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Tales from the drift

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When massive storms hit a community, sometimes it brings out the best in people. Neighbors help neighbors cope with the weather. Volunteers gather to fill sandbags in flood zones. Children pitch in and shovel the driveway of an elderly woman for free.

But when the winter has been as long and as severe as this one, Indianapolis residents give up on that neighborly crap and decide that every person is on his or her own.

Last week's ice storm was a case in point. There wasn't any neighborly concern, no good Samaritan, we're-in-this-together philosophy going on. It was pure Darwinism, anarchy on ice, a preview of what a real apocalypse will look like.

It's a good thing the roads were eventually cleared, or at least the main roads. A few more days of being cooped in their homes and the people of this city might have resorted to looting and cannibalism, such was the fear I saw in people's eyes.

We expect the store shelves to be stripped of bread, milk and eggs as a big winter storm approaches. But the atmosphere at a local grocery store last week went beyond competitive shopping into the realm of near anarchy.

People were shopping with such frenzy, such zeal, it seemed as though the end were truly near. Once the bread was gone, the search was on for anything even close. The crescent rolls and Twinkies went next. I saw an old man pushed aside as he tried to take the last package of English muffins.

There's something appealing about watching a bout of panic shopping, something primal about seeing people have to compete for the goods they usually take for granted. When I lived within walking distance of a Kroger, I used to go there just to stir up trouble.

"Better stock up," I would say to a frazzled soccer mom. "The new forecast is looking like you'll be stuck inside for a week." Or: "Forget the frozen pizza. When the power goes out for a week, you'll wish you had a case of pork and beans and a generator."

My favorite prank was to see if I could incite fears of water shortages. "I'm getting 50 gallons," I'd say. "Gonna need it all when the pipes freeze."

Folks will believe anything you say about a winter storm, and they're also ready to believe the worst you have to say, so it was usually no problem to set off a wave of fear at the store and see entire shelves stripped bare within minutes.

After a lifetime spent braving Indiana blizzards, I've seen it all. Shopping carts filled with Little Debbie cupcakes and beer. People buying 30 pounds of hamburger.Grown men and women acting like children.

During the worst of the storm last week, downtown was paralyzed. Most shops and restaurants were closed, which meant if you were able to get to work, you'd be going hungry if you hadn't brought your lunch.

The few stores that were open were unable to cope with demand. If you broke your ice scraper on Wednesday, you were using old CDs to scrape your windshield since every store in town was out of stock.

For 11 months a year, you can buy as much rock salt as your car will withstand. There's not an especially large value placed upon it. But salt takes on much more value during storms like last week's. It becomes almost as valuable as gold and just as scarce.

My wife and I went from store to store looking for salt. When we asked clerks whether they had any, they reacted angrily. "No, we don't have any," one clerk said. "And before you ask, no, I don't know when we're going to get any more. I wish people would quit asking."

Finally we found some. When the pallet of salt was delivered, people flocked to it like there was a Wonka golden ticket inside. People didn't care who they pushed aside to get it. It was both incredibly exciting and dreadful.

When the storm hits, you can't count on anything being easy. I gripe and moan but, like every other inconvenience arising from the ice storm, ultimately there's nothing anyone can do about it. You're on your own.

Hopefully, we've gone through the worst of the winter and the great ice storm of 2011 will soon just be an unpleasant memory. But it's worth keeping the memory of how people reacted to it in the back of your mind. If the crap ever really hits the fan, it will be much, much worse.

So if I were you, I'd be stocking up on salt, water, bread and ammo. When the going gets tough, Hoosiers tend to react strongly. It's better to be prepared than to be sorry later.

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