Try Everything: The BWL Power Outage of 2013

1 Jan 2014

Recon suggests everybody in East Lansing is now restored to power, as of a couple of hours ago. Today marks 11 days since electrical power went out here--spectacularly in the case of our block, where a down wire arced for 30 minutes of sheer bright terror. (It lit up like a rocket launch every few seconds.) Our block first tried calling 911 over and over, but finding the lines jammed (“If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911”), we then took to calling each other, frantically, up and down the block. (It really looked like two houses might be on fire.) It took the fire truck a full 15 minutes of nauseating electrical horror to arrive. The fire department left before the line stopped arcing; apparently they had to go to a house actually on fire.

Thanks to frigid temperatures and a power company with a computer system seemingly older than me, the initial trauma turned protracted. We went eight days without power, without central heat, living off a pathetic gas log, keeping our pipes from freezing by running the taps and putting pots full of hot water near the washer and dishwasher. We slept in the living room in sleeping bags, our pet rats caged (and so miserable), with hot water bottles around their basket to keep them from dying. The living room hovered around 57 degrees, except at night when we turned the fire down for safety. Most of the house was at about 42 degrees. On Day 8, I finally dissolved into tears. Seeing this, the mate found a way to connect a generator to the furnace. A friend with a PhD in electrical engineering explained to him how to do it. And added, “It’s not legal, but it’s safe.”

A few days before that, we had already started improvising. At home, where our neighbors took to simply coming into our house via the garage because there was no doorbell and we had insulated the front door and stopped using it, I was grinding coffee using a mortar and pestle and cooking simple meals using a headlamp. (Our gas stove worked, as did our water heater, which kept us from giving up the house.)

On Day 6, the mate and I decided to organize a protest at a local school, scheduled for the next day. He called it “Cold Pussy Riot.” Pays to have a background in media relations and a lot of local friends; we had about 150 people show up, most of them seven days without power at that point. I made about 25 signs for people to hold: “My pipes froze.” “I came to this protest and all I got was warmer.” “Empower the people.” And “Got pipes?” They were quickly snatched up and held high. The city manager tried to explain why he couldn’t call a state of emergency, and got heckled. (I didn’t heckle him. He’s a good guy, and he explained it wouldn’t bring more resources we needed, because what we needed were more crews.) After the protest, I took the signs back and left them on the front steps of the home of the head of our power company, a few blocks away, so that he might hear us. (He lives in a mansion that was restored to power in a couple of days. I found that pretty annoying.)

When a survey crew had yet to show up at our block a day later, Day 8, I woke up feeling depressed and sick. Tired of hearing (genuine) sympathy out of our city manager and police chief, who had had power restored to their homes, I walked our neighborhood, knocking on the door of every house without power, confirming loss of power, asking what heating source they were using, asking what they needed. (Most of them know me because I’m one of the neighborhood leaders.)

I then relayed our outage list to the city manager, city clerk, and police chief, and I told them what those in our neighborhood without power could use: firewood; hot showers at the community center; police/fire safety checks on generators (I saw several very close to houses); and PRINTED information distributed by officers including emergency info about warming centers, carbon monoxide poisoning, and how to report you’re still out. (A lot of good social media postings do for people eight days without power!)

By that afternoon, Day 8, the city clerk--still without power at her own house--delivered a cord of her own firewood nearby, and stood guard on it. We put the word out that it was available, and the clerk started arranging to get more wood. The police chief put together excellent printed information and police and fire officers started knocking, door to door, to do safety checks. They asked people with power to turn on their porch lights, and in the nights, went out scouting to see who was still out.

Day 9: I had breakfast and went to the “walk in” center set up by our power company at the community center 2 blocks from my house. I waited on line about two and a half hours. By the time I got to the front of the line, I had arranged to have seven neighbors walk up to the desk with me, to explain to “BWL Bob” (as I now call him) that we had 27 houses on one line that just needed what we thought was a simple fix. Why, we asked him, were trucks working on single houses when we had 27 families out on one circuit? He looked up our area and corrected us: it looked like 91 houses on that circuit. He said he’d try.

That evening, Day 9, a neighbor three blocks up from where we live (a guy who had been restored) personally found a crew from out of state and begged them to come to our out circuit. Word was until that day, BWL was not allowing very many outside crews to help us because they were afraid of people touching their stuff without a BWL person present. You know what, BWL? In emergency situations, I let people touch my stuff.

Anyway, the Illinois-based crew came because of that angel neighbor asking them to, and in about 45 minutes they had fixed the problem! Day 9, about 7 pm. As we had suspected might happen, the whole circuit of homes had been restored with 45 minutes, a couple of guys, one wire, and one fuse. I walked up and down the blocks that had been out, calling the cell phones of all my neighbors who had abandoned their homes and told them they could now come home. An SUV drove up while I was still on the street. The driver said, “Alice?” I couldn’t see and asked who it was. It was the police chief, here to ask if we were really restored. She was out personally checking to see who was still out, so that she could nag the power company.

That night, two nights ago now, I slept in my own bed for the first time since Solstice, and, first thing on Day 10, yesterday, New Year’s Eve, I started following the lead of Dan Ryan in Lansing (@BWLOutage) and Jeff Pratt in East Lansing (@ELansBWLOutage) and tried to work on getting other people restored. I made and brought a list of houses I had learned were still out to BWL Bob at the community center 2 blocks away. This list included a perfect stranger I’d just met that morning at the bagel place, a guy who I’d overheard telling the cashier he was still out of power. The mate, hearing same, looked at me and said, “Go get him.” I took his name, address, phone number, and kept track of his case until he was restored. That guy reported also two more houses to me on his block, and I worked them, too. So many of the houses still out were marked “on” in the BWL system.

Yesterday, I ended up sitting for several hours at the community center at the BWL help desk, working in person with BWL Bob, on email with the police chief, on Twitter with Jeff, and on the phone with my friends around town who at my request drove around checking various addresses for me, to see if there were crews or restoration or if we needed to report again. One commissioner of BWL, Dennis Louney, was there, too, and he actually gave me his personal contact info, as did BWL Bob. (The best bit was when Jeff -- whom I’d never met -- walked in and said, “Alice? I’m Jeff.” Turns out we both drive Chevy Volts.)

We kept at it, Jeff, me, the police chief, BWL Bob, and my network of East Lansing friends, working the list. When the Hillcrest Apartments came back online, I felt like a million bucks. When at 7:30 last night we drove by Whitehills Drive and confirmed restoration of those five blocks was actively happening--bliss! Then this morning, Jeff and I found a house only three blocks away from my home still without, Day 11. An older couple, in the cold. They had reported, and they’d been lost in the crappy BWL system. I called BWL Bob and promised the couple I’d stay on their case until they were restored. They were restored a couple of hours ago. Bob sounded so happy when I called to confirm it to him.

So what have I learned that other people might take from this?

  1. Ask, very specifically, for what you need. After you say “I need power restored,” tell people in the meantime what you need: firewood, gas, a generator, childcare relief, a run to the drug store, whatever.

  2. Keep asking until you get what you need.

  3. Ask people who are suffering what they need. They usually know and will tell you if you knock on the door and ask.

  4. Knock on the doors of strangers to ask them if they need help. No one begrudges you asking if they need help, even if you are a perfect stranger with no official capacity. (No one from the power company or the city seems to have done this until I asked the Police to do safety checks. The couple I talked to this morning said, “You are the first person here in 10 days.” WTF?)

  5. Always assume midwesterners will not ask for help--they think it is impolite or something--so you have to bluntly ask them what they need. (There was one guy yesterday who “didn’t want to bother” me. I had to keep calling him to ask, “Do you have power?” He kept timidly saying no, and asking if I would please keep bugging BWL Bob for him. I kept pushing for him. When I finally called and he said “I HAVE POWER!” I was so happy, but I know he will never ask for help again.)

  6. Ally with strangers. Find a Bob, find a Dan, find a Jeff, and work with them.

  7. Say thank you constantly.

  8. Show up in person.

  9. Never assume the people in power know what they’re doing or will do what you would do if you had their power. You can wait a long time suffering, hoping they will read your mind. Instead, get in touch with them and give them your ideas.

  10. People who are in public service because they love doing public service are really wonderful during crises.

  11. Having a local press is incredibly important at times like this, even though reporters report only a fraction of what they should.

  12. Help other people. The psych literature is right--it lifts your mood.

And what else?

  1. The dishwasher can be used as a giant drying rack for dishes and laundry.

  2. Laundry doesn’t dry if it’s 45 degrees in your house.

  3. Wetter is colder.

  4. There’s a reason people used hot water bottles before central heat came into existence.

  5. Hair gel is an insulator.

  6. Avoiding a cold toilet seat for long periods of time will just get you hemorrhoids.

  7. •Even in extreme cold, old people and orchids can keep a long time if kept under lots of blankets.

  8. If your house is 45 degrees and it’s 15 degrees outside, your house still feels unbearably cold when you come back in.

  9. If you keep your pet rats in a cage for 8 days when they are used to a room where they can free-range, when you finally return them to “home,” they will bring you food offerings as thanks, or some kind of celebration meal, or something. It’s adorable.

  10. Alcohol is a vaso-dilator, so it temporarily makes you feel warmer. Importantly, it also helps you not give a shit. Especially if you are drinking with good friends.

  11. And finally, pick a place with truly great neighbors. And make sure one of them knows how to hotwire a furnace to a generator. It’s not legal, but it’s warm.


For more on the power outage (you want more?!), click here.