Thursday, November 19, 2009

BLACKOUTS

Whew, I wouldn't want to have a job like Obama's, or his staff's, or their secretaries, or their clerks -- tackling our energy problems.

My brain is doing somersaults. Somersaults scare me – you tuck your head into the ground, you're in a crouch, you give a shove with your feet ... UH OH -- you think your neck might break off , but whee -- you're up and over and boom -- you're flat on your back not quite sure where you are.

I'm not sure where we are with cars eating gas, windmills, harnessing other sources of energy.

But, when I read about Obama getting to work, putting the electric grid problem on his worktable -- assigning $3.4 billion of the money he got for fixing things -- money from the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Congress approved -- tick tick -- I find myself remembering the 1977 blackout -- suddenly, no light, utter darkness, in New York City.

My mental teletype's ticking away ...

Even though the money is to be matched by the industries that are involved, and there will be jobs, lots of jobs -- I can hear the debates, experts saying it's "socialism" -- Tea Partiers shouting "No meters! We don't want government putting meters in our homes!"

Hey guys -- blackouts are serious. California's had hundreds of dim-outs and blackouts. Enron buying up electric power at bargain prices, selling it back to cities at twice the price -- scandalous increases in monthly bills that residents had to pay! Trouble is still hanging over California!

New York's had three major blackouts.

9th of November 1965 , 5:28 p.m, I was stuck in an elevator. 6 months pregnant, on 57th street, where I'd finished talking to my agent on the 14th floor.

Traffic jammed the streets -- commuters were stranded everywhere. Power was restored some thirteen hours later, and well ... I was amused, exhausted. I'd climbed down 13 flights of stairs and walked home on the moon-lighted streets -- forty blocks to our house, where JC had candles lit ... and snacks on the table.

In the morning we were waked by lights popping on, the radio saying the airports had re-opened, the Mayor thanking everyone, bragging about how the city coped with little reported disorder.

We learned that the entire Eastern Seaboard went black -- the outage was in an area of eighty-thousand square miles, effecting about twenty-five million people.

What happened on Wednesday , July 13, 1977, at 9:27 p.m. was scary. People were dangerous, angry, violent. I didn't dare go out.

Fires spread throughout all five boroughs. Thousands of shops were looted. There were almost four-thousand arrests, and damage costs were estimated at over $1 billion.

JC was starring in "Trip Back Down" on Broadway. He got home at 2 a.m. Our son, fortunately, was visiting relatives out of town. The front door of our building was damaged by robbers who broke the lock, and smashed some of the wood. They stole the door knobs.

Time Magazine called 13 July 1977 --"New York’s Night of Terror." The metropolitan area fell into darkness for twenty-five hours and the city descended into near anarchy.

When the television came back on, here's what WABC News said:

We live in New York City on the top two floors of a loft building. There's a lot of noise, fire engines, ambulances, police sirens, and garbage trucks; the water goes off sometimes unexpectedly; Con Edison and other untouchable city agencies are constantly digging up the streets. But we're New Yorkers. We recover quickly.

The big blackout (two and a half days) started August 14th, 2003, Thursday afternoon at 4:15. We were in the middle of heat wave. JC was in "Urinetown" on Broadway. The performance was canceled.

We had food in the freezer. Before it got dark we bought a box of candles, and 2 batteries at the corner store -- the owner was rationing them, rationing his supply of milk.

Once the possibility of terrorism was discounted, rivers of commuters and tourists calmly walked the streets to their homes. Since the lights went out in the afternoon, there was time to prepare. That night we walked the streets with a candle and a flashlight. It was crowded, but it was getting unbearably hot inside our building. We nodded and said "Hi, how are doing? " to strangers the way New Yorkers do in a crisis.

We knew hundreds were trapped in stalled elevators -- 600 subway and commuter rail cars were stuck between stations -- without traffic lights, everything was gridlocked, as people fled their offices on foot -- for hours into the evening; streets, highways, bridges and tunnels were jammed with traffic and pedestrians.

Mayor Bloomberg reported that it took four hours just to get out of Manhattan. He told residents to open their windows, drink plenty of liquids to avoid heat stroke in the heat, and not to forget their pets. Temperatures were 92 °F.

Friday morning, the 15th, our water pressure was lower than usual. Smells were in the air -- garbage trucks weren't operating -- curbs were lined with garbage bags, cans, bottles, decaying food. The few-hundred-dollars of food in our freezer was getting soft; ice cream was melting.

Cell phones weren't working. New Yorkers were lining up, 10 deep or more, at pay phones, as ordinary telephone service remained mostly unaffected.

We heard that it was life and death in hospitals, even hospitals which had their own generators.

JC's Friday night show was canceled. There were no shows, no movies, no restaurants; no buses, or subways, and very few grocery stores were open.

Outages were reported in Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, upstate New York , Detroit, and most of New Jersey, We didn't enjoy walking. The streets were too crowded, and too many people were high or sloppy drunk.

The radio news said lights would be back on 1 a.m. When we woke at 5 .a.m. on Saturday the 16th, the lights were still out. We were restless, bored, concerned -- it was hard to read without lights. We didn't feel like eating -- the food in the refrigerator was spoiled. The freezer had been off for more than 36 hours.

Finally around 2 in the afternoon, lights popped on in the buildings across our street -- not ours.

All our lights, television, a vacuum we'd forgotten to turn off came back on around 5 p.m. JC was off to work (no shower), walking -- the subways were working but not up to speed. After 48 hours with no electricity, our dripping freezer, refrigerator, JC and I and our house were a mess.

It took three days till things, more or less, got back to normal.

But -- oh dear -- our lights flicker, not every day, but fairly often, and unpredictably.

Like most New Yorkers, we turn off lights; we avoid using appliances (washer, dryer, dishwasher), and use air conditioners sparingly during the summer. There are constant warnings about dim-outs, blackouts, overloaded circuits, and news about blackouts in other parts of the world -- Australia, London, China, Tokyo.

Fixing the power grid -- it's a biggie – more expensive, more complicated, bigger than the National Highway system that got going 50 years ago.

55 million were affected by what happened in 2003 -- six years ago. We used to talk about millions of dollars . Now we're talking about billions -- dollars and people.

My mental teletype is ticking away -- I'm not very good with math, but tick tick -- the numbers are going up and up and up. Please, let's get going -- not yelling, name-calling, filibustering -- let's get on with the grid!

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