Life off the Grid

Some of you may have heard the town I live in — Columbus, Wisconsin — was hit hard by a storm early Monday morning. Thankfully, there were no tornadoes, no deaths and no injuries. Just straight line winds that the National Weather Service estimated blew through here at 90 to 110 mph. I don’t mean to diminish the storm because it was scary and it left a lot of damage — mostly to trees and power lines — but in the grand scheme of things, it certainly could have been much worse.

For our family, the hardest part was living without electricity for 36 hours afterward. We’re back on the grid now, so the story has a happy ending, but there were definitely  a few bumps along the way. Here’s a condensed diary of what happened, starting at approximately 3:30 a.m. Monday:

3:30(ish) a.m.: I am startled awake by a flash of lightning, the rumble of thunder, the rattling of my bedroom windows and a strange — and very annoying — bleating from my cell phone. I do what any rational person does when awakened at 3:30 a.m.: I roll over and go back to sleep. My husband, who I always say can sleep through anything, proves me right, once again.

3:35(ish) a.m.: Our 20-year-old son, home from college for the summer, hearing the same annoying bleating from his cell phone, correctly identifies the noise as a tornado warning and gets out of bed to wake up his parents and tell us to take cover in the basement.

The power is out at this point, so I am forced to grope in the dark for clean pants, a matching shirt and shoes. (If our house is blown to Kingdom Come, I want to make sure I am appropriately dressed when my body is found.)

3:40(ish) a.m. The power comes back on. Weather reports indicate we are under not only a tornado warning, but also a flash flood warning. The three of us head downstairs to find the flooding has already begun, at least in our old stone basement. We long jump across the standing water in the center and take refuge along the still-dry perimeter.

3:45(ish) a.m.: My husband heads back upstairs to check the weather report on TV and find a functioning flashlight so he is prepared in the event that we lose power again. I hear him in the kitchen, alternately cursing DirecTV — their signal has a tendency to cut out during 100 mph windstorms — and me — for using the last of his AA batteries (he has no proof) and not buying new ones (apparently “battery buying” is a specialized skill that only I possess in our household).

4:00(ish) a.m.: The tornado warning is over. My son and I emerge from our basement bunker. My husband heads outside to check on the state of his precious trees under the dim light of his cell phone.

trees down

4:15 (ish) a.m.: I am sound asleep when my husband comes back to bed to report that various trees might be down. Or they might not be. Evidently it’s hard to make out shapes in the dark with only an iPhone to light your way.

6 a.m. I wake up, make coffee and head outside to see trees are indeed down, not just in our yard but all over the neighborhood. The view from our driveway is pictured below. (There is a street buried under all those branches and power lines.)

trees down

6:30 a.m. My son wakes up and ventures out with his camera to take pictures of the storm damage. He runs into the mayor who tells him ours is the “good part” of town. The damage is much worse in some of the older neighborhoods where there were lots of big, old trees. Power is out throughout much of the city (but not in our neighborhood), and many, if not most, of the streets are impassable because of downed trees, power lines, transformers and poles.

8 a.m. I drive to work, heading north out of my driveway — because the street to the south is blocked — and get on the highway, where I see police cars are posted at the end of all the entrance ramps into the city to keep gawkers out and allow the cleanup to begin.

trees down

10 a.m. Utility crews cut power to our house to pick up the branches and power lines at the end of our block. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, electricity will remain out in our neighborhood for the next 36 hours while utility crews work their way across town, reconnecting service one line at a time.)
power outage
5 p.m. My husband calls me as I’m leaving work with instructions that I should stop and buy two battery-powered camping lanterns — and enough batteries for both — as it appears we might be without power all night.

7 p.m. With no power, I can’t cook. I buy carry-out at Culver’s on the edge of town instead. Apparently this is not a unique problem or solution, as the lines at the restaurant are the longest I have ever seen them.

8 p.m. My husband, son and I gather in the living room, around the glow of our battery-powered lanterns and surf the internet on our respective smartphones, much as I imagine the pioneers did 200 years ago.

8:15 p.m.: We pack the contents of our refrigerator and freezer into three coolers, which our son volunteers to drive up to my mom’s house in Waupun, where she has a spare refrigerator in her garage. After dropping off our perishables, our son heads to his apartment in Milwaukee — he has a 12-month lease, so he’s stuck paying rent on the place, even though he’s not living there over the summer. He spends the night there, thankful for the air conditioning and the working outlets to charge his phone and laptop with.

8:30 p.m. My husband and I deem it too hot to go upstairs to our un-air-conditioned bedroom. We both fall asleep in the living room reading by lantern light.

Tuesday, 6 a.m.: I wake up, fill the coffeepot with water and grounds and flip the switch. Nothing happens. This is truly my lowest moment. I can live without electric lights, air conditioning, refrigeration and TV. But a non-functioning coffeepot is (almost) more than I can bear.

6:05 a.m. I drive to McDonald’s and buy a large black coffee. My will to live is restored.

8 a.m. I drive to work, confident that when I return home at 6 p.m., power to our house will surley have been restored, as well.

6 p.m. I return home to a still power-less house. Sigh. The good news: No power means I can’t cook supper. I drive to Pick ‘n’ Save to buy what our family calls “Chicken in a Bag” (more commonly referred to as “broasted chicken.”)

Columbus, Wisconsin

7 p.m. My husband and I stand on our porch and anxiously watch the eight utility workers and three ladder trucks working on the power lines at the end of our block. We were told the crew started working there at about 3 p.m. A downed pole had to be removed and a new one set in place before the men could even start working on the wiring, so it is a big task and one that we are hopeful, but not entirely certain, they will be able to complete, before dark.

9 p.m. A ladder truck from the Columbus Fire Department rolls into our neighborhood and parks at the end of the block, to shine a light for the utility workers who continue plugging away until…

storm damage

10:49 p.m. Little Mexico (our neighborhood’s nickname) is back on the grid.

Many thanks to the men who worked well into the night to get our power restored. I’ve been told Columbus received mutual aid from Waterloo, Waupun, Sun Prairie, Waunakee, Lake Mills, Oconomowoc, Hartford and Markesan, and possibly others. Clearly, our small utility department couldn’t have done the job alone. And it’s a job that’s still ongoing, as there are other parts of town that are still without power (as of this writing on Wednesday morning).

Linking to: Brag About It

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