Well, maybe it wasn’t so little, but still, as of today one of four households are still without power in the greater Washington area. A lot of people outside the US don’t know that, really, Dee Cee is a Southern City, and like most places in the south is one sweaty son-of-a-gun in the summertime. (And is it just me, or had any of you guys heard of a “derecho” before this?)
So right now about 400,000 people are getting an object lesson is just how fragile the comforts of modernity are, and how urban modernity in particular becomes uninhabitable very quickly when the power goes out.
Without climate control, the elderly and the very young are in immediate peril, just a matter of hours in many cases. Gas stations close, cash registers don’t work, food spoils in refrigerators that immediately stop working and are so poorly insulated that they can only hold their contents cool for a short while if you open the door at all regularly, which of course you have to do to get shit outtathere.
This outage is not city-wide by any means, and is just a couple of days old, but listen to this;
The prolonged outage in the mist of a sweltering heat wave has provoked widespread frustration. The local power utility, Pepco, has said it will take a week before power is fully restored.
In north-west Washington, many local businesses remained shut. Supermarkets and gas stations ran out of bagged ice, or began rationing one per customer.
Workers at a local supermarket still without power spent the morning Monday scanning perishable items before disposing of them. Then the lights flickered back on.
Traffic lights remained out at major crossings. Navigating local roads remained tricky, with roads closed off by yellow tape because of downed trees or live wires. Crews have yet to clear away large trees that toppled on homes, crushing roofs and downing power lines. Many city streets remained littered with branches and other debris.
People tend to come together in crises of this kind, of course, and I well remember being without power for almost 3 weeks in ’83 after a hurricane hit the Texas coast. Folks did pull together and figure things out as best they could. Gasoline was pooled and used in pickup trucks dispatched for ice runs. Folks lived out on their porches, those that still had porches, and cooked outside. Other folks went fishing and brought their catches back to the neighborhood and distributed them generously. Kids ran hither and yon pretty much unsupervised, and were fed without questions at any of the multitude of backyard BBQ operations that sprung up to cook meat before it spoiled. I even saw people playing checkers on porches by oil lamplight.
Folks managed, but it completely disrupted normal routines and many people didn’t have a job to return to for a couple of months.
Then the power came back on, and everyone went back to watching TV behind closed curtains again. By now I’m sure they no longer know most of their neighbor’s names once more.
But that was ’83, and some problems didn’t even exist back then;
Customers at a local Starbucks began yanking out cords of people who overstayed a 30-minute deadline for charging phones and devices.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m still laughing at that, a good 30 minutes after I first read it.
Looks like folks are helping each other out in DeeCee too, stringing power cords around from places where power is still on to power neighbor’s freezers and so on, and good for them, but as usual there is howling from idiots who have no clue at all how the power gets to their house, and how fragile the infrastructure can be in situations like this;
Isiah Leggett, the chief executive of Montgomery County, which includes the leafy suburb of Bethesda, has been slamming the utility for taking a week to get the lights back on, saying that was unacceptable.
“Having our citizens having to go through seven days without utilities is not in my opinion the kind of level of services that we should expect,” he told the local WAMU station.
On the local morning radio on Monday morning, callers were furious at Pepco officials. “This is not one storm,” complained one caller from Clinton. Others lambasted the authority for failing to modernise the system, or bury power lines.
Yeah, well Isiah obviously never climbed a power pole in his life, or has any notion at all of how long it takes to dice up a big tree and get it out-of-the-way without killing someone. Oh, and sure burying the power lines would render the grid more robust in bad weather, plus it would put a lot of people to work in a time when work is hard to find, but that falls under modernization of the infrastructure. It falls in the category of thinking ahead. It also falls in the category of investing in the future, and someone has to pay for that, either through taxes for public works, or through jacked-up utility rates in the case of private companies.
There’s still no appetite for anything like that is there? There used to be, there used to be real enthusiasm for modernizing and upgrading almost everything in the US. Not anymore though. There may be a flurry of short-lived interest in such schemes as a result of this mess, but my bet is in a week or so the debris will be gone, the power will be back on, and everyone will be back behind their curtains watching TV.
It’s as if we’ve decided that modernity has been achieved, and that we’ve arrived at a place where it will not longer need anything but minor tweaking to keep pace with conditions. The idea that we’re at a point where what we need is a shift in the way we do things—a shift that’s every bit as great a change as was switching from horses to the internal combustion engine—is not an idea with any wide currency at all.
But that is where we are.