25,000 Customers and Two More
The weather forecast, an islander’s constant companion, suggested the potential for a real mess. The same great rainstorm that had caused mudslides and evacuations in California had made its way east, and we were in for some big water. Maybe. One never knows. Nobody worries too much out here about the rain, or even about the snow, as a rule. It’s the wind that causes us to toss and turn in our bunks. A maritime community grows anxious when the wind blows hard, and for good reason. A power company lineman can say the same. Being used to it does not help.
The day after the storm, reports on the radio indicated that 25,000 CMP and Bangor Hydro customers in Maine had lost power, and that some of them still had not seen it come back on. The news report did not mention power outages among the ratepayers of the Matinicus Plantation Electric Company.
We had two.
By the way, what the Sam Hill is “predictive radar?” That sure sounds like an oxymoron to me. It sounds like somebody at the weather bureau doesn’t know what “radar” means. At any rate, the day of the storm started out better than predicted. This is fairly typical; we sometimes cancel plans to fly on or off the island because we are assured that no travel will be possible, only to hear the flying service’s little airplane overhead an hour later. On this day a few of us were gathered in the schoolroom for a CPR class. The six schoolchildren had just left for the day, and the storm was just beginning to show its teeth. It had rained a little already, and the slippery ice outside was treacherous. I had worried about people throwing their backs out trying to get to a first aid course — not an auspicious combination. Thankfully, nobody’s feet went flying.
As the class was breaking up, at about 6:15 that evening, one of the participants mentioned that she was headed home to have a quiet candlelight dinner for two — over Skype. She and her boyfriend had been together for three years that day, and as they could not be together, they had planned to eat the same meal at the same time, to visit, and to raise a glass over the ether through the miracle of technology. With two laptop-mounted cameras and an Internet connection, these two would pleasantly share the time, if not the space, on this special evening.
You can probably guess what happened.
I arrived home at about 6:45pm, after tidying up from the CPR class and giving a couple of people rides home in the rain. The wind was now pretty fierce and it was no night to be out walking the roads if one could help it. As I got home, Paul was preparing to go to the powerhouse to do the regular evening check. Twice a day, various fuel and temperature gauges are checked, data is logged, the diesel engines that keep this island running are quickly inspected, and an “all is well” is confirmed.
It takes only a couple of minutes for him to drive from our house to the powerhouse, which stands near the harbor less than a mile away. Right in the middle of that brief time in transit, when he would have no knowledge of this happening, the power bumped.
It went out completely, but just for a second. No slow brownout, no multiple blinks, no real duration of outage, but enough to dump most of the electronics in the house: the kerosene heater, the television and converter box, the computer monitor. Each of these details is potentially diagnostic, and I have been instructed to pay attention. I noted the time and picked up the phone. No harm was done, but it is my duty to report this occurrence, being the Matinicus Electric Company line department’s right hand man, uh, woman.
Of course, Paul was in the truck halfway to the station when this happened. I left a brief message on the answering machine at the powerhouse, and a moment later, he called me back. I described the bump, and he spent some time driving around the island looking up. Was there a line fuse blown on a pole, was there a branch down somewhere, was anything obviously amiss? He called homes all over the island at the ends of roads, and each had electricity. Everything appeared to be in order. He came home, not sure what had happened, but assuming a tree branch had come down on a wire somewhere, causing a quick short, and then fallen free.
A moment later, the phone rang. One island family had no power after the time of the “bump.” The dad had walked up to a neighbor’s place to call, as his own cordless telephone wouldn’t work with the power out. You might be surprised how few people these days have old-fashioned telephones that don’t need household electricity to work. (Note to readers: if you don’t have one, get one.) Paul went right back out the door. This particular family lives along the harbor, in a cluster of small homes and workshops crowded together along a narrow footpath. There is no way to get the power company’s bucket truck in close to the poles along that section of line, and that short section is where the trouble was.
The bit of tie wire that holds the actual hot power line to the insulator had broken, and the line had come off the insulator, fallen to the pole’s wooden cross-arm, which was of course soaking wet, grounded out on the pole, short-circuited, and blown the line fuse (which is exactly what is supposed to happen, as this protects the rest of the system and isolates the power failure). Because of the fifty-knot winds, the heavy rain, and the darkness, it was not safe for anybody to climb the pole that night, especially as we were in the middle of an uncommonly warm spell and nobody’s heat was compromised. In the morning, Paul and Clayton would shut off the power to that section of the island, climb the pole, make the repair, and have it all back running. After all, there were only two customers out: the fellow who had called in the trouble from his neighbor’s house, and, of course, the woman trying to celebrate her third anniversary.
There would be no Skype with candlelight. She couldn’t even make a phone call. Paul stopped by to see if she needed anything; she told him she’d be just fine. She did make the comment later that it was convenient that she’d already set out the candles before the lights went out. Instead, she ate her dinner, read awhile by candlelight (to the dachshund, we hear) and without the use of her kerosene heater was rather grateful for a good sleeping bag.
Her boyfriend, having been to Matinicus several times and being a good sport all around, understood.
Such is island life.
Eva Murray of Matinicus will talk about the island’s power company to anybody who will listen.