With the wicked winds Hawaii experienced last month, I was not surprised to wake up late Saturday night, Jan. 21, to absolute blackness.

Maui Electric had earlier posted a public service announcement around 2 p.m., warning that the Manele area (home to the Four Seasons Manele Bay Hotel) had lost power, but MECO didn’t say why. By early Sunday morning pretty much everyone in the state knew that 19 poles had cascaded down — causing an island-wide blackout – except us Lanai residents.

We couldn’t know this because by 10 p.m. the night before, we’d lost everything: power, internet, land-line phone and cell service – it was all gone.

Power would stay out for 2,800 Lanai City residents for 50 hours, and MECO would not restore power to Manele for 72 hours. Longtime resident Albert Morita called it “unprecedented. I can’t remember an outage lasting more than six hours in my lifetime.”

So what caused the poles to snap? Installed around 1990, each has an embedded plaque indicating a 2015 inspection by third party Osmose Utility Services Inc., and at 27 years they are not considered by industry standards to be “old.”

One MECO employee reported winds clocked in at 64 mph right before the island went dark, but winds have in the past reached upwards of 65 mph in Miki Basin, home of MECO’s diesel-fueled power plant. With no way to communicate, rumors abounded.

Freak accident or something more, MECO’s response was immediate — and heroic.

A crew of seven arrived early Sunday morning, and they would work with on-island manpower through the next two days and two nights to get us back on line. One electrician estimated that with three on-island linemen and our existing equipment, one boom truck (that digs the hole and plants the pole) and one bucket truck (to string electric lines), the outage could have lasted for 10 days.

Luckily, with recent hurricane threats, MECO had the foresight to bring over a sufficient number of spare poles to handle an event of this magnitude. Had they not, we might have waited for our once-a-week barge to bring poles in the following Wednesday.

The Impacts

By early Sunday morning (nine hours into the outage) residents began gathering battery-powered lanterns, digging out home generators, checking gas supplies, saving ice, moving food into outside refrigerators to be run by generators, and keeping that freezer door shut tight.

By mid-morning (12 hours in), it was clear power was not coming back any time soon, and Lanai became a cash-only culture. Over the next two days, our three grocery stores opened sporadically, letting only a few people in at a time. Lines formed. With irregular hours, getting food for the MECO workers became a concern by lunchtime Sunday, so MECO helicoptered in supplies.

Although only a few Hawaiian Airline flights were cancelled, the airport lost internet service. With no internet service, baggage tags were handwritten, making “code-sharing” difficult; mainland travelers had to pick up their bags and go through agricultural inspection in Honolulu because there was no way to send luggage from here to a final destination. The airport did not get internet service back until Thursday, Jan. 26 (120 hours in).

General Manager Tom Roelens acknowledged the Four Seasons/Manele Bay Hotel was powered by a generator, and said the worst impact was lost phone service. Others reported the hotel was out of power for a couple of hours, before the generator kicked in, and further, that because the generator couldn’t power the entire building, guests were moved to one wing; there was no hot water and food service was limited.

At least two Manele residents skipped town to “come over here (Honolulu) to get power. Those of us who had a place to go are probably going, and everyone else is just going to hunker down and read books,” Richard Brook told KHON-TV.

For those of us with pets or grandmas, and without the deep pockets necessary to fly or ferry out and pay for a hotel, leaving was not an option.

By end of day Sunday (20 hours in), those with home generators were calculating how much longer we could last on our gas supplies, and faced having to siphon gas from our trucks and cars to save our refrigerated food. Our only gas station, Lanai City Service, couldn’t pump gas without electricity, so we stopped driving. This meant we couldn’t get to those few “hot” spots on the island with cell service — like all the way out at the airport.

By Monday morning (32 hours in), hot water powered by solar systems disappeared; few realized – until the outage — that panels might continue to collect power from the sun, but the water pump needed electricity. Those fortunate enough to have gas stoves could override the ignition device and boil water for coffee, but not for bathing if you only had a shower.

MECO’s Crew Weren’t The Only Good Guys

Phoenix Dupree, General Manager at Blue Ginger Cafe, said he could have cooked, but since he couldn’t power up his ventilation system it would have been a health violation to call in workers. So when he saw the line forming outside Pine Isle Market across Dole Park, “My family and I just made sandwiches and sold them at a discount.”

Max Renigado, Service Technician for Oceanic Time Warner, said when he went home to sleep Sunday night, he found no cell service. Since he was required to be on call, he slept in Oceanic’s truck. Max estimated the MECO crew operated for over 48 hours on six hours of sleep.

About mid-day Monday (35 hours in), rumors flew that LCS was pumping gas. According to Store Manager Georgiann Pedersen, electrician Kevin McNamara texted her that he could hook up a large generator for the gas pumps – if they could find one. So Georgiann and NAPA Manager Nikki Alboro contacted Sunbelt Rentals (on island doing construction work for Pulama Lanai), and Sunbelt shop foreman Mydard Espiritu sent over a 25 kVa generator.

What followed was flawless. Georgiann, Nikki, and a dozen LCS employees manned the gas pumps nonstop for six hours, collecting a cap of $50 cash per customer to fill gas cans for home generators and vehicle tanks. Georgiann reckoned those who said, “No need fill up, others might need,” far outnumbered the few who complained about the $50 cap.

Pulama-owned Richard’s Shopping Center put pallets of water in the road on Sunday, but this might not have been necessary. Well 8, which feeds the city, has a permanent generator and there are two portable generators to serve other wells as needed, according to Pulama’s Director of Utilities John Stubbart.

“This allows us to provide water service indefinitely; the limitation, of course, is fuel for the generators.” He said there is enough fuel for 30 days in an emergency, but would include “conservation efforts by the community.”

Overall, local stores and restaurants reported food spoilage ranging from $500 to $5,000, and loss of revenue from shuttering businesses ran between $2,000 and $7,500. Local deli Pele’s Other Garden saved its perishables by having access to one of only two homes on Lanai that have battery storage.

How To Prepare For The Next Time?

Both City and Manele residents saw the lack of communication as one of the biggest issues. Without power, we couldn’t charge our cell phones. So while Manele residents could rely on “texting” for news, and the hotel for charging phones, most in the city were out of luck. I would later learn the police station provided phone-charging in the city, but there was no way to know this at the time.

With everything else out, we turned to an AM/FM battery-operated radio for information. But what channel to listen to, and when? I spent many hours on Sunday rolling that dial in vain to find any mention of our predicament.

There was no increase in emergency calls or crime during the outage, but Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rodrigues, Maui Police Department, considered this event a short but “perfect storm. Everything went out at once. What if this event had lasted longer and was compounded by debris and structural damage?”

Rodrigues said it will be essential to work with the public health nurse and others to locate and be able to check on special needs individuals, such as kupuna, and to work with Maui Civil Defense and local government to place message boards around the city.

For his part, County Council Member G. Riki Hokama said he would be “requesting in the upcoming FY2018 budget additional resources for emergency generators, ice-making machines and information boards. We’ll also consider funding for an island preparedness plan to address community needs prior to emergency declarations for state and federal support.”

A few tips we learned from Lanai’s power outage:

  • Turn off breakers to your fridge and electric water heaters, so any surge resulting from power restoration doesn’t cause more system outage.
  • Unplug electronics. John Black of Lanai Business Consultants noted seven computer power packs had to be replaced when power restoration “fried” them.
  • Save up for a generator. Many of us took advantage of Slim’s Power Tools’ sales over the years to buy a Honda 120v model, which has two outlets (so you can power more than just your fridge). We turned it off at night and lost no food.
  • Keep a stash of cash.
  • Safely store 10 gallons of gas. One gallon of gas powers a generator for about eight hours.

Overall Lanai did well, with a lot of kokua from MECO. But as Pulama’s COO Kurt Matsumoto pointed out, “We may not be so fortunate next time. Building resiliency will always be key.”

Oceanic’s Renigado would agree, since he guessed that “three-quarters of the island was not prepared for an outage lasting more than four days.”

I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any other island-wide power outage lasting three days since Iniki in 1992. So head’s up, people, this wasn’t even a tropical storm, much less a hurricane.

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