Many cope without electricity on a cold winter night

MOHAWK – Not too many area residents use electricity to directly heat their homes, but many furnaces using other fuels require electricity for ignition and control.

So when power went out overnight Tuesday and into the morning Wednesday for more than 1,300 Upper Peninsula Power Company customers in northern Houghton and southern Keweenaw counties – in the midst of a polar vortex that kept temperatures below zero – many of those customers had to brave falling temperatures even inside their homes.

“My home went down to about 50,” said John Karvonen, who owns Allouez Automotive and serves on the Keweenaw County Road Commission. Karvonen uses natural gas to heat his home, but the furnace requires electricity to operate.

The outage also affected his business, which can’t operate without electric tools.

“I couldn’t work until 1 p.m. and lost about $300,” he said.

Most residents, like Karvonen, piled on the blankets and braved it out. But according to a clerk who asked not to be identified at the North Star BP in Mohawk, a few sought shelter elsewhere.

“I heard that a couple of people had taken a ride to Calumet and Laurium to stay with friends,” she said.

At the White House Motel in Mohawk, all heat is electric, but the skiers and snowmobilers visiting from normally warmer climates got through the night in decent spirits, said innkeeper Bob Hughes, as did he and his wife Cheri.

“Once we were in bed we snuggled up and got warm, but it started to get bitterly cold early this morning. It was only 44 degrees,” he said.

The worst part of the experience, he said, was breakfast time.

“As an Englishman the first thing you need in the morning is a cup of tea, and I missed that this morning,” he noted.

His guests also had to do without the free coffee and scones normally included in the room rate.

Hughes said the motel didn’t lose any business because of the outage.

“We were prepared to give money back, but people were happy to stay,” he said. “We’ll give a discount on the next visit.”

More than anyone, Hughes added, he felt sorry for the UPPCO workers who had to work outdoors regardless of conditions to get things back up and running.

“There’s a demand, and they’ve got to meet it,” he said.

The propane-fired hot water heater at the Keweenaw Pines a senior housing facility in Mohawk also went out because of electronic control systems.

Residents there could have been at a greater risk due to the cold, but manager Mark McEvers said the well-insulated buildings saved the day.

“I was totally amazed at how the buildings held their heat,” he said. “The lowest temperature I heard any of the residents say it got to was 58.”

No one had to be relocated to warmer environs, and “I wouldn’t say anyone really suffered hardship,” he said.

UPPCO Customer Service Manager John Ringler said the major outage blacked out an area stretching north from Old Colony Road at the edge of Laurium through Mohawk, covering almost all of Ahmeek, Allouez, New Allouez, Copper City and Kearsarge as well.

Ringler said 1,340 customers lost power, adding that several hundred residents in other areas saw shorter unrelated outages.

In the main outage, lights first went out about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, then came back on temporarily at 11:30 p.m. Power went back out at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, then wasn’t restored for good until nearly noon.

Ringler said crews discovered one cause, a broken power pole cross arm, Wednesday morning, but when they fixed it discovered the problem still wasn’t corrected.

After more patrolling, crews found that a tree had fallen onto the line, apparently because of a heavy snow load.

He said crews had to use snowmobiles to find and fix the problems, as both occurred in a remote area where the line runs along an abandoned railroad track inaccessible by road.

“There are trees on both sides of the line, which creates a double risk for the line,” he said.