Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Severe winter weather

including some disasters (and at least I have something serious for my 500th post)

This has been a rough winter in the northern end of Rio Arriba County. It’s a mixed blessing – a really good winter snowpack means there will be plenty of runoff to fill the lake in the spring, but the snow itself has caused some problems. We’ve had some problems, too, not as bad as for some people, but related to the weather.

Shortly after New Year’s, we got a postcard from the propane company that supplies Five O’Clock Somewhere, alerting us that we hadn’t had our tank filled in some time and warning us that it might run out. We had previously been on a plan where, for an extra per-gallon charge, the propane company would send someone out once a month to top off the tank, but apparently we had been using so little propane that we’d been removed from that plan somewhere around August – but we didn’t realize it, so we weren’t keeping an eye on the gauge on the tank.

So that weekend, we went up north, and sure enough, the tank was empty. Rather than spend the weekend with neither heat nor hot water, we returned to Albuquerque and phoned the propane company to have the tank refilled.

The following week was one of record cold. In Chama, the previous record low had been minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit; that week had nights of 17 below and 20 below.

The next weekend, we went up north again, and found that the propane tank had been refilled. However, since the system had been run empty, the propane delivery guy had not turned the gas line into the house on – it’s a strong safety recommendation to have all the lines tested for leaks, especially since the cold conditions may have damaged the lines, before getting the gas turned on and the pilots lit. So we left a spare key for the propane guy, so he could get into the house, test the lines, and light the pilots, and we returned to Albuquerque.

The next week, a major snowstorm hit northern Rio Arriba County, dumping a couple of feet of snow in Laguna Vista and even more in Chama. The folks at the propane company were busy delivering propane to people who live there full time, who need to have gas to survive. We went up north, and we discovered that our gas hadn’t been turned on. The toilet bowls were frozen solid – a fascinating phenomenon. We set up an electric heater with an “anti-freeze” setting in the kitchen, in the center of the house, hoping that it would at least reduce some of the damage that the house might suffer from being so cold for a prolonged period.

Then, the really severe weather hit. A series of snowstorms, one after another, swept through northern New Mexico. In Chama, one storm dumped nearly four feet of snow, and the total from the series of storms was more than six feet. Five O’Clock Somewhere is more than 1000 feet lower than Chama, and on a south-facing slope, but we figured it had also received its share of snow.

At this point, our worries about getting our propane turned on and our pilots lit became trivial compared to what a whole lot of the rest of the Chama Valley was dealing with. Our house there is just a second home, a place we come on vacation. It’s not necessary for our physical survival. On the other hand, most of the people who live there don’t have any other place to go. If they run out of heating fuel, they may freeze to death. If they can’t get food or medicine, they may suffer. There are people who depend on life-saving medical equipment – if the power goes out, they can die unless somebody brings them a generator. The National Guard was called out, and for nearly a week, they were making emergency deliveries to people in need.

The storms took their toll on the community as well. One of the most vital focal points of the Chama Valley has been the Chama Valley Supermarket. It’s where people come together, where the locals meet and catch up on the gossip. It’s also been where the tourists in their quarter-million-dollar RVs come to stock up on foodstuffs, so the market has always carried a selection of high-end items as well. But the locals and the RVers always seem to get along – it’s always been a happy place.

Alas, the weather took its toll on the Chama Valley Supermarket. The snow piled up on the roof, and the roof caved in. I’m sure the managers of the market are working on finding alternative space in which they can open, so they can at least provide a fraction of the service they used to, but to lose such an icon of the community is devastating.

And the Chama Valley Supermarket isn’t the only icon of the community that has been taken out. The parishioners of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church have been trying to raise funds for several years to restore their sanctuary. It’s a historic building, dating back to the 1880s, when the railroad first arrived and Chama came into existence. Some years back, the sanctuary was declared unsafe, and since then, the parish has been holding Mass in the parish hall and working to raise funds to rehabilitate the sanctuary. The snowstorms caved in the roof. I don’t know whether that’s good news or bad – does the roof’s collapse mean there’s now more incentive to get funding, or does it mean that the building is now so far gone that it’s not worth saving?

South of Chama, a much newer building was destroyed. The Brazos Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, inspired and, according to some, driven by then fire chief Michael Hays, had only recently finished building a new fire house. An explosion destroyed the fire house, totaling three fire trucks that were inside, and killing Hays, who had just retired as chief, citing the construction of the fire house as his proudest achievement. Preliminary investigations indicate that the massive snow load on top of the building deformed the walls, causing a propane line to crack and leak, leading to the explosion.

The latest news is that now the governor has declared several northern New Mexico counties to be disaster areas. The powers-that-be have announced that FEMA will be moving in to help people. Heaven help them.

So in light of all that, what happened next at Five O’Clock Somewhere is rather trivial. The snow finally melted enough that the propane company guy had time and wherewithal to deal with non-emergency situations. He came out, and he discovered that the water heater had frozen and burst. Fortunately, the water was gushing mostly outside the house and not inside. He shut off the water at the well to keep the pump from burning out, and he’s going to be checking with a wholesaler in Farmington to see about getting us a good deal on a new water heater. He couldn’t light the furnace – the snow on the roof is so deep that the furnace exhaust vent was covered.

Yeah, this means it will be a while before we’re next at Five O’Clock Somewhere. But at least since it’s a second home, I probably don’t need to worry about FEMA trying to help us.

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