November 26, 1996 in Nation/World

That Powerless Feeling Darkens Residents’ Spirits Some Residents Threaten To Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

Michael Guilfoil And Craig Welch S A Staff writer
 

Six days ago, Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty half-joked about waking up to “a Viking shave and a Viking shower.”

But by Monday, humor was as scarce as kerosene heaters in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. During an afternoon press conference, Geraghty summed up feelings echoed throughout the region when he acknowledged that “Viking showers aren’t funny any more.”

As mental experts predicted, the accumulating pressures of chilly homes, disrupted schedules, darkness and uncertainty are taking a toll.

One Valley resident sharing a powerless 8-by-27-foot “fifth-wheel” RV with his disabled wife threatened to climb a nearby power pole and “fix the problem” himself. Fortunately, a Washington Water Power Co. employee arrived and explained the cause of the interruption was actually several blocks away.

Homemaker Michele Petrilli hasn’t contemplated climbing any power poles, but she’s about to climb the walls of her home eight miles north of Spokane.

She, her husband, Martin, and their 13-year-old son, Justin, began the ordeal by playing games and trying to heat their 4,000-square-foot home using a fireplace insert.

“But we went through most of our winter wood the first couple of days,” and with it went their sense of adventure.

Now holed up in the family room with birds and other pets, Petrilli said her family has “evolved through the (emotional) process. We were giddy one day, then angry at each other the next.

“Yesterday we went to the new Star Trek movie, and that made us feel a little better,” she said. “But then the Enterprise crew lost their power, and I thought I was going to scream.”

Doug Green, a psychiatrist with North Idaho’s Pine Crest Hospital who went five days without electricity in his Spokane home, said most powerless residents will respond in one of two ways.

“Some will rise to the occasion and see the storm as a challenge,” he said. “Others will have a real sense of helplessness, a sense of being overwhelmed. I felt some of those emotions myself.”

Coping with power outages and falling trees can send adrenaline soaring, making sleep difficult. That can lead to anxiety, panic attacks and depression.

“With less sleep, your emotional defenses go down,” Green explained. The coming Thanksgiving holiday only adds to the stress.

Another problem, Green said, is victims’ eagerness “to blame somebody.” Angry phone calls to authorities can be a defense mechanism that helps people take control of a situation that appears largely out of their hands.

Since last Tuesday, WWP has received 63,000 phone calls to its Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and Lewiston customer-service centers - more than three times the normal number. Unfortunately, many operators - themselves under tremendous stress - are unable to provide exact information.

“The situation changes every minute, and that’s the challenge,” customer-service manager Anne Marie Axworthy said Monday. “We want crews in the field to spend their time restoring power, so sometimes we don’t get updates until they come in from their shifts.”

But Axworthy said WWP is at the point now where it can tell callers that, weather permitting, service to most homes and businesses should be restored by Thanksgiving.

“Our employees can empathize with others’ frustration,” Axworthy said, “because many of them are in the same position.”

Frustration is a natural reaction to crisis, area mental-health experts agree, but it doesn’t have to get the better of anyone.

Try to maintain a healthy balance of exercise and rest. Don’t be overwhelmed by seemingly endless chores. And don’t assume because you’re still in the dark that the utility company has forgotten you. It hasn’t.

Joe Ellithorpe of Driftwood Drive in rural Kootenai County expects to be without power another two to four weeks. But his family of six - aided by his collection of camping gear - has “dug in and is hanging on.”

Ellithorpe spends his days blowing snow from his and neighbors’ driveways, while laundry from his four children piles up.

“You can get so behind you can’t get caught up,” he said. But “we just think, ‘What would they do in Alaska?”’

Echo Bay resident Alohae Walton shares Ellithorpe’s optimism.

“It’s not that bad,” she said. “The third and fourth days without power, you start to get down. But now we’re in the seventh day, and we think, ‘This is just how it is. It will get better soon.”’

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COPING WITH STRESS Spokane Mental Health offers these tips for coping with stress: Try physical activity. Exercise can help release pressure that builds when you are nervous, angry or upset. Get enough sleep and rest. If stress repeatedly prevents you from sleeping, inform your primary-care physician. Talk about how you feel. When tensions build up, discuss the problem with a close friend or with the people involved. Know your limits. If a problem is beyond your control and cannot be changed at the moment, don’t fight the situation. Check off your tasks. List priorities, then tackle them one at a time. Avoid self-medication. Many chemicals - including alcohol - mask stress symptoms, but don’t remove the conditions that cause stress in the first place. Medications, in fact, may be habit-forming and also reduce your efficiency, creating more stress.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Michael Guilfoil and Craig Welch Staff writers Staff writer Adam Lynn contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: COPING WITH STRESS Spokane Mental Health offers these tips for coping with stress: Try physical activity. Exercise can help release pressure that builds when you are nervous, angry or upset. Get enough sleep and rest. If stress repeatedly prevents you from sleeping, inform your primary-care physician. Talk about how you feel. When tensions build up, discuss the problem with a close friend or with the people involved. Know your limits. If a problem is beyond your control and cannot be changed at the moment, don’t fight the situation. Check off your tasks. List priorities, then tackle them one at a time. Avoid self-medication. Many chemicals - including alcohol - mask stress symptoms, but don’t remove the conditions that cause stress in the first place. Medications, in fact, may be habit-forming and also reduce your efficiency, creating more stress.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Michael Guilfoil and Craig Welch Staff writers Staff writer Adam Lynn contributed to this report.


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