Chapel Hill: Opinion

Carol Henderson: Shelter from the storm

“Did you hear that?” I shouted down to my husband.

“No, what?”

“I think it’s a transformer exploding,” I said. “I’ve heard several in the last hour.”

“Maybe it’s a gunshot,” he offered. “Or fireworks?”

Fireworks seemed highly unlikely on a frigid snowy night. A gunshot? We thought we had heard them from time to time. Maybe that’s all it was.

Odd, I thought, that gunshot would be less threatening than a transformer exploding, but we weren’t necessarily thinking clearly that night. Our big fear was that a transformer would blow nearby, and we’d lose power.

Everybody was worried about the icy mix falling from the sky. And our neighborhood never ranks high on Duke Power’s fix it schedule. Twice – after Hurricane Fran, then six years later, the Big Ice Storm of 2002 – we were without power for 10 days.

So we were prepared for this latest storm. Despite a few false alarms a few weeks before, we knew this one was for real. We ran the dishwasher, did laundry, located batteries, candles, matches and our trusty flashlights. We brought in piles of chopped wood left over from the last disaster. I made a huge soup that would keep for days. We knew we’d be able to light our gas stove. Without caffeine we would wither and lose all hope, so we found the espresso maker that works on the stovetop.

I heard another crack.

Maybe it’s people shooting themselves in this mess, I thought.

Our digital devices were charging in their cradles – iPhones, iPads, computers.

Another crack. That’s when I remembered our neighborhood listserv.

I opened my email and there it was: “Anyone up and know what that noise is? Fireworks? Our dog is freaking out.”

OK. I wasn’t the only person awake and concerned.

Another neighbor chimed in: “I’ve been hearing it too ... I’m a little worried it’s moisture in the transformers, but honestly, don’t know.”

I was going to comment about hearing the cracks but I didn’t have anything more to contribute, except that I was grateful others were up and aware and that we weren’t the only ones worrying.

Then somebody posted a link about “arcs” in transformers and I realized that though my husband and I were alone in our little house, wondering what was going on out there, our neighbors were having the exact same concerns.

During the big ice storm, there was no such thing as a listserv.

Earlier in the day, before the storm got fierce, someone else had chimed in on the listserv, saying her family was new to the neighborhood – maybe folks had seen them out walking their little dog. She gave her address and said a generator backed up their whole house and anybody could come over at any time to shower, sleep, eat or charge a phone.


I thought of the former owners of that house who used to keep the place ablaze during outages, while the rest of us shivered in our dark houses.

Experts are always talking about how social media isolates us and that we’re more alienated than ever now.

Rubbish, I say.

If you’re feeling lonely or concerned about a neighborhood issue, start a listserv in your neighborhood. And make it clear that the service is not for the details of everybody’s lives, just the important stuff. A robbery. Street closings. Nobody abuses ours.

Someone might post a need – for a sitter or a tree person. They’ll put in their email address so we don’t all have to follow the thread.

Social media can’t stop a storm. It doesn’t always have the answers.

But at least it lets us share the questions.

Carol Henderson is a writer and teacher in Chapel Hill. Contact her at