled across our great state this weekend and got a belated glimpse of some of the havoc our extreme winter weather has caused.

There were livestock fences and wind shelters entirely covered in snow. Many large fields of corn stood unharvested after an unusually wet fall followed by the early arrival of winter. And even while there were areas of brown ground exposed in some places, just a short distance away there were mature shelter belts of trees with only branches poking out of enormous snowdrifts.

Repairing Power PoleBut perhaps the most striking blow the weather dealt was the large ice accumulations on power lines and poles, leaving thousands of people all across the Northern Plains without electricity for days, even weeks. The picture at right was borrowed from

We saw some of these downed power poles first hand. They looked like splintered toothpicks lying on the ground with lines sagging toward the ground or even snapped completely apart. And fixing these poles was obviously a daunting task. First crews needed to plow away the snow just to access the area for repair.

Entire communities have suffered from these extended power outages, and in these cases another problem has also arisen – a shortage of water. The community water towers drained quickly. And with no electricity to pump water or to run water treatment plants, residents were left without water not only for drinking and cooking, but also for flushing toilets, taking showers, or washing dishes and clothes.

Those living in the country have added challenges – they often have livestock to feed and water, and the power lines leading to their single-family homes are generally fixed only after those serving entire communities have already been repaired.

But country folks sometimes have it easier, too. Most have their own well and their own septic systems, making them more self-sufficient and generally taking care of any water shortage issue. Many also own standby generators to cover when the power goes out, so they are better prepared for the wrath of Mother Nature.

The plight of South Dakotans has gained some national news attention. An article will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times, for example. But generally our rural weather hardships are being rightfully overshadowed by the earthquake devastation in Haiti.

My ranching in-laws say this winter must compare to that of 1949, which has gone down in history as the worst winter of the 20th century for South Dakota. The only difference, they say, is that farmers and ranchers today have four-wheel drive tractors so they can still get the snow cleared to get out and take care of their animals in spite of the weather. Thank goodness for that!

Calving and lambing starts soon here, so hopefully we will at least get a break from the blustery weather. Even just a couple weeks of 40+ degree temperatures would help us better cope!

Ignoring my Pathfinder’s ‘Service Engine Soon’ Light

Three years ago I swapped my trusty 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan for a 2006 Nissan Pathfinder. I thought the Pathfinder would be better suited for driving our gravel roads and rough driveway. While I have appreciated the all-wheel-drive function on several occasions, I haven’t exactly been happy with my Pathfinder.

I’ve written about my struggle to find the perfect vehicle for country life once before. What I didn’t detail then was the service issues I’ve had with my Pathfinder – all supposedly caused by the six miles of gravel I drive on each time I travel to and from my home. It seems the gravel kicks up dust that gets sucked up into the vehicle’s engine and exhaust systems.

As a result, my “Service Engine Soon” light has been on almost perpetually for two years. The light first came on just two months after we purchased the vehicle, but thankfully the Pathfinder was still under factory warranty.

Initially, the light really bugged me; I promptly took the vehicle in for diagnosis and repair. Eventually my warranty expired, and I submitted a formal complaint to Nissan. Nissan tried two more times to fix my issue even without a warranty, but the light still came back on soon after every service. The last time I tried to have the dust issue fixed about a year ago, the service light came back on before I even made it home from the shop!

For those of you who are mechanically inclined, most of the issues I’ve had that required service involved the PCV valve and the oxygen sensors. And both issues are a direct result of the dust wreaking havoc with the emissions standards established to maintain clean air.

So now I just live with the “Service Engine Soon” light on all the time. The mechanics tell me the light will blink if there is anything seriously wrong with the vehicle. That’s sort of reassuring.

While I have my oil changed regularly, I have my tires rotated, and I’ve replaced my front brake pads, I continue to ignore my engine light. Speaking as the daughter of a diesel mechanic, this seems wrong. But constantly having the light checked and attempting to have the issue repaired was obviously a waste of time and money.

If only vehicle engineers would realize that some people still live in the country and that vehicles – especially SUVs and pickups – should be built to withstand this type of driving. Perhaps I should submit a formal complaint to them, as well … There’s probably too many of them to do that; so I guess this blog post will have to do.

Knee Recovery Goes Well So Far

Sports Girl's Knee 5 Days Post-Op

Sports Girl's left knee was still fairly swollen just 5 days post-op. It's still a little swollen even now, but not as much as this. Notice, too, how she wrote on her good knee with permanent market to ensure the doctor didn't make any mistakes.

Now at nearly 3 weeks post-op, Sports Girl is recovering quite nicely from her knee surgery. She has almost no pain, even when she’s worked hard twice a week by her physical therapist.

Her doctor told us that females tend to recover from these types of surgeries quicker than males and that young people tend to recover quicker than older people. So with two positive attributes on her side, Sports Girl seems to be bouncing back especially fast.

She still struggles a bit with mobility. She can just bend her left knee to almost a 70-degree angle; she says she feels a pulling sensation when she tries to go more than that. And she still wears the long brace to keep her leg straight almost all of the time. On the plus side, she actually can completely straighten her leg, which folks who’ve had this type of surgery often struggle to do.

Sports Girl is also able to support her weight on her left knee. She actually ditches her crutches quite regularly around the house and sometimes even forgets where she left them!

We had a fairly casual follow-up appointment with the orthopedic surgeon’s physicians assistant 10 days after the surgery. I think “casual” and “uneventful” are good qualities when it comes to describing doctor’s appointments. We go back to see the actual surgeon in 2 more weeks.

The original estimate for complete recovery was 3 to 6 months, so at only 3 weeks, it’s really too soon to tell much. I won’t prematurely declare that Sports Girl will be running hurdles in track this spring or that she’ll be playing striker for spring soccer, but we are feeling cautiously optimistic.

And even though this surgery has left Sports Girl sidelined from sports for most of her eighth grade year, we are at peace with our decision to have it done. Our hope is that she will recover better than she was before, that she will have a fun and successful scholastic athletic career and that she will lead a long and active life.