65: Staying Warm in the Dark

65: Staying Warm in the Dark

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Staying Warm in the Dark

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.

~Herman Melville

While spring in Alaska can be exciting, the spring of 2008 is not one I would like to relive any time soon. Mother Nature gone awry can be rough. But even the darkest disaster can possess a silver lining, a happy surprise or two.

On April 14, 2008, my husband, Shawn, and I overslept. When we did wake, it was to a silent and shadowy home. Peering out the window, the world was shrouded in white. All our neighbors’ homes were dark. The power must have gone out during the night, not too unusual for this time of year.

What we did not yet know was that by the end of the week many of our friends and neighbors would be unable to afford their electricity. Everyone living in Juneau would undergo a test of determination and courage.

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, has no road access. The town is located on a remote section of land guarded by glaciers, ice fields, craggy mountains, and the Pacific. Visitors and locals enter Juneau by plane or boat. The main source of Juneau’s electrical power is from Snettisham, a giant lake well outside of town. A man-made waterfall generates power which is carried through miles of cable.

This magnificent power line is held high above tall trees by stately towers over some of the most rugged terrain on earth. Traversing down the mountains, another section of cable more than two miles long is buried beneath the salt water of Gastineau channel and finally ends in Juneau.

Eventually, we learned that during the early morning hours a tremendous avalanche galloped down the peaks that carry these electrical cables. Twelve minutes of roaring snow charging down a mountain can do a lot of damage. The furious boom of snow clouds, rushing boulders, and uprooted trees seemed endless.

A helicopter was dispatched to assess the damage. Personnel discovered that one cable tower was entirely knocked down, while four additional towers were mangled.

As the helicopter circled to leave, a second avalanche crashed down the mountain, resulting in seven towers requiring repairs.

And nature wasn’t finished with the capricious spring antics. On April 17th, a record-breaking twelve inches of snow was added to the melee.

Alaska Electric Light and Power provides up to ninety percent of Juneau’s power. Their back-up plan was about to endure a rigorous test; the diesel generators were fired up. Within hours, electricity was restored. That’s the good news. The bad news was oil and diesel prices were rising to $4 a gallon and would likely go higher.

Dire predictions had Juneau requiring an estimated 100,000 gallons of diesel to burn each day. Nearly a quarter of Juneau’s homes rely solely on electricity for heat. Few homes have wood stoves.

AELP estimated repairs could take up to three months, and diesel power could be five times the cost of hydropower. The normal kilowatt rate of 11 cents would be increased to 55 cents. Some scoffed when they read this. They didn’t laugh long.

Shawn and I were not laughing. We were scared. Our standard electric bill ran about fifty dollars. Could we afford to pay $250 a month for this one utility? Our heating bill was already skyrocketing with the rising cost of oil. I was recovering from a series of surgeries, and we were relying on one income.

For a time, fear reigned. Then, we remembered we could change our attitude. We considered what else we could change; there was plenty. To our happiness, the town of Juneau also rallied.

Through strict and voluntary conservation, diesel usage for the generators was reduced from 100,000 daily gallons to about half. Soon, overall electrical usage was down by more than one-third.

The mayor, in an open letter to Juneau, thanked folks for their frugality. He informed us water is the single largest draw on public electrical usage. Pumps to move water, water treatment, and daily consumption require enormous amounts of power. So we decreased water usage as well.

The City Assembly brainstormed for solutions. They petitioned the state for $25 million in disaster aid. However, one of the requirements for “disaster relief” is loss of life. No lives had been lost, and the request was denied.

The city officials opened an account for low-income families to apply for energy assistance. Thus, families who could not pay their electric bill would receive the financial aid.

In our home, we searched for ways to conserve energy. We purchased fluorescent bulbs to replace incandescent. Because April has abundant light, we were able to make welcome use of daylight.

Shawn strung an impromptu clothesline between two trees in our south-facing backyard. Smug, I drove to the store to purchase wooden clothespins, anticipating the joy of hanging wet clothes in the fresh air. Chastened, I came home empty-handed. Every single store in Juneau had sold out of clothespins!

Undaunted, we hung wet clothes over the line when the weather allowed. When it rained, a common occurrence in Juneau, I laid clothes over every flat surface inside the house.

Other measures we took included lowering the temperature of the water heater, which already had an insulating blanket. We unplugged every appliance not in current use to avoid a passive draw of electricity. We used the microwave oven whenever possible.

In the community, laundromats had a fine increase in business. For a few dollars, a family could wash and dry their clothes, while enjoying a warm and well-lit environment. Everyone dressed warmer and delayed packing up the winter jackets, mittens, and hats.

Businesses turned off half the lights in the stores and turned the heat down a little. The three public libraries enjoyed increased usage. To save energy, each library closed one day a week, on rotating days. The downtown library shut off one of two elevators. The public swimming pool closed the electrically-heated sauna.

Neighbors walked together in the evening after work instead of plunking down in front of the television. Commiserating on shared deprivations often brought a smile and a sense of togetherness.

My friend Cathy summarized, “We are all shivering in our dark, unheated houses, eating raw, cold food, and wearing dirty clothes.” Being too close to the truth made us laugh even more.

AELP conducted repairs around the clock, taking advantage of the many hours of daylight. While repairs were estimated to take about ninety days, to everyone’s joy and appreciation, on June 1st, six weeks after the avalanche, Juneau was off generator power and back on hydropower.

The surprise mentioned above? Nine months after the avalanche occurred, it seems Juneau saw a dramatic, if temporary, rise in the birth rate. Apparently there are lots of old-fashioned ways to stay warm in the dark.

~HJ Eggers

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