It happened on a calm evening right after sunset, while light still lingered on the horizon. Islanders on the south side, heard a huge crack. Those with cottages along the sidewalk reported that the power lines strung between the utility poles across from them, bounced violently up and down.
Our cottage is on the north side of the island and we didn’t notice a thing until I went to switch on the light and nothing happened. I checked the second hand on the clock in the kitchen, to make sure it was an outage and not a brown-out. A tree---or should I say the tree---fell against a utility pole taking out power to most, but not all of the island.
Early in season, one islander noted that the crack in this rough-barked, towering poplar had lengthened and widened substantially during the off-season. She jokingly suggested we start a lottery to predict on what day this tree would fall and take-out the power lines. Some called it the “Breathing Tree” and others, the “Moaning Tree,” because of the sounds it made, when the prevailing southwest wind blew.
Power comes to the island via underwater cable into our little cove and makes a clock-wise circuit around the island. The few cottages between the incoming pole and the break still had power. The rest of the cottages on the other side of the break—that is the majority of the cottages on the island—did not.
Husband Gary, called the power company. The cheerful woman on the line told us that crews were already enroute and the power was estimated to be back on by 11:30. It was 8:30 pm. I laughed when Gary told me what she’d said. “Does she realize we are on an island?” I asked. Then I noted that she hadn’t said whether that was 11:30 pm or 11:30 am. She didn’t even say 11:30 on what day.
Thank goodness, it was still a little light out. I hurried around the cottage, gathering flashlights, lanterns and candles. We played Qwirkle, by candlelight and later read a little before retiring, using the new headlamps, a thoughtful guest had given us, earlier in the season. We’d planned to use the headlamps for our moonlight kayaks, but they were perfect for reading on a dark night without power.
I woke early the next morning and wondered if I should bother setting up Social Hour at the Community House this morning, as I couldn’t bake anything. Then I realized that the Community House was between the incoming pole and the break. The Community House had power. I jumped from bed and headed to the Community House. I set up my coffee maker and texted a bunch of islanders:
“Coffee at the Community House & power to charge phones, etc. Spread the word.”
The word spread. Soon people were arriving, bleary-eyed, with mugs and chargers. Islanders brought cookies and coffee cakes, drinking water, to-go coffee cups, with lids and cans of coffee. Some took coffee back to their loved ones, others lingered and talked while their electronics charged. Seems half the island was at the Community House that morning. The other half went to Koffee Kove, in Clayton, for breakfast.
Long-time islanders talked about other power outages—most significantly, the Microburst of 1995, when the power was off for several weeks. Things were different back then, no cellphones that had to be charged; fewer electronics but some things remain the same. When the power goes-out on the island, our water pumps stop working; so we’re dealing with a lack of electricity and a lack of running water.
My in-laws had always insisted on having a gallon or two of drinking water, safely stashed in the boathouse, for such emergencies. I had a few bottles of water in the refrigerator, which I didn’t want to open, to keep the contents as cold as possible. I was thankful people brought drinking water to make coffee, as I didn’t have enough,for the four pots I made that morning.
Lack of running water is inconvenient, especially when you have guests. Luckily, the power outage happened between guests, for us. One neighbor was expecting company to arrive the next day and was hoping for news as to when the power would be back on. If it would be out more than a day, she would call her guests and tell them not to come.
We purchased a generator back in 2008 and thankfully haven’t had much opportunity to use it in the last seven years. While I was at the Community House brewing coffee, Gary set it up, got it running and plugged-in two of our three refrigerators.
The power company had arrived, via pontoon boat, in the middle of the night to assess the situation. They cut power to the entire island at 11 a.m., so the tree crew could work on taking down the tree. People unplugged their devices in the Community House and headed back to their cottages. Parents told their kids, there would be ice cream and popsicles for lunch. Best to eat what they could before it melted. Some islanders went to the mainland to run errands, texting often to check on progress and to ask if anyone needed ice. Many stayed to watch the tree crew work to remove the behemoth poplar. By two o’clock the linesmen were ready to get to work. The power was back on by 4:30.
The experience made me appreciate our ancestors, who lived in these same cottages for 30 years, without electricity, phones, running water or refrigeration. It also made me realize I need to do a little more, to be prepared. I need to keep an emergency supply of drinking water, somewhere.
Power outages are inconvenient, no matter when and where they happen, but as with most things, being on an island compounds things. Much tougher for power crews to get here, to do their job. The power was out for 20 hours and in that time we had come together as a community, once again, helping each other out, when we could and sharing in our experience together.
By Lynn E. McElfresh, Grenell Island
Lynn McElfresh is a regular contributor to TI Life, writing stories dealing with her favorite Grenell Island and island life. You can see Lynn’s 80+ articles here (Yes we celebrated her number 80 in July, 2015.) Lynn helps us move pianos, fix the plumbing, and in this article, tells us how to cope with no power…
All Photographs by Lynn McElfresh