From Offshore: What Would We Do If ...?
Wednesday, March 22, 2017 1:56 PM
At 4:40 p.m. on March 14th, four hours into the snowstorm, the power went out.
Eva Murray lives, works, and writes on Matinicus Island.
Thankfully, we’d already had a little “power bump” a couple of hours earlier, just a quick blink, which served as a reminder for me to draw off a few containers of water, because the one thing that won’t work without electricity in this house is the well pump. The big wood-and-coal stove was already doing its happy thing in the kitchen, as that is our primary heat anyway. By the time the power actually went out we had kettles, jugs, and a bathtub full of water. We had the marine VHF and the 2-meter radios attached to a 12-volt battery, we had ten gallons of gasoline ready should this go on long enough to require that we start the generator, and we had enough headlamps and candles dug out of kitchen drawers and coat pockets to illuminate the L.L. Bean parking lot. We had a chocolate cream pie on the table. That would be for moral support. We were ready; let ’er hammer.
We also, by the way, had a hard-wired (meaning not cordless) land-line telephone, and that can make all the difference when the telephone system is working but your house doesn’t happen to have electricity at the moment. Telephone companies run generators in central offices and switch houses, and an old-fashioned phone will work for quite some time without utility power, but that does a caller no good if he or she only has cordless telephones. Those require electricity all the time. Go for the curly wire.
Of course, the next day, after the storm was over and the power was back on, the phones went out.
The telephone problem didn’t originate here. Actually, the fault was elsewhere, and had nothing to do with our particular bit of forest liking to tip over in the wind, but we were still out for the morning. The idea of being on a remote island in the winter does make people nervous. Generally, it makes people who aren’t here nervous. It’s a lot scarier in the abstract than it is in reality.
For us, every time we have a small inconvenience — heavy weather, or some sort of systems failure, or anybody gets hurt — it’s sort of a fire drill for next time. It’s a learning experience. We need those, from time to time, because life isn’t usually that hard out here.
On Monday the 13th, the day before the storm, we saw about half the island turn out when representatives of LifeFlight of Maine came to Matinicus to provide a training session in helicopter landing zone set-up and safety. Nobody was sick, nobody was hurt — we had just asked LifeFlight to send us out a crew sometime so we could learn a little bit about how to respond properly on the ground when they were coming, should this island ever need them. So far, Matinicus Island is one of the few towns in Maine which has never watched their patient take off for the hospital in a LifeFlight helicopter. Let’s hope we keep it that way — but thinking ahead isn’t a bad thing.
Even though there were only a couple dozen people on the island last week, a crew gathered to help in various ways with getting the power back on, clearing the fallen trees, plowing snow and such. Many here ask, “How can I help?” Few ask, “Who’s going to take care of me?”
I’ve been thinking about community warming shelters, and about generator safety, and about backup communications with the mainland. During the storm, we were regularly in touch with Knox County Emergency Management in Rockland on the radio. Amateur operators with an interest in weather and public safety compare notes and keep the outlying areas connected through a radio meet-up called
the “Knox County Emergency Service Net.” As the gale screeched and the snow fell and then the rain pelted the windows, we heard, “This net meets at the top of each hour in the event of a major storm or other events which may pose a hazard to residents of Knox County.…”
Of course, the fewer people here in the winter, the lower the potential for crisis in this micro-municipality. Most of us are pretty darned self-sufficient. You’d think we were a bunch of wild-eyed Alaskans on television — only we don’t have to make believe we’ll starve next winter if young Otto misses his shot at that 12-point buck. The one thing we will never do is starve.
Dave Burr, the helicopter pilot, jokingly lectured us during the LifeFlight visit with, “You don’t call us, you never do, because that’s who you are and why you’re here, but dammit, you know you can if you ever need to!”
Good to know.