Sunday, November 29, 2015

And Then There was Light: Windstorm 2015, Part 5

NOTE: Avista Utilities worked around the clock from the evening of Tuesday, November 17th thru Friday, November 27th to restore power after the windstorm. This is Part 5 of a five-part journal about our 6-day experience without power. 

Monday, November 23, approximately 4:00 pm

We bring home our new heater. We lug the propane tank upstairs. It feels weird to have it in the house. We read the heater’s instructions and proceed step-by-step. After we push the IGNITE button, nothing happens. It’s currently about 47 degrees in hour home. With snow and dropping temperatures in the forecast, it will probably drop below 45 degrees tonight. One thing we’ve learned, every degree counts.

We re-read the instructions. There’s no reason to panic because the pilot didn’t light. We just need to keep trying it until it catches. On the third try it does. We’ve place the heater in the part of the house where we’ve been hanging out the most. It’s the smaller heater and specs to heat a 200 sq. foot area. It's going to take awhile.

Monday, November 23, approximately 5:30pm

I head down to the most freezing part of our home to feed cats and meditate.

Situated on my meditation bench, wearing my now-usual several layers of clothes and coat and mittens, I close my eyes. I hear a low rumble. My eyes flutter open. I see lights out the window. Yellow and flashing. Probably an EMT vehicle, not uncommon in our neighborhood, as there is a long-term care facility on our block. I close my eyes.

What if it’s not an ambulance?

I jump up and run out the door in my socks. The truck is driving very slowly down the wrong side of the street. I think I recognize the Avista logo on the side panel. But it’s quite dark, so I’m not sure. I tear down the sidewalk, waving my arms. After I’ve passed a house, it stops.

I run up, out of breath and overexcited.

The two men inside are quite approachable. I blurt out: “Are you here to fix our power?”

Not exactly.

But they pull over anyway.

Two more trucks, also with flashing yellow lights, turn the corner and line up with their headlights facing the truck that just stopped.
One of the trucks is enormous, with a motorized bucket. Men start vacating the vehicles and follow me through our neighbor’s unfenced yard. I point out the downed tree. One of the linemen flashes a light at my feet. I’m standing on a cable. But it’s so thin, I hadn’t noticed. He tells me to move. I jump back. He follows the swirl of wire with his light. I keep back.

The men are talking among themselves, sweeping their high-powered lights up and down the line. I can’t make much sense of what they’re saying. Really, all I want to know is: Can they fix whatever is wrong?

Kernels of emotion: hope, excitement, fear ping through my like popcorn in a popper as I wait for their verdict.

Their assessment: “We can get this done in less than an hour.”

I want to jump up and down like a gameshow contestant, instead I just beam. After more than 144 hours w/out power an hour is a snap of the fingers. I’m ecstatic, overjoyed, praising whatever benevolent powers exist in the universe.

They drive the biggest truck in through the opening in the yard. Right up to where that downed tree is laying on the wire. Enormous lights are rigged and they get to work.
I don’t want to get in their way, but I’m on a natural high and that always makes me chatty. This particular crew has been working 3 pm to 7:30 am shifts since Tuesday night. They’ll keep working those hours until all the power is restored. They’ve already been told they’ll be working on Thanksgiving. I don’t envy them, but I’m immensely grateful for what they’re doing. Many of them have been going home to their own cold homes at the end of their long double-shifts.

Watching them work is fascinating. They’re very focused and seem to have no doubt about what they’re doing. They’re working on the tree and two different poles, including the main one around the corner. By this point, I’m running in and out of our house, updating my husband. I watch out my back window to stay out of their way. I want to do something to show my gratitude. However, we don’t have much in the house. We cleaned all the spoiled food from our refrigerator and freezer the night before.

I examine our pantry and round up two containers of Trader Joes chocolate almonds. Maybe they’d make a good snack later in the evening. I grab them along with (hopefully) enough small bottles of water for everyone working, and throw it in a bag. I take it out to where they’re working.

My heart feels really happy when they see what I’ve brought. The water seems to be welcome and they open one of the containers of almonds and start passing it around.

I force myself to go back inside and wait.

After about half-an-hour, they’ve pulled out from the neighbor’s back yard and the whole crew has relocated around the corner. Once again, the bucket has been raised and a technician is working on the box. A groan soon follows.

My heart plummets.

They’d turned on the power and down the line a spark flared.

They have to move the trucks farther down our street, to the neighbor on the other side. Again, the crew shines their lights, scanning up and down the lines. This time, even though they can drive the larger truck with the bucket onto the lot, there are too many structures: a garage, a trailer, a shed, and trees, around the pole for them to use it.

Two linemen shimmy up the pole and get to work.

At first, I plant myself on the corner of my garage. But the moon is out, and I see an opportunity for a great picture. I walk over again and after making sure I won’t be in the way, I get as close to the pole as I can. I got this great shot, that I shared on Twitter that night.
Then the magic moment came.

Perhaps it seems like a small thing among the disasters, horrors, and problems in our world. But that’s not how it felt. It felt huge. I wanted to grab every single one of those guys and give them a huge hug; I refrained. I just thanked them and shared my gratitude on Twitter.

Inside my home, the lights actually felt disorienting. After six nights, I’d gotten used to candlelight and flashlight. It felt odd to have whole rooms without darkness. But the hum of the heater, oh, that was a beautiful sound.

Since we had no food, we bundled up for one more meal out. It would give the house time to warm up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, approximately 7 am

There’s snow on the ground, not too much. It’s beautiful. With the heat running in our home, I can appreciate it. But I’m well aware that at least 20,000 people remain without power. My thoughts and prayers go out to them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015, approximately 12 pm

Driving around town, there seems to be a utility truck on every corner. It’s a welcome sight. Fewer and fewer homes remain without power.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Power has been restored to all homes and business in our city.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

It’s a funny thing, the ripple effect of this kind of situation. I spoke more with (and met more of) my neighbors during the power outage than in all the prior years. In our effort to seek heat during the day, I connected with some of the most interesting people in the coffee shops, gym, and restaurants. The conversations were fascinating and rich. I was left with a greater sense of connection with this city and the people who live here.

I also feel a deep sense of gratitude to everyone at Avista. They worked around the clock, in temperatures that were often below freezing, for ten days to return power to every home and business in the city. No small feat. It took longer—two weeks—to restore electricity to less people after the Ice Storm in 2009.

Almost a week later, my heart is still floating in my chest, and I’m walking around smiling, wanting to hear everyone’s story of: How long was your power out? How did you get through it?

One man showed us pictures of a friend’s home. A tree had literally smashed through the roof, leaving a gaping hole. A woman had been in the next room when the tree fell. I can’t imagine what that would have been like. Fortunately, she suffered no injuries.

Among all the stories, ours is a milder one. But we all have this in common: We survived the Windstorm of 2015. And it was something.

The Storm Hits, Windstorm 2015, Part 1
The First Night, Windstorm 2015, Part 2
Electricity Envy, Windstorm 2015, Part 3
The Hunt for a Heater, Windstorm 2015, Part 4

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Hunt for a Heater: Windstorm, 2015, Part 4

NOTE: Avista Utilities has worked around the clock from the evening of Tuesday, November 17th to restore power after the windstorm. According to their outage map, there are less than 100 customers without power this morning. This is Part 4 of a five-part journal about our 6-day experience without power. UPDATE: Per @AvistaUtilities all power has now been restored!

Sunday, November 22, 2015, approximately 8:00 pm

I hear the sound of engines or motors outside. I go outside and head in the direction of the sound, hoping it’s a utility truck working on our downed line. It’s just a neighbor around the corner running a generator. On the way back home, I see a man smoking a cigarette on his front porch. I ask him if he knows anything about the fallen tree, or anything.
Even though the tree fell on his property, it actually sits in his neighbor’s yard. He assures me we won’t be getting any electricity until it’s cleared away. “All the lines are down on the ground,” he tells me. A sight impossible to see from our home. “I’ve been walking up and down the street talking to the line men.” He points to a red tag on the telephone pole in front of his house. “They put that up this morning.”

I shine my flashlight and see today’s date and other incomprehensible notation on the tag. I hope this is a good sign. I hope it means they’ll be back sooner rather than later.

He asks me how we’re staying warm. By now, most of the people we’ve talked to without heat are staying with family and friends with electricity. We’ve also learned that woodturning stoves, along with actual working fireplaces, are not uncommon in the city. We have none of the above. “We’re not,” I answer.

“Man, you must be freezing!” He shakes his head. “We’ve got an indoor propane heater, but we can’t sleep with it on.”

I’ve never heard of an indoor propane heater before.

Monday, November 23, 2015 approximately 10:00 am

We’re under another Weather Alert. A winter storm is coming. Depending on the way the winds blow, we’ll have light to heavy snow accumulations from Monday evening throughout the day Tuesday. I love snow. This is the first time since we’ve moved to the Inland Northwest that I’ve dreaded it. But the thought of going out to shovel snow and then come inside to a freezing cold home sounds wretched.

When we get to the coffee shop, I sign on to the Avista site. They have icons showing work crew locations around town There are masses of them, but only two in our neighborhood. As soon as I see that, I realize that I've been hoping our electricity will be restored before November 25th at 11:30 pm. Now, it starts to sink in that we might not even get power before Thanksgiving. We need heat. I restart searching the internet for hardware stores.

We call all the Home Depots. Then the Lowes. Not surprisingly, everyone is out of indoor propane heaters (IPHs). We start on the list of Ace Hardware stores. My husband is prepared to buy one from Amazon and pay the extra shipping so we’ll get it on Tuesday, but I just don’t think I can take another night without heat! Especially, if it snows.

We dial the 4th Ace. Unbelievably, they have one IPH left. They can’t take our credit card information over the phone, and they’re very reluctant to hold it. It’s probably the last IPH in the city! I have an appointment at 11:30, and the Ace is more than half-an-hour away.

It’s not a tough decision.

I reschedule my appointment and we head across town.

The heater is there; we snap it up. They’re out of propane canisters, but we want to hook up a tank, anyway. They don’t have the appropriate line. They call around to the other Ace stores and locate one for us. We drive over there and pick it up. We will have—some—heat tonight!

Part 5, the final installment, coming tomorrow …

The Storm Hits, Windstorm 2015, Part 1
The First Night, Windstorm 2015, Part 2
Electricity Envy, Windstorm 2015, Part 3

Friday, November 27, 2015

Electricity Envy: Windstorm 2015, Part 3

NOTE: Avista Utilities has worked around the clock from the evening of Tuesday, November 17th to restore power after the windstorm. According to their outage map, there are less than 200 customers without power this morning. It was wonderful to drive home on Thanksgiving evening and see all the lights on! This is Part 3 of a five part journal about our 6-day experience without power.

November 18, 2015 approximately 8:00 am

It’s cold outside, in the thirties. The temperature inside is 55. That doesn’t sound that cold, but you’d be surprised. I add more layers as I move around the house. After I feed the cats and stare out the windows, I turn on my cellphone. I’d turned it off last night to conserve the remaining charge, less than half. The weather alert is over, but it’s clear no one in the vicinity has power. I find Avista Utilities on line and am guided to the outage center.

Over a 120,000 homes are without power this morning. Wow! In a service area of 180,000 that’s a significant number.

I start wrapping my head around the idea that it might take longer than I thought for our electricity to come back on. In the meantime, the day ahead looks odd. All routines are scuttled. There’s no electricity to make coffee or yerba mate, won’t be cooking any breakfast either. That pile of laundry I’d been allowing to build, the one I’d been planning to tackle today, not going to happen. With our wifi down, I don’t have access to our computer backup, the one where I keep the most current files of my work. Hmmm.

I can meditate.

After that, I start calling the local coffee shops. No one picks up.

I reach a Starbucks farther south. “Yes, we have electricity,” the barista answers. We load up our phones, computers, ebooks, and their respective cords. Maybe we can re-charge some of this stuff.

Traffic lights are still out and most businesses we drive by are closed. We see little evidence of anyone with electricity. We see an amazing number of downed trees. And they're huge, with trunks several feet around.
Some have crushed roofs, gates, and a few have even pulled up entire blocks of sidewalk with them.
Roots that once tunneled ground, are now dead and frozen midair.
When we reach the Starbucks, there are plenty of cars in the parking lot. The line is out the door, and the interior is packed. There are outlets, but they’re all being used. My husband remembers there’s a local coffee shop two or three blocks down the street. He walks over there while I hold our line at Starbucks. I turn my phone back on, so he can call me.

“It’s less crowded,” he calls to tell me a few minutes later.

I gratefully relinquish my place in the ever-growing line at Starbucks and trek over to Revel 77 Coffee. It’s busy, but there’s actually a few seats and—hallelujah!—an outlet where we can recharge our phones. We settle in.

They have no wifi, Comcast is down. We don’t care. Our phones aren’t going to die. I run into a woman I know who works at the Post Office. She tells me the main facility at the airport has lost a roof, gas lines are broken, and, of course, the power is out. They’re working at the branch office with flashlights. The good news is: She’s one of the fortunate ones who never lost power at home. I can't deny the fleeting sensation of electricity envy.

Once my phone is fully charged, I begin searching for any news I can find about what’s going on. The worst power outage in Avista Utilities 126-year history pretty much sums it up. It starts sinking in that our power won’t be restored today. Maybe not even tomorrow.

We drink more coffee than we normally do, meet the head of the Spokane French Club, get some tips on snowshoeing—something I've long wanted to try. Mostly we're avoiding returning home, where we both work. Without any heat, it's only becoming colder with each passing hour. We finally decide to see if the gym my husband is a member of will give me a day pass. I could take a shower, maybe sit in the sauna and warm up.

Before we leave the coffee shop, we check the Avista Utilities site once more. The reported outages are fluctuating. At the same time that some of the outages are being repaired, more are being reported. The number of outages never drops below 100,000 that day. We check the status of our outage and there is no estimated repair date. Cold and grumpy we begin to mentally prepare ourselves for what’s ahead.

Thursday, November 19, 2015 approximately 4:30pm

Our neighbors across the street have lights! We’re ecstatic. Certainly, ours will follow soon. I pace the house, rubbing my arms to keep warm. The temperature in our house has dropped below 50 and I'm freezing.

After an hour of waiting, I finally break down and check the status of our outage. I'm trying to save my cellphone juice for emergencies. We have a repair estimate of Friday, November 20, 6:00 am. It’s the first time we’ve had an estimate. We can last one more night!

We head out for dinner; our ordeal is almost over.

We have to stand in line for 30 minutes at Dickey's Barbecue Pit. We're happy. The longer it takes to eat dinner, the longer we'll be in a heated place. A man who worked for Avista during the Ice Storm of 1996 is in front of us. He no longer works for the company, but I ask him if he can help me understand some of the news updates I've been reading online. He explains the transmission lines (bringing in enormous amounts of electricity from Canada and Montana—they had to be fixed first) and the substations (they break that electricity down to smaller distribution packets—they had to be fixed next). All that's left is walking (and clearing and fixing) 700 miles of line. He also tells us about a young man that died in the Ice Storm, and I begin to understand the repeated messages urging safety.

When we get home, we can’t help but gaze longingly at our neighbor’s porch lights. Electricity envy is blossoming in my chest. We bolster ourselves; maybe our electricity will be on before we wake up in the morning.

Our neighbor comes over and offers us the use of his generator, an LED light, a thermos of warm water. We're deeply touched, but there’s no way to hook the generator up to our heater, and at this point, heat is all we want. Plus, we’ll be getting our power back soon, too, we tell him.

Friday, November 20, approximately, 7:05 am

My cats are looking at me with murder in their eyes. It’s 45 degrees in the house. You’d think that wouldn’t feel that cold, but I’ve got on long underwear, a long sleeve t-shirt, a sweat shirt, a coat, and mittens, and I still can’t get warm.

We don’t have power.

I’m pretty bummed.

But I don’t want to get too discouraged.

The first thing I do when we get to the coffee shop that morning is check our outage status. The internet is back up. Our repair estimate has been changed to November 20, 6:00pm. Less than 12 hours! We’ll have heat tonight.

Saturday, November 21, approximately 6:55 am

We’re freezing. We have no power. Our repair estimate has been updated to November 25, 2015, 11:30pm.

The net numbers of those without power is steadily dropping by about 10,000 per day. By now it’s down to around 80,000. But increasingly, the remaining outages are the ones that are more complex and challenging to repair. Trees have to be cut down and cleared away along with any other obstructions. We’re starting to understand: This is going to take time.

To be continued ....

The Storm Hits: Windstorm 2015, Part 1
The First Night, Windstorm 2015, Part 2

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The First Night: Windstorm 2015, Part 2

NOTE: Despite Avista Utilities working around the clock since the evening of Tuesday, November 17, 2,336 customers remain without power this morning. A teeny percentage of the over 100,000 who were down on the morning of Wednesday, November 18. However, after going for 6 days without power in freezing temperatures, I fully understand that every single customer counts and the moment of Electricity-Returned is a powerful one. This is Part 2 of a five-part journal about our experience without power. I'm writing it as an expression of solidarity with those who remain without heat and power in these freezing/below freezing temperatures, as well as with the utility workers who are working on Thanksgiving Day! Paradoxically, an experience like this often serves the cultivation of gratitude.

November 17, 2015 approximately 5:30pm

By the time we left for Rosauers, our entire neighborhood was out of power. Being winter, the sun had set about 4 pm. Now, our part of the city was almost 100 percent blacked out. When we reached the main arterial that led to the shopping center, the street was completely blocked. An enormous spruce tree had fallen across the road. We had to u-turn and thread our way though the blackness and debris. Every street light was out. A few neon lights flickered in the shopping center. Rosauers was one of the few businesses that remained opened. We hurried inside and asked for directions to the aisle with candles. A frenetic energy permeated the store. There were plenty of shoppers on the candle/flashlight aisle, although not as many as we expected. We picked out three large candles, a couple of small ones, and an LED flashlight. The power in the store went out while we were shopping. Frozen in utter blackness, you catch your breath and think: What are we going to do do if the lights don’t come back on?

Your heart beats louder in your ears.

A long moment passed before the generators kicked in and light returned, although dimmer than before. Nervous chatter and laughter resumed. A lady who’d been certain the power in her home would be back on by midnight turned her shopping cart around and headed back to the candles. On our way to the register we picked up a couple of packages of salami and hard cheese. We had wine and dark chocolate-covered almonds at home. We’d enjoy an indoor picnic with candlelight.
Standing in the checkout line, everyone was giddy with adrenaline. We all joked as we exchanged snippets of whatever news we’d heard about the windstorm. The weather alert had been extended from 7pm to midnight. A woman had died, crushed by a falling tree. Roofs had been blow off and windows had been blown out. Trees and power lines were down all over the city.

At home, we fed the cats and added some layers of clothing before we sat down to eat. Without any heat, the house was already beginning to cool down.

The rest of the night the wind howled and shook the house. There were moments where you were sure the whole structure would be ripped from it’s foundation a la The Wizard of Oz. Unexplained noises crashed in the distance. But without any lights, it was impossible to see what was happening.

The extent of damage wouldn’t be clear until the following morning.

The Storm Hits, Part 1