MATINICUS — As the wind screeched around us on Wednesday, and every now and then the rain turned to sleet and then back again as the rest of the state of Maine got snow, I casually wondered whether or not to draw off some water in case we lost electricity. The stove was keeping the house warm, the chainsaw was ready, the day was young, and we weren’t feeling particularly threatened.
At about 10 a.m., I went to take a few photos of high tide at the wharf as my husband Paul checked the power station nearby. Matinicus has no cable from the mainland; we have our own power company, a tiny municipal utility consisting of a diesel plant and maybe six or seven miles of overhead line and related equipment. When the power goes out, some of us do not wait for the power company. Some of us are the power company.
Anyway, at high tide the wharf was awash, surf splashed dramatically over the breakwater, and the few lobster boats still in the harbor put their moorings to the test. My photographs were pretty awful because my lens was immediately covered with rainwater. As he walked out of the powerhouse into the gale, Paul noticed a “standing sine wave” in the telephone wire coming from the little building near the harbor that is our freestanding island generating station.
“Just like Galloping Gertie, the bridge,” he commented, recalling an old bit of footage from a high school physics class.
The mud was so slimy on the hill that to drive home required I put my Cherokee into four-wheel drive, but it’s still only a three or four minute trip to our house from the station. As we entered the kitchen, the lights were out, the Christmas tree was dark, and we heard an uninterrupted power supply for some bit of communications electronics over there in Mission Control merrily beeping a no-power alarm (my house is the base for a lot of projects; more on that another time, maybe.) The power must have gone out during the couple of minutes it took us to drive home. After two or three telephone calls to far reaches of the island to try and determine whether the whole community was out or just our section, Paul took his raingear and went back to station. Yes — telephone calls. Remember, a regular corded old-fashioned telephone will work when the power’s out (assuming the phone company itself has power or a generator, as ours does). I recommend everybody get one.
After 10 or 15 minutes, our lights came back on, and Paul called from the powerhouse to make sure. He said they found the tree that went down and took out the power, and that the island north of the central four-way intersection was still out; Natalie told him her 12-year old son saw the tree go down, saw the sparks fly. Pretty unnerving!
Emily, who lives on the north end, called here to report the outage. I told her the “tree crew” was on the job but I made no promises about anybody going up in the bucket truck in that wind. She had a wood stove and was not worried. About that time, John came to get Paul’s chainsaw. John’s saw wasn’t running well; he had commented to Paul that “this saw isn’t what you’ll want to take up in the truck with you.”
Not long afterward, Paul called from the station to report that the power was back on. Jeremy had said to Paul, “You’re not going up in the truck, are you?” and Paul said “I’ll give it one try.”
He went up, got battered around by the wind, kept almost losing his hat, took the fuse out, lowered the bucket to replace the fuse in the fuse holder in a more manageable climate rather than working at elevation in the screaming wind, went back up, and quickly snapped the fuse in place.
Paul mentioned later how “a crew assembled fairly quickly.” Tom B, Robert, Josh A, Nick G. and a sternman known as “Critter” came to help. Doing a quick island head count on fingers and toes, we realized that over 25 percent of the total current population turned out to help with a very small power outage — exactly two actual customers at home, this Christmas week, a time when so few stay on Matinicus.
Overnight, the rain turned to sleet and then, at last, well after bedtime, to snow. The next morning brought bright sunshine to a few inches of snow over the mud, which was a nice break from the bleak stuff we’d had through the storm.
Paul went out patrolling, as he does as the power company “trouble man.” A few trees found down on the north end again led to deeper exploration, and the last fuse on the north end was, in fact, blown (at least this time sparing the two families who were out for an hour the morning before).
A large tree down on a wire, leaning across the driveway of an unoccupied house, made the primary electric wire “look like a piano string,” in the words of Paul, our lineman. Much of the tree was above the wire, so it would need to be topped off from the bucket truck first, rather than just cut from the ground. The point is to think about the laws of physics, to proceed with caution, and to do no more damage. Getting the truck in there would mean clearing some other trees. This is where we shine as a neighborhood. A couple of phone calls to the guys with saws who were around the day before put a small crew together. After lunch, island Fire Chief Robert Young, Jeremy Van Dyne, who heats with wood and always has a chain saw at the ready, and John Griffin, who regularly helps with the power company, went to work. It didn’t take long.
By time Paul got there with the bucket truck, Robert, Jeremy and John had opened the road and the one homeowner’s driveway. Paul and John set the outriggers on the truck, Paul climbed into the bucket, and Jeremy handed him up a chainsaw. “It’s good and sharp, and it’ll start right up, no trouble,” says Jeremy. Everybody looked over the tree to try and judge what it’ll do when cut, and Paul was careful to put the bucket where he’ll be out of harm’s way. He cut a little bit at a time, and cut a lot of small branches clear so that nothing falling past him would knock the saw out of his hands or get in his face.
As the whole top of the tree fell forward of the bucket truck, Robert and Jeremy descended on it with their saws to cut it into readily movable pieces, and the road was cleared in no time.
After the tree was removed you could see that the primary wire was hanging lower than it should. Paul explained: “We have to take up that slack, or the primary and the neutral will rub together in the wind and short out and blow the fuse again.”
He backed the truck to the next pole up the driveway, loosened the short pieces of tie wire that keep the primary on the porcelain insulator, and pulled that section of line up to where it should be. Then, back another pole, to the one which holds the transformer and the service drop to the house. With a come-along, he pulled the primary wire up to be parallel with the neutral (or hang in the same gentle curve, actually) reattached the hardware, and cut off the excess. Then, he moved the truck back to the next pole out to replace the damaged insulator and secure the primary with a new tie wire.
Finally, he took the bucket truck out to the road to replace the blown line fuse; this time, John went up in the truck to set the new fuse — a good safe practice run, no gale of wind, no sleet.
The guys who help clear trees, by the way, might be almost any who happen to be around when there is a need. We do not have a designated tree crew or road crew or power line crew, although a few regulars have accumulated more knowledge of the system over time. The crew might just as easily have been Maury or Tom or Nicky or Sam or George or Josh or Danny or Dave or Clayton — or plenty of others, depending upon the time of year.
No line is safe to touch, ever, and that is true. Of course, somebody has got to touch them, eventually. Don’t be thinking we are quite so casual as to take lightly anybody running around cutting up trees on power lines on their own. These lines are not energized — and we are SURE about that! In this case, the section of power line where the islanders worked was isolated, separated from the rest by an open line fuse, but in other cases the power for the whole island has been shut off at the generating station when lines have had to be cleared. A “lockout” procedure means that power is not restored until everybody on the tree crew has checked in with the station operator and he is sure nobody is still working.
We cannot be too careful, but we still have to do it.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.
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