Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

No power, no business, no coffee

Published on Wednesday, October 05, 2005.
Last modified on 10/5/2005 at 8:00 pm

No power, no business, no coffee

In the darkened backroom of the downtown Billings Gainan's store, red taper candles stuck in blocks of green foam provided light for the floral designers to fill customer orders.

During Wednesday's power outage, Greg Wright shaped table centerpieces of Asiatic lilies, gerbera daisies and asters in glass cubes that romantically reflected the candlelight. Nearby, his co-worker, Cristin McBride, swept greenery from the floor while wearing a bicyclist's headlamp strapped to her forehead. She compared finding flowers in the store's darkened cooler to entering Lewis and Clark Caverns.

"Headlamps, cell phones and candles is what got us through the day," Wright said.

Although the downtown store's doors were closed to foot traffic, orders continued to go out on schedule.

Vice President Jim Gainan turned a delivery van into a makeshift office for the morning, rerouting all of the store's customer calls to his cell phone and then plugging it into the van's cigarette lighter as the cell phone's battery ran low.

"Birthdays, funerals, babies, all those occasions go on whether the power's out or not," Gainan said.

Because computers were down at the downtown store, which serves as the command center for all three Billings locations, employees on the West End and in the Heights took orders on paper.

Through the morning, the Billings airport suffered from spotty phone and computer problems. The morning cluster of flights left Billings while the system was operating at full power, but then the power went out again for a time, leaving some stretches when airport operations relied on backup generators.

Wednesday proved to be a tough morning for folks to cash a check as several Billings banks struggled with power outages or disrupted phone and computer service.

First Citizens Bank branches in the West End and on Main Street battled problems with their phone systems through the morning.

"Our drive-ups are open, but we can't help customers," said Kristal Pulver, a teller at the branch on Central Avenue.

Tellers could do little more than take deposits.

Power outages divided downtown into a checkerboard, shutting down some businesses while leaving nearby businesses unscathed.

First Interstate Bank closed its downtown office in the First Interstate building. Although the drive-up branch across the street had power, tellers were able to do little more than accept deposits and make change for business customers while the computer system was disrupted. Across the street from the bank, the Crowley Law Firm in the Transwestern Plaza lost Internet service for a couple of hours, but it was able to operate normally.

Power was out as well at the Hart-Albin building, and that meant challenges for investors wanting to trade stocks and bonds at D.A. Davidson & Co.

Vice President Investments Branch Manager Todd Preston said calls from customers using the "800" number were routed to D.A. Davidson headquarters in Great Falls. However, customers using the local number got a busy signal.

"We wanted to route those calls, too," he said. "But Qwest said it would take three hours."

It was 11 a.m. by the time Preston heard that Qwest Communications needed three hours to route local calls to Great Falls and another three hours to bring the calls back to Billings. So Preston decided to wait for the power to be restored, which happened about 2:30 p.m.

PhotoGallery Storm photos

News junkies waiting for their morning fix on National Public Radio's Morning Edition were disappointed Wednesday.

Yellowstone Public Radio, KEMC-FM, one block from the campus at Montana State University-Billings, was knocked off the air for 16 hours. The station has never been off the air that long before, said Technical Director Randall Rocks.

The FM signal, which carries National Public Radio, other nationally syndicated shows and local programming across two-thirds of Montana and northern Wyoming, came back on the air about 2 p.m. Wednesday only with the help of a rented generator. The generator supplies enough power to run the broadcasting equipment and power a clip-on light so announcers can read news and program notes. The rest of the station remained dark.

Bakers at Perkins restaurant downtown had just finished making muffins and were poised to do the pies when the power went out just after 5 a.m. Wednesday. Owner Kevin Stenberg sent his employees home.

When the power returned, just after 2 p.m., Stenberg expected to be able to call back employees and reopen the restaurant within 90 minutes.

Across town, caffeine junkies slammed by the power outage searched for their morning fix. At the Shiloh Exxon Express Center, at Grand Avenue and Shiloh Road, one customer stopped to fill up a coffee carafe he brought from home.

Downtown, coffee fiends dodged super-wet snow sliding off trees and rooftops as they wandered from caf? to caf? in search of java, only to see several darkened interiors. Many businesses on the west side of North Broadway had no electricity, but businesses across the street, on what used to be the Montana Power Co. side, were lighted up.

Muddy Waters Espresso at 2817 Second Ave. N. went dark Wednesday morning.

At Rock Creek Coffee Roasters, Peggy Gargaro got to work at 6 a.m. Wednesday, found there was no power, then walked over to Stella's Kitchen & Bakery to get coffee and breakfast.

"We could be like this all day, most likely we will," Gargaro told a disappointed customer.

At the Log Cabin Bakery on Montana Avenue, the morning crew had three pots of coffee brewed before the power went out at 5:15 a.m.

By 9 a.m., the coffee at the bakery ran out, said assistant manager Debbie Surwill. She locked the bakery doors at 10:30 a.m. and sent the fresh pastries made by the night crew to their store in the Heights.

Caf?s lucky enough to have power were hopping.

Travel Caf? had thirsty customers lined up eight deep like a narrow marching band.

Hallmark Golden Crown Gifts, located a little south of Rock Creek Coffee, was dark. Bill Jackson, his going-out-of-business sale temporarily interrupted, leaned against his open door, chatting with customers and neighbors.

Around the block at 209 N. 29th St., Thomas Books' owner Sue Thomas stayed cheerful in the semidarkness. Book browsers, using faint gray light from the window, had to squint to read the titles. Power at the bookstore returned at 2 p.m.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.