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Tom West: So much for leaving winter behind

Sunday evening, a little after 9 p.m., I was happily working at home on a column for this issue of the Budgeteer when the power went out. There was something about the way it quit -- one moment lights everywhere, the next darkness -- that made me...

Sunday evening, a little after 9 p.m., I was happily working at home on a column for this issue of the Budgeteer when the power went out. There was something about the way it quit -- one moment lights everywhere, the next darkness -- that made me say to the Secretary of Health and Human Services at our house, "I think it's going to be off for a while."
We looked out the back windows. None of the neighbors had lights. Looking out the front, we saw the unusual signs of a scanning flashlight on the curtains at one house. Otherwise, everywhere was dark.
We rustled around, found our own flashlights, and then eventually got out some candles that we lit. After no more than two minutes sitting in the flickering gloom, we began wondering what to do next. The secretary decided to get ready for bed. I picked up a novel I had been reading and sat down at the dining room table, as close to the candles as I could get without burning my eyebrows or dripping hot wax on the book.
Frankly, I don't know how Abraham Lincoln did it. It is said that Old Abe was a self-taught man, growing up in a log cabin and reading by candlelight each night.
Maybe it was firelight. Maybe the fire in the fireplace was brighter. All I know is that three candles on the dining room table weren't enough. I read 10 pages in the time it normally takes to read 20, just barely making out the words in the shadows by the binding, and turning up the bottom of each page as I read, in hopes of catching a little more candlepower in the flickering darkness.
With nothing else to do, facing a column still unwritten, I went to bed. My wristwatch said it was 10 p.m.
When I walked into the bedroom, the secretary was putting extra blankets on the bed. She said, "If the power doesn't come back on soon, it's going to get cold. Maybe we should evacuate."
Evacuate? We had just returned the night before from a week's "evacuation" in sunny Florida, where the palms swayed in the warm breeze, not one drop of precipitation fell, and a cold front meant that the daily highs dropped into the low 70s. We had "evacuated" from the long, cold Northland winter.
I said it would be warm enough under the blankets, and climbed under them. I was right.
But the secretary was stirred up. She heard a thump on the roof. Some minutes later, she heard another thump. She looked out the window and said, "I think the neighbor's tree just fell on our house."
She said the neighbors were outside looking at it. I thought, I don't feel a draft or the rain in my face. So I rolled over, pulled the covers tight around my neck, and drifted off.
A third thump woke me up about midnight. I got up, went to the window, and could see branches hanging off of our roof. The side of the house facing the neighbors directly has no windows so I could not see for sure what had happened.
I felt no compelling need to get dressed, walk out in the cold, freezing slush, and begin dismantling the neighbor's tree or any of our own. I saw no reason to evacuate. I experienced a strong desire to get back in bed and pull the covers over my head.
I had vivid, tension-filled dreams. Every hour and a half, I awoke with a start, my brain clicking along in midday form. I took a deep breath and tried to ease the tension out of my body. Then I noticed it was getting colder, so I rolled over and scrunched the blankets close around me, holding them tight.
The third time, around 5, I got up and took a hot shower in the dark. The temperature inside was in the low 50s. I needed the shower to warm up. I dressed in layers. I ate breakfast. Instead of toast, I had a peanut butter sandwich. The butter was hard in spite of sitting on the kitchen counter all night.
The night started to fade.
I looked out the back window. Several large branches, 5 or 6 inches in diameter, were down along with countless twigs and sticks. One of the branches had pulled down the cable TV line.
Looking out the front door, up the block a tree was down blocking the street. A treacherous walk out to look around the corner of the house revealed that none of the neighbor's trees had fallen on our house, but three were leaning on it.
We were also luckier than some because we have no sump pump that needed bailing. the basement remained dry.
My car was coated with ice. I went out to warm it up. The ice came off the windows relatively easily considering the thickness.
The secretary and I went to work early -- not out of eagerness to end our vacation, but to warm up. Trees were down all over, but it was easy to avoid them.
At 2 p.m., we went home to check on the house. The power was still off -- and now so was the water. A turn of the faucet and all the tap did was hiss air.
No lights, no heat, no water. Three strikes and we were out of there.
We booked a room at a local inn -- one that still had utilities.
At 6 p.m. Monday, the water was back, but not the power. By 8 a.m. Tuesday, there was still no change.
Meanwhile, the question that keeps occurring is why Allete-Minnesota Power does not bury more of its lines to avoid these kinds of problems. Other electric utilities, including a number in Minnesota, have gone to burying their power lines because it cuts down on outages and, in the long run, reduces maintenance costs.
A call to Allete went unreturned -- not surprising considering all the chaos resulting from winter's (hopefully) last gasp.
Evacuate, evacuate.
Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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