These past few days, when the sun sets over Salt Lake City, Nick Kuzmack pulls out a wooden, foldable chessboard his mother, Frances Rowsell, bought at a yard sale years ago. Then he lights some candles, and the two play a few games.
The chess game is a normal part of their routine. The candles are not.
Kuzmack and his 72-year-old mother have been without power in their home near Liberty Park since Tuesday, when hurricane-strength winds blew through northern Utah, toppling trees, hurling branches and downing power lines. At the most, more than 195,000 Rocky Mountain Power customers lost power. Now, crews have restored electricity to about 80% of them, but the last 20% will be tricky, President and CEO Gary Hoogeveen said at a Friday news conference.
Hoogeveen said repairs have taken longer than anticipated because storm damage was so destructive and widespread. Also, much of the existing infrastructure at outage sites had to be replaced. Normally, it can be repaired, which doesn’t take as long, he said.
Those without power — it will be five days by Saturday morning — have lost refrigerators and freezers full of food or had to take time off work or struggled to attend online school or complete assignments, since no power meant they couldn’t access internet. They’ve made trips to other houses to charge their phones and computers or do laundry. Relied on delivery for meals.
And they wake up every morning wishing that this will be the day the lights come back on.
“I’m grateful that a lot of work is being done to get things back online, but being without power," Kuzmack said, “this affects my job and my security.”
Hoogeveen said more than 130 crews are out, and they’re “working as much daylight as we have.” Workers from Iowa and Nevada were also called in to help.
Even then, Hoogeveen wouldn’t give an estimate for when the last house that lost electricity in the windstorm would get power. The “vast majority” will be back online by the end of the weekend, he said.
Hoogeveen stressed that the storm was “historic” and brought “extensive” damage.
Indeed, the Utah National Guard deployed Friday to clean up.
Maj. Gen. Michael Turley said at the news conference that more than 270 soldiers and airmen, and 60 pieces of heavy machinery, spent the day removing limbs and branches in Farmington, Kaysville, Centerville and Bountiful. They cleared approximately 40 cubic yards — enough to fill a dumpster 22 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 8 feet high.
So far, Kuzmack said he and his mother, Rowsell, have dealt without power fine. He said his biggest worries are when he leaves to take their phones elsewhere to charge and she doesn’t have a way to contact him in an emergency.
Also that he can’t work.
Rowsell is elderly and has already survived cancer. Kuzmack’s girlfriend is immunocompromised. So while many people have loosened their self-isolation practices as the pandemic has dragged on, Kuzmack hasn’t.
He doesn’t go into the office at work to lower the risk of exposing the two most important people in his life to the coronavirus, he said. Kuzmack’s work has so far been accommodating to him, but he’s burned through his rapidly depleting stock of paid time off.
Kuzmack also lamented that he hasn’t had the means to boil water in days.
“Coffee is a luxury I never truly appreciated until now,” he said.
He’ll get some Saturday morning, at least. His power was restored around 9 p.m. Friday.
In Holladay, where less than 700 customers were without power Friday evening, Jennifer Gilmore said her house is one of maybe two on the block that still doesn’t have power. She said by now her family has overcome the reflex to flip a switch when they enter a room. They’ve also discovered the strength of a small flashlight, using a filled plastic water jug to amplify the light.
They have also packed about 80 pounds of ice into their refrigerator and freezer to try to preserve food, and so far it’s worked.
Ben Winchester, in Salt Lake City, lost the contents of his freezer and fridge. He hasn’t opened the doors yet. He’s afraid of the smell. He’s also frustrated with Rocky Mountain Power’s communication.
“The assumption that homes without power have access to the Rocky Mountain Power website is a bad one. The loss of power also impacted my cell service since I need wireless/internet to get a signal, so no access to info there,” he said. Finally the blanket robocalls with dated and nonspecific restoration times are more frustrating that the outage itself.
Rocky Mountain Power is urging customers with outages to continue to alert the company. Hoogeveen asked that customers update their accounts with current phone numbers and email addresses so the company can reach them.
Spokesman Spencer Hall said crews are still prioritizing repairing lines affecting the most customers. As of Friday evening, more than 32,000 were still without power.
“We understand how frustrating it is for those customers who are still without service. We are truly sorry for the time it has taken to repair the damage and restore the service,” Hoogeveen said.
Until the power comes back on, those without say they will make do off the hospitality (and working outlets) of family and friends. And they’ll continue to yearn for the day they don’t have to.
As Gilmore said, “We wake up every morning with high hopes."