On being more powerless than usual


“Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” was a popular 1968 film starring Doris Day about the 1965 blackout in the northeastern United States. The movie’s coda was that nine months after the big blackout, Doris’ character gave birth to a child.

On Saturday, the people of Hillsboro and other AEP customers in Highland County woke up to find themselves more powerless than usual. A fire at around 6 or 6:30 a.m. had destroyed an AEP substation on Dunlap Road.

The first reaction of many local residents was probably similar to that of my wife Lora’s, whose immediate thought was, “How am going to get my coffee?” Before yours truly was even out of bed, Lora was in a long line at Holtfield Station, ordering coffees for both of us (she knew what a Grumbledore I would be, too, if I awakened to no available java).

Through our smart phones, we soon found Sheriff Donnie Barrera’s online post explaining the cause of the power failure, and, using my iPhone, I logged onto our Times-Gazette Facebook around 9 a.m. to begin posting information about the blackout, which soon was predicted to last as long as 24 hours.

Facebook posts are one thing, but I wanted to update our timesgazette.com website, too. For a story, I called the sheriff, as well as Jim Lyle, the local emergency management director, and Bradley George, the Paint Creek fire chief. I checked AEP’s website for outage information, and drove out to Dunlap Road to get a firsthand account and snap a couple of pictures.

My laptop still had good battery strength, and I wrote the first story of what would lead to several updates throughout the day, but how to get them on our website? The program we use for our website posts is not easily navigated through an iPhone. I needed to get my laptop connected to the Internet which, of course, was non-existent due to the power outage.

I could have driven to my daughter’s house in Lynchburg, or to Sharon Hughes’ house at Rocky Fork Lake. But Lora again came to the rescue, showing me how to connect my laptop to my iPhone be creating a “hotspot” connection. (A lot of you know how to do this, but I’m still learning such things.)

So, between managing dying batteries on both my iPhone and laptop (recharging the phone via our car’s charger once in a while), and alternating between Facebook and website posts, we managed to provide updates throughout the day on the outage situation. We could quickly see that thousands of readers were checking in with us regularly on both our online platforms for the latest updates, and sharing them with others.

We were finally able to report the good news Saturday evening that AEP anticipated having everyone back in business between 9 p.m. and midnight, much sooner than the originally anticipated time frame of Sunday morning.

Most local businesses dependent on AEP closed on Saturday. But those with their own generators reaped the benefits. As mentioned, Holtfield Station did boffo business, both at the gas tanks and inside for food and other items.

I saw a Channel 5 TV story later that night that seemed to indicate Holtfield was the only place open in all of Hillsboro. That wasn’t entirely true, although it may well have been the only place with working gas pumps. The deli half of Twenty-Four Exchange also employed its own generator to keep serving food, and it was packed during the lunch hour. Jim Lyle told me that Lowe’s was open, and I heard that The Ole Depot kept the lights on, too. There were no doubt a few others.

I know that at least one local grocery store, Kroger, called in refrigeration trucks from elsewhere to temporarily transfer its cold and frozen products, and I assume other groceries did the same, or found some similar way to protect their, shall we say, frozen assets.

Shane Wilkin, the county commissioner who owns Larry’s Party Shop on Muntz Street, opened his doors even without electricity available. He used a calculator and old-fashioned bookkeeping to operate until he arranged for a generator to arrive later in the day. Others probably did the same.

Naturally, the traffic lights in Hillsboro were not functioning, but motorists seemed to do fine following the “stop sign rule” when lights aren’t operable. In fact, it seemed to me that some intersections actually flowed more quickly under the stop sign rule than they do when the traffic lights are working, although Hillsboro Police Chief Todd Whited told me later that some motorists reported that not everyone was obeying the rule.

Some events were canceled, among them Hillsboro’s first “Under the Radar Music Festival” on Gov. Trimble Place. That was a shame, because it would have been interesting to see how it went. Hopefully it will be rescheduled, maybe a few weeks after the Festival of the Bells.

We were lucky that Saturday was an extremely mild day when it came to the temperature and humidity. If the power had to go out for a whole day, a better day could not have been chosen. No one likely suffered because the furnace or air conditioner wasn’t working.

AEP workers obviously did a good job restoring power more quickly than first anticipated. But it always makes me wonder whether their original estimates are somewhat inflated much like Scotty’s predictions to Capt. Kirk on Star Trek, which were apparently designed to make Scotty look like a miracle worker by always repairing the engine room much more quickly than he told the captain he could.

Such events are always reminders of just how much our society depends on electricity. How many times did you automatically flip a light switch, stick something in the microwave, or turn on the TV or computer before remembering they were as dead as a rock? If you’re like me, and I know you are, it was several times.

What did people do during the blackout? It was a great day for lawn work, although I managed to resist that temptation. Sitting down and reading an old-fashioned book was an option. Driving to the lake and enjoying the scenery might have fit the bill.

Who knows what everyone did. One thing I know is that we’ll make sure to check the local birth records next March, just to see if there’s a spike.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

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