November 4, 2017 by Jean
During the last week in October, the local meteorologists kept warning us about a big storm that would crash into Maine at the end of the weekend. By the time I went to bed on Sunday night, the storm was imminent, and we were under a high wind warning – meaning that damaging winds were likely. I rushed around outdoors on Saturday and Sunday, taking in all the patio and deck furniture, moving container plants from the front deck into the relative safety of the screened porch, and getting the canopy and screens taken down from the gazebo on the back deck.
During the night, the wind howled and rain came down in torrents. Sometime around 4 a.m. on Monday, I woke up to find the electricity out, but it came back on again a few minutes later. When I woke up again at 5:45 and the power was still on, I thought we had lucked out and were safe. I was lounging in bed, listening to the morning news on NPR when, about 6:30, the power went out again, this time with a loud bang that sounded like a transformer short-circuiting somewhere in the neighborhood.
I naively assumed that the electricity would be back on within a few hours, but by the end of the day, it was clear that wouldn’t be the case. Trees and power lines had come down all over Maine, but especially in southern Maine, where Central Maine Power, the electric company that serves the southern (and most populous) half of the state was reporting 400,000 customers without electricity. The electric company that serves the northern half of the state was reporting an additional 100,000 customers without power in their region. (To put this in context, you need to realize that the entire population of Maine is only 1.3 million people.) In the afternoon, after the rain had stopped and the winds had subsided considerably, I went for a walk through my neighborhood. As soon as I turned the corner from my dirt road onto the paved road, I saw a tree down on the electric lines. Some good Samaritan had cut off and removed the part of the tree blocking the road. The remaining tree trunk was being held at a 45-degree angle by some lines that were still attached. Other lines had snapped and were lying on the ground.
On Monday, CMP was predicting that they would have all power restored in 3-4 days. By Tuesday, they had backed off from that rosy scenario and were saying that they expected to have power restored to “the vast majority” of customers by Saturday night. By Wednesday, they had quietly dropped that promise. This was beginning to look like the ice storm of January 1998, when three days of freezing rain left most Mainers without power, and when I lived without electricity for 10 long days.
In 1998, my saving grace was my woodstove, which kept the house comfortably warm and on which I could do some rudimentary cooking. Each morning, I would heat a pot of water, using some for my morning tea and some to put in my backpacking “shower” (a plastic bag with a shower nozzle attached). I would get into the bathtub, hang the bag of hot water on the shower head, and indulge in a quick shower and shampoo. Those daily hot showers kept me sane. The greatest difficulty for me in 1998 was getting water to heat (and to drink, and to flush the toilet). In my rural town, we all get our water from individual private wells. When the electricity is out, the well pump stops pumping, and you have no running water.
This time my situation is a bit different. In the years after 1998, my neighbor’s late husband installed a big generator that automatically comes on within a few seconds after the power goes out and keeps their whole house running normally. I have been taking advantage of her generator (and her hospitality) to fill containers of water for my own needs from her faucets. My biggest problems this time are heat and cooking. I wasn’t planning to light my woodstove until December, preferring to use the electric heat in the shoulder seasons, and my chimney has not yet been cleaned in preparation for the wood-burning season. (It was scheduled to be done on the day the power went out, but it was too stormy that morning for anyone to be up on a roof cleaning a chimney.) Until the chimney has been cleaned, I am not willing to risk using the woodstove; and, of course, I don’t have electricity for the backup heat. I have never before gone into November in Maine without turning on heat, and the house has gotten nippy! I am coping by wearing many layers of clothing and hoping that the power will be restored soon. When I got up on Thursday morning, the house was so cold that windows had steamed up because it was warmer outdoors. Today (Friday) was another warm day and I opened windows to let warm air in and get the interior temperature back up to about 60F.
For cooking, I have dug out some of my old camping equipment. I have a camp kitchen of sorts set up on the screened porch, with a two-burner Coleman stove and a cooler for food. Happily, I still had a partial can of gas for the stove in the basement. On the second day the power was out, as I realized that my refrigerator and freezer were starting to warm up, I moved most of my frozen food to my neighbor’s chest freezer (blessedly powered by her generator), filled one of the crisper drawers in my refrigerator with two bags of ice, and used a third five-pound bag of ice in my cooler, where I am storing the foods that are most vulnerable to spoiling.
My wonderful neighbor has given me carte blanche to use her house while she is at work, so I often go over there in the morning with my electric kettle and boil water to make a pot of tea for breakfast. My front porch camp kitchen, however, allows me to cook and eat a hot supper each evening.
On Thursday morning, I took a hot shower at my neighbor’s house and logged on to the internet. When I checked the power company’s web site, I was thrilled to discover that they were estimating that we would have power back that evening. Alas, that turned out to be a false hope. On Friday morning, they were giving a restoration time of 10 p.m. that night for our neighborhood; but as I write this, it is 8:45 and there is no sign of the power company working on our downed wires – which means that the 10 p.m. estimate was another pipe dream. After five full days without power, camping at home is quickly wearing thin; let’s hope that the electricity comes back on soon.