Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

Forty one hours plus


A few weeks ago I wrote about what it was like to live in a part of Peoria County that serves as the weather guinea pig for the rest of the county.  Last Thursday morning, we got a real live performance from Mother Nature that set us on our collective ears.

About 4:20 in the morning, I was awakened rather rudely from my beauty sleep by my wife.  She’ll tell you that the beauty sleep wasn’t working anyway, but that’s another story.  She was more concerned because we were starting to get hit with some pretty heavy weather.

I headed downstairs where my job was to shut all the windows and make sure all the computers in the house were either shut down or unplugged.  Outside, there was non-stop lightening and the rain was starting to blister the sidewalk.

By the time I got down the stairs, I was too late to do anything with the computers.  The electricity had already gone off.  I unplugged all three computers anyway, as well as the TV and satellite dish receiver just for good measure.  By the time I got back upstairs, all Hell was about to break loose.

As I hit the top step, I came face to face with my wife and we both felt the house shake.  It wasn’t just a little jolt; the entire upstairs of our house felt like it was swaying.  “Get downstairs,” I told her.  I went to pluck our four year old daughter from her bed.

“Should we head for the basement?” my wife asked as I bounded down the stairs with our daughter slung over my shoulder.

“No time,” I said, and deposited Caroline with her mother on the couch.  We have to go outside to get to the basement, and from the sound of things outside and the amount of lightening we were seeing, the couch in the family room was as close as we were going to get to the basement unless the whole house ended up there.

That was certainly within the realm of possibilities.

With the girls safe on the couch, I headed for the picture window in our office area.  It faces north with a church directly across the street, separated from our house by a large yard.

I couldn’t see the church.

What I could see was rather large branches blowing by, going straight down the street propelled by what officials later estimated at 75 mph winds. 

The garbage can I had set out before going to bed for the garbage truck was long gone. 

Between the thunder, the driving rain, and the wind, we could hear snapping noises, followed by other crashes.  “I think we’re losing a tree!” I yelled to my wife as I backed away from the window.  Now it was time to ride out the rest of the storm.

The whole thing lasted about twenty five minutes, maybe a half hour.  The driving rain turned into just heavy rain which fell off to a drizzle.  The sun was still a ways from peeking over the horizon so the entire town was very dark.  Around the neighborhood and over at the Fire Station, you could see beams of light playing on some of the damage and destruction courtesy of half a dozen Mag-lites.  It wasn’t looking good.

I went out on our front porch.  A heavy gas barbeque grill had been moved several feet across the porch.  My little girl’s playhouse lay flat, smashed by a large limb from one of our trees.  On the east side of the house, the smallest of our three trees was a lot smaller.  It stood about six feet tall now with the remainder of it stretched across the street, just inches from the hood of my car.

Also on the porch were a small open case of My Little Ponies that my daughter had been playing with the night before along with a bunch of accessories for said Ponies.  The wind had moved the grill, flattened her playhouse, and stripped trees of limbs, but it didn’t budge those My Little Pony figures one inch.

As the sun came up, the entire neighborhood started venturing outside to see exactly what kind of destruction had been wrought by Mama Nature.  Shingles littered the street and the surrounding yards.  A quick check of my roof told me they weren’t mine.  Small branches were scattered everywhere.  I found out why I couldn’t see the church across the street; several large tree limbs had been ripped from their trunks and lay blocking my view.  In fact, if I went out to the street and looked north, the entire street was blocked by a multitude of fallen limbs.

No one was hurt during the storm and considering the damage left behind, that’s amazing.  When you consider that we had absolutely NO advance warning, it’s even more amazing.  The civil defense sirens that go off to warn of an approaching storm, never went off. TV stations were useless since the electricity was gone (battery operated TVs wouldn’t have helped either since there are few of those that are digital and cable or satellite converter boxes need electricity to work).

Central Park in Elmwood is a block square in the downtown section and it lay ravaged with toppled trees, downed power lines, and flagpoles that listed at odd angles.  Assorted debris, limbs of various sizes, and pieces of awnings from the hardware store were strewn across the picturesque park giving it the look of a war zone.

A block to the south, a tin roof had been peeled away from one of the two story businesses, and had crash landed partly on a pickup, and partly on the sidewalk.  Another piece of the roof was hung from the overhead power lines like Monday’s wash.   Another block south found a 100 foot tall grain bin that towered over the city.  It looked as if the Jolly Green Giant had taken a jolly green baseball bat and bashed it about 75 feet from the ground. 

Down at the high school, bleachers at the football field had been rolled across the gridiron like a bowling ball.  The pressbox high above the home bleachers was destroyed, splintered on the ground below.

By 6:00 AM, the chorus of chainsaws began their concert that would last throughout the weekend.  It wasn’t long before several gas powered generators joined in, adding to the cacophony.

Ambulances and fire trucks began roaming the town, looking for downed lines or people who might need help.  With a few exceptions, all the limbs seemed to miss important things like vehicles and houses, falling harmlessly into yards, across driveways, or into streets.  Up and down Magnolia Street (which is Route 78) there were limbs leaning against houses, but it could have been a lot LOT worse.

* * *

I spent the first 45 years of my life in Knoxville.  Illinois Power was our electric provider for all of those years.  Even though I was never a big fan of IP (they were real bastards, especially when it came to bills that were past due), I can only recall one time in that 45 years that our power was out for more than a day.  That was way back in the late sixties or early seventies when a storm knocked out power for about a week in Knoxville.

Now, living in Elmwood, I send my money to Ameren-CILCO.  I would be hard pressed to find a company that provides such a vital service that is so incompetent at providing service.

Since moving to Elmwood, I’ve gone through at least four outages of several hours.  Some have been due to wind storms, some to ice storms.  I don’t think a month has gone by without us losing power for a short period of time whether it’s just a flash on and off, or an outage that lasts hours.

This past week, our outage was just shy of 41 hours.  We lost our electricity at 4:30 on Thursday morning and it was restored about 9:00 on Friday night.  We were lucky.  Only about half of Elmwood got their power back on Friday night.  The other half waited until around 5:00 Saturday evening.

I didn’t see any Ameren trucks in town during the day on Thursday.  Oh, there were the pick up trucks with the Ameren logo, but I didn’t see a single bucket truck or any other signs of a crew that might restore our power until Thursday evening.  We were leaving town around 5:00 that night and met a convoy of bucket trucks heading to town.

None of those trucks, however, were Ameren trucks.  All those headed in were from J.F. Electric from Edwardsville. 

In other words, Ameren didn’t have the manpower to handle our outage.  They had to call in help from other parts of the state.

While I applaud the efforts of the men in the trucks and the effort Ameren put out to provide crews when they were severely understaffed, I have to condemn them for not being prepared.  One of the workers told me that they’d never finish the job Friday night because they had to wait on power poles and extra lines to be shipped in.  I’m wondering why extra power poles and electric line wasn’t on hand.

I also wonder why the trucks that we met as we were leaving town were leaving town as we returned around 9:00.  Maybe it was my deodorant. 

The trucks returned early Friday morning.  The town was also filled with the trucks of tree trimming experts who were removing limbs from the lines and clearing the path on the ground so crews could work. 

Again, I have nothing but respect for those electrical workers who risk their lives to restore our power.   For those who came from Edwardsville to lend a hand, I extend my profound thanks (even though I’m guessing their paychecks will be extremely healthy in the coming weeks). 

But I remember this happening before.  Our power went out for a day or so and Ameren, proud of the job that they did, took out full page ads (in fact, it may have been two full pages) in the Journal Star and the Register Mail, patting themselves on the back for the job that they had done.  They failed to mention that they hadn’t been prepared that time either.  They failed to mention that they had spent several thousand dollars paying for these ads. 

They did, however, remember to mention their so called customer service when it came time to ask for a rate hike.  Gee, I guess they had to pay for those ads and the overtime somehow.

*  *  *  *

What kind of a town do I live in now?  Why am I not sorry that I left Knoxville (aside from the fact that they tore down the PEO Home)?

Saturday afternoon, I was out in the yard, raking the miniscule branches and leaves that were still cluttering our lawn.  It was hot, I was sweaty, and although I had electricity, the air conditioner repair guy hadn’t shown up yet to fix our central air.

A golf cart with two guys in it pulled up to the curb near where I was raking.  The passenger reached behind him, pulled out a bottle of cold Ice Mountain water and handed it to me.  “Compliments of the Street Department and the City of Elmwood,” he said with a smile and they drove off.

Galesburg and Knoxville could take some pointers from Elmwood on how to treat their residents.