But Wait, There’s More

Hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

That’s how my orchestra conductor from years ago used to relate flying lessons to certain musical passages. It also characterizes the last several days quite accurately.

Las Cruces: meet winter. From the moment the first “WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY” notices appeared, the city flew into a panic. The forecast called for temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and at least an inch or two of snow. Apparently this doesn’t happen here. Snow flurries pass by every year or two as temperatures dip down into the 20s overnight, and any ice or snow disappears as the weather returns to 50 or 60 the next day.

Not so this time. As the temperatures plummeted, the wind picked up, and snow lightly fell for a good 24 hours, from Tuesday evening through most of Wednesday. On Wednesday night, it cleared up, and temperatures fell to below 0 with wind chills approaching -10.

Snowy palm tree

Poor palm tree.

That wasn’t the worst of it. Beginning Wednesday morning, as the snow fell, the rolling blackouts hit. El Paso Electric runs natural gas powered turbines to supply most of the area’s electricity, and their facilities simply don’t function below 18 degrees or so. Schools were closed, including NMSU, businesses were closed, and everyone sat at home running their heaters full blast in their poorly insulated homes wondering when the next blackout would hit.

It continued like this through Friday morning. I lost power for a total of no less than 6 hours, and schools didn’t open for the rest of the week, at the request of El Paso Electric. Many of the outages took place in the evening, after dark, during peak hours. I became well acquainted with candlelight and accustomed to having my TV turn itself off mid-movie. Some friends came over to join me in my darkness and solitude on Thursday afternoon, as my apartment has semi-decent insulation and was able to consistently stay at 67 degrees (when the power wasn’t out, anyway). We made the best of it, and even got a little homework done.

On Friday evening, my Aunt Rebecca was scheduled to fly in to visit for the weekend. It was beginning to warm up, and most of the ice and snow had evaporated away so I wasn’t worried about the roads. My friend Nikki was spending the afternoon at my apartment, and we were lazily watching a movie while knitting (her) and folding origami (me). We were planning to tackle a bit more homework after the movie and call it a day.

Suddenly our movie was interrupted by a very strange noise. It sounded like somebody was powerwashing the side of my building, or perhaps a large truck was doing something very odd out in the parking lot. We exchanged a confused glance, and paused the movie to better hear whatever it was since it didn’t seem to be stopping. The noise seemed to be emanating from a storage closet on my balcony, and there was a faint alarm sounding.

Right then, Nikki exclaimed, “oh my gosh there’s water pouring out of the closet on your deck!”

So there was. And not a mere trickle, either. The door was quite closed yet water was somehow gushing forth. Now quite panicked, we threw on our shoes and ran to the apartment office, which is very close by. I told the first person I saw of the deluge, and soon a maintenance man named Richard was sprinting to my building. When we returned, gallons of water were flowing out of the balcony drain pipe and down the side of the building: onto the apartment below mine and out of the side utility door. It pooled on the sidewalk and continued onto the parking area, where it soon began freezing into a sheet of ice. Everybody was frantically dashing around, and nobody seemed to know how to make it stop.

Water pouring from deck

Balcony drainpipe: actually a gargoyle.

I figure the water poured on for nearly 10 minutes before they finally got it off. An outdoor fire alarm was blaring all the while, indicating that the source of the flood was the fire sprinkler system. A fire truck was sent away. At some point, it occurred to me that I should go check on my cats and make sure no water was getting into the apartment. The balcony is a couple inches lower than the rest of the floor, which, I naively thought, seemed to bode well. The cats were fine, albeit rather spooked, but the floor was another story. I screamed for Nikki to run up and help me – I was frantically grabbing anything of value from the bedroom and living room and moving it toward the kitchen, away from the carpet that seemed intent on leeching water in every direction. The tile floor in the bathroom and adjacent hall were flooded with standing water at least an inch deep.

I am happy to report that nothing has been ruined, aside from some soggy viola music and wrapping paper. But the bed intended for Aunt Rebecca (made up so neatly on the floor) was thoroughly drenched, and walking on the carpet was like walking too close to the beach. Squish, squosh, splash.

Soaked carpet

The aftermath.

The apartment below me wasn’t so lucky. Apparently it was raining from their ceiling for a good while, and they almost certainly had some ruined belongings. They weren’t home during the disaster. Workers began traipsing about, from the ground level apartment to mine and back again, surveying the damage and planning the next steps. I had to impress upon each one the necessity of keeping the door closed – my cats aren’t usually prone to dash at an open door, but then again, these were not ordinary circumstances. Mostly they just hid.

As I took in the situation and prepared to receive a cleaning crew that would suck some water out of the carpet with a powerful vacuum, I checked Aunt Rebecca’s flight status, which was delayed. She called me from Houston to confirm the delay, and I briefly filled her in on my situation. Timing-wise, the delay was a good thing: the suck-water-out-of-carpet people finished their work right when I needed to leave for the airport.

And so it was that Aunt Rebecca arrived in the midst of everything: cold temperatures, bursting pipes, unfinished homework, drenched carpet. We both slept in my bed since no portion of floor was both dry and sufficiently cushioned for sleeping, and the sofa is a bit small (she is 6’0″). Over the course of the weekend, we welcomed a carpet blower into the apartment and encountered workmen far too early and far too often. A carpet blower is essentially a huge cylindrical fan (resembling a small jet engine) with a long, narrow spout to slide under a carpet at its edge. It is rather loud, and this particular one needed to have a screen propped beside it to deter curious cats from getting caught in the air intake. We moved it from bedroom to living room and back again. Moisture slowly found its way out of the carpets and into the air, and the bedding intended for Rebecca dried out enough so she could sleep in the kitchen. All the while I was torn between having a heated apartment (closed windows) and a not-sauna-like one (open windows).

Lily on carpet blower

Lily and the carpet blower.

On Monday, while Rebecca borrowed the Previa to drive north to a wildlife reserve and I finally returned to school, the carpet blower disappeared. I was informed that somebody would be stapling the edges of my carpets back down on Tuesday, and Rebecca and I enjoyed her first and only semi-sane evening at my apartment. (My stuff was still piled in the kitchen and dining area, but we could finally bear to walk barefoot on the carpet without the drone of a fan, and she slept in the living room that night!)

Throughout everything, Richard, the maintenance man for my apartment complex, was wonderful. He was always doing everything he could to get the situation handled as quickly as possible. (The carpet crew was another story, as they never returned with more blowers and an anti-mold treatment as promised.) My deluge was the first pipe break in the complex, and served as both “now we know where the water main is” and foreshadowing for other unhappy pipes. Apparently several more apartments were soon to follow suit, so everybody has had their hands full.

And now it is Tuesday evening. Aunt Rebecca left this morning, and I finally put most of my apartment back together tonight. Parts of the bedroom floor are still a bit damp, but the overall sauna feeling has largely subsided. I plan to insist on a free carpet cleaning in the near future, but I imagine that most cleaning businesses are still busy handling crises throughout the area.

The worst seems to be behind us.