LAST WEEK HAD ITS DIFFICULTIES. That’s why I’ve waited until now to sit down and write about the big windstorm that hit our island a week ago.
Whew. Only just caught my breath, it seems. But it’s time to tell this story of how wrong things can go on occasion, and the remarkable kindness and generosity of our island neighbors.
January has become notorious for windstorms in the San Juan Islands. We don’t remember it being so bad, not as a regular thing, until maybe five years ago. Now, ripsnorting winter winds seem to be the new normal, blowing into the islands with climate change.
This time we didn’t get a proper warning. I check the National Weather Service forecast regularly, and while they were talking about some good gusts by last Tuesday night, nobody said anything about winds nearing hurricane strength.
A TV report we saw around 5 a.m. Wednesday — and there’s a reason we were awake then — showed gusts to 70 mph at Ferndale, in nearby Whatcom County. The local newspaper reported gusts to 65 on San Juan Island.
It was shortly after midnight that night when things really got rocking and rolling at The Nuthatch. The cabin’s metal roof always resounds with a timpani-like boom when a big branch comes down from one of our 100-foot firs. Usually the percussion score doesn’t take over the whole symphony, though. This night, it was like a band of bad-ass squirrels on steroids was perched in the trees and pelting the side of our cabin with a nonstop assault of fir cones and sticks.
We’d heard it all before, though, and snoozed off. What woke me around 1 a.m. was the beeping alarm from Barbara’s oxygen generator, which lets you know when its power source has failed.
Luckily we had her portable unit charged up, so we did a quick switch. But it’s only good for about 3 1/2 hours on a charge. While the electric-power cooperative that serves the islands is usually pretty quick at repairing downed lines, this was the middle of a cold, dark night. The wind was still howling. I had an inkling we might face a challenge.
After a few phone-recording updates from the power company, providing no estimate of when electricity would be restored, it was clear we needed to find another option for keeping juice to Barbara’s oxygen machine, on which she relies full-time.
I had a hunch our island friend Dan Lewis might be awake, or at least within earshot of an alert on his cellphone. I also had a hunch he owned a portable generator. Dan, a long-ago Navy Seal and a longtime union carpenter, has lots of handy stuff at his cabin and is notoriously generous with his toys. In the wee-est hours of the morning, I texted to ask if he had a generator.
One minute later came his one-word reply, “Yes.”
My texted response: “How do you feel about having guests pretty soon?” And I explained our plight. The time stamp on the text: 3:35 a.m.
“No worries,” came his reply.
And so, some 45 minutes later, Barbara and I stepped out our back door into the inky night, dodged flying fir cones, and piled into Mr. Toad, our 1996-model golf cart. I flipped on the halogen headlights and we wended our way across the island to the Lewises’ place.
Now, before you purse your lips too tightly at our lack of preparedness for all this: It had occurred to us that a generator was a good idea for our cabin. And we had ordered one. And Amazon had promised it would be delivered, coincidentally, that Tuesday — before the outage.
But United Parcel Service (whose name I’m spelling out in its entirety to ensure you know who to blame) had, as usual, misdirected our package to Anacortes instead of the clearly labeled Center Island address. We knew, from all too frequent experience, it might actually come on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or maybe Saturday.
As night merged into morning and we sipped coffee and watched TV news with Dan and his wife, Lisa, we realized the extent of the power outage. Not only was all of San Juan County dark, but more than a half-million other electric customers around Western Washington had lost power. The fix might be a long time coming.
One news item showed a semi truck that had been crossing the 177-foot-high Deception Pass Bridge, between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands, when the wind knocked it on its side. A small guard rail kept it from plunging to the saltwater below.
We wondered if our generator might be delivered that day, so Dan texted another island friend who helps fly the planes that carry UPS packages. We gave her the tracking number. Soon she got back to us: Our generator had been in the truck that tipped over. Of course.
Dan offered his generator to us to take back to our cabin, but we couldn’t leave them without power. As a fill-in, he loaned me a fully charged auto battery and borrowed an inverter from another neighbor, Jeromie Mead. An inverter converts 12-volt direct current to 120-volt alternating current. It would keep Barbara’s portable oxygen machine running for hours.
By mid-afternoon, we heard that Jeromie, who knew the UPS people in Friday Harbor, had located our generator. It was in Friday Harbor, but UPS didn’t plan to fly it our way for two more days. A flyer with his own small plane, he made arrangements to personally deliver our generator to Center Island.
By around 3 p.m., Jeromie and his partner, Bethany, showed up at our back door with our generator. They had already taken it out of the box, filled the gas tank and had it running and ready to use. That’s the kindness and generosity of fine neighbors on a small island. (Barbara baked lots of cookies the next day.)
Around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, workers on Fidalgo Island completed repairs to an Anacortes substation that had been smashed by fallen trees, and the lights came back on in the San Juan Islands. It had been 18 hours. We were never happier to turn on the internet and watch junky TV shows.
The drama wasn’t over for us yet, however. The next morning, I had fired up the Husqvarna chainsaw that I share with neighbor John, the Mad Birder, to cut pieces of a fallen tree into rounds suitable for splitting into firewood. I was about 15 minutes into it when a nagging pain in my lower back became more like a red hot poker, and I realized I was having a recurrence of kidney-stone problems that had laid me low in 2018. It happened that I never followed up and got a full prognosis that first time because we were in the middle of moving to Center Island. I just had to hope it wouldn’t happen again.
But it did. I was flat on my back for a day and a half. The pain and related symptoms constituted the most wrenching medical malady of my life. Being on a remote island, my best choice was to grit my teeth, pop painkillers and ride it out.
I’m better now. But what a week it’s been. Tomorrow comes the inauguration of a new president for our weary nation. I’m hopeful for healing — for me, for Barbara, and for the country.