Power outage affects Orcas businesses

A power outage on Orcas Island isn’t an uncommon occurrence in winter.

However, in August, it’s a different story.

“You just get swamped,” said Shelbi Mattila-Patton, owner of the White Horse Pub. “In this day and age, with everything depending on internet and electronics, it makes it really, really difficult. … No one has cash anymore. So it really halts everything.”

At approximately 10 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 17, a pickup truck hit a transmission pole on Center Road on Lopez Island, causing the electricity to go out across Orcas, Shaw, Blakely and part of Lopez. The driver, 42, had a medical emergency while behind the wheel. He sustained head injuries and was flown off the island to PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. Power was completely restored by 8:15 p.m. to Orcas, Shaw and Blakely and by 11:30 p.m. to all of Lopez.

The Lower Tavern was able to keep its doors open during the blackout thanks to a generator. Though draft taps were not functioning, the tavern was able to provide bottled and canned beverages to its patrons. The crew also served cold sandwiches and salads.

“We stayed busy, and I’m glad people know they can come to us. We’ll try to be there for them,” said owner Jim Passer. “We’re limited in what we can do, but people just make the best of it.”

The White Horse also nourished patrons’ appetites with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and clam chowder.

“We sold, like, probably 30 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Mattila-Patton said. “We will always try to be open, but really we can’t function very long without electricity.”

The White Horse kept its doors open until 6 p.m. after the hot water finally gave out. Per the Washington Department of Health, a dining establishment must close in the event of a power outage if food cannot be kept at safe temperatures; there is no hot water; not enough water pressure; utensils cannot be washed, rinsed and sanitized properly; or there is not enough light for employees to work safely.

The Mansion at Rosario and The Cascade Bay Grill were also able to stay open because the resort has generator power backup.

“Wait times were, of course, longer for tables. Phone outages and internet (and) WIFI outages also challenged us to go back to ‘olden times’ of manual credit card slips, people calling to see if we were open were unable to get through, et cetera,” said Rosario Resort Marketing Manager Holly Southern. “We somehow made it through, and most guests were quite understanding considering the situation.”

The Orcas Island Food Co-op fared well through the outage, with suppliers and co-op members doing what they could to help save perishable products. The co-op shut its doors at approximately 11:15 a.m.

“We actually got a lot of support from the community,” said Regina Zwilling, co-op office manager. “We ended up not losing any product. We were extraordinary grateful and lucky for that. … The thing that we lost was a Friday’s worth of sales in August.”

She explained that one vendor, Al Smith of Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy, loaned his refrigerated truck for the day, saving the majority of the co-op’s dairy products from the heat. Another community member, Joe Symons, let the co-op borrow his generator. Zwilling said the co-op intends to budget in a generator of its own.

“It’s always a good reminder for us how much community support we have,” she said. “It’s the perfect example of what a co-op is: it’s community. It’s not just the managers and some employees who happen to be working. A lot of people showed up to help.”

At Island Market, which has a great deal of inventory, perishable items had to be thrown out. The store’s generator is not strong enough to power the entire facility.

“The loss involved with our most recent power outage was an enormous amount of money, but more than the money was the feeling of wasting so much food and disappointing customers when we couldn’t provide the items they needed,” said Island Market General Manager Jacob Linnes. “It sickens us to have to throw any amount of food away, but our customers’ safety must be our first concern.”

Linnes said the market is working with an electrician to install a larger generator that will keep the whole store operating. It should be installed by this November.

“This generator is an investment in our community, and we are proud to better serve our community, with or without power,” Linnes said. “One good thing that came out of this outage was that we were able to contact our food bank representatives and give them the chance to fill their coolers with the products they could use. We also worked on a protocol for next time, so we can better coordinate with the food bank in the future.”

Many of the business owners expressed appreciation for the Orcas Power and Light Cooperative linemen who worked for hours to restore electricity to the islands.

“We’re definitely grateful for the OPALCO employees,” Passer said.

OPALCO crews from Lopez, Orcas and San Juan responded to the outage. They first made the scene safe for fire personnel to extinguish a blaze caused by the accident. While suppression and mop-up operations were underway, linemen worked on rerouting the power away from the fault, installing a new pole and repairing damage along the transmission line.

All 20 islands served by OPALCO receive power through a main-feeder on Lopez. However, a second, redundant feeder was installed this year on Decatur Island, which will give the ability to route power on an alternate path in case of an accident or emergency. Crews are completing conductor and substation upgrade projects to prepare the distribution system to carry power from the feeder on Decatur into Eastsound when needed. It is scheduled to be energized in November.

Outage updates and photos were posted throughout the day on phones, Facebook, Twitter and on OPALCO’s 24/7 outage center: www.opalco.com/outages. The 24/7 off-site call center manages the high-volume of member calls during an outage and populates the real-time outage map to keep members informed. OPALCO fielded more than 500 phone calls from members during the Aug. 17 outage.

According to a written statement from OPALCO, “During an outage, it is difficult to estimate when restoration will be complete as testing can reveal additional issues before the full load can be brought back up. OPALCO is conservative about setting expectations for restoration times because of the number of variables in restoring power in the islands but is committed to giving regular updates on actual progress.”