In the Wake of the Dark September 9th, 2011
Last night San Diego suffered the worst power outage it has ever seen. An “operator error” in Arizona led to the shutdown of the electricity feed coming into San Diego from the east. This loss of power caused an overload at the power plant to the north, killing all electricity flow into all of California south of San Onofre. 1.5 million “customers” without power, or approximately 5 million people, for almost 12 hours.
Funny things happen in modern society when the power goes out. First there is dread and idle anticipation as everyone waits for it to return. As time passes, panic sets in. I immediately turned to Twitter to see just how widespread the outage was. I realized pretty quickly just how huge this was when I started seeing tweets from all over the entire county, from Oceanside down to Chula Vista, and as far east as Yuma & Coachella. An outage that large was sure to take hours.
After panic comes acceptance and preparation. I went around and turned off all the power strips leading to major electronics, in preparation for the inevitable power surge. Kat and I both found books to read and we settled down for a few hours of tedium. With the 100º weather bearing down outside it was important to stay as still as possible to keep from overheating. In the first hour the temperature in the house climbed six degrees, we knew it was going to get hot.
Near evening we started looking for food that we could cook on the stove alone. Not knowing how long the power would be out, we didn’t want to open the fridge and let the contents warm up. We’re moving to a new house in a month and we’ve been deliberately trying to use up the food in the pantry, so options were scarce. Kat finally settled on some stovetop stuffing, which actually was really good.
With the sun setting we realized just how under-prepared we were for such an emergency. We only have two flashlights in the house, and one of them had a dead 6v battery (who keeps spare 6vs?). Kat hates candles and had purged many of the ones I had before, but thankfully I found two squirreled away in a cabinet. After a few minutes of that, we decided we needed to get out of the house and see what was going on.
Driving around in a city that is alive without power is a strange thing, with nothing to do, people took to the streets. Our neighborhood was full of people walking or riding bikes, and when we got into the shopping area there were packs of people roaming the sidewalks, the only light for their path coming from the cars on the road and the moon in the sky. Buildings were completely dark in a way that felt totally unnatural. You never really think about just how much light a closed business puts out until it no longer is. Entire shopping centers vanish into the night, only visible when a car headlight reflects off a dead sign.
With the loss of power, all stop lights were running on battery backups and operating in emergency mode. Anyone who actually paid attention during drivers education knows this means it’s a four-way stop. Sadly, a lot of drivers in SoCal didn’t pay attention, and every major intersection was a nightmare. San Diegans are especially known for being awful with 4-way stops. We decided to make a full loop around Poway, only making right turns to avoid trying to cross major intersections. As we passed the Target shopping center, Kat said she thought she saw some light, so we pulled into the parking lot and found it full of cars! People were streaming in and out of Target and Albertsons, which miraculously still had power.
Shopping during an emergency is very surreal. Only emergency lighting was running, so the store was very dim. Every person we passed in line at the registers had carts full of whatever food they could find. A woman standing behind the registers was directing customers to all the important sections of the store, and informing people of what supplies they still had in stock (flashlights were long gone, but batteries and candles were still available). Thankfully the store still had an active internet connection and was able to run credit cards, otherwise I think people would have been much worse off. We grabbed a few snacks and an extra candle and made our purchases. As we were walking out the security guard was standing outside telling people the store was now closed and they couldn’t get in. No refuge here, the supplies have been taken. We got back in our car and headed home.
My laptop was thankfully fully charged; our cell phones, not so much. After several hours of constantly pinging Twitter for updates, we rather quickly depleted our charges. I used our one car charger to give mine enough juice to last through the night, and then forced myself to only use it every half hour. When we got home we broke out our snacks and sat down in front of the glow of my laptop to watch the only videos I had on the hard drive… My Little Pony. After a couple of episodes we decided to take a shower (by candle light) and head to bed.
I am not an easy sleeper, the slightest sounds wake me up. To battle this, I sleep with at a minimum of one bedside fan running to produce white-noise and keep airflowing across my face. Without this vital resource, I cannot sleep. Between the ringing in my ears, the sounds of traffic, my wife and dog snoring and the gurgles and pops of my own digestive system I have no choice but to lay there completely wide awake, staring into the darkness. Because of the summer heat, our bedroom is completely sealed up, the window can’t even be opened, so the air in the room sits dead. After a few minutes of that I remembered that I had a small battery powered fan in the utility room. I loaded it up with a couple AAs and set it running next to the bed. This gave enough marginal airflow that at least I wasn’t sweltering on the sheets, but no where near enough noise to cover up the sounds of the evening. After two hours the batteries died and I didn’t feel like putting in new ones.
At 12:30am SDG&E tweeted that power was restored to parts of Poway. An hour and a half later the fans in the room came to life; within moments I was asleep.
I am immensely thankful for modern technology today. If it weren’t for my smart phone and Twitter, we would have had no clue what was happening last night or had any hope for the restoration. I have huge respect for both AT&T and SDG&E for their efforts last night in keeping information flowing thru-ought the county; ATT for their quick response to the situation and getting towers back up and running when battery backups started to fail, and SDG&E for their rapid response (they initially thought it would be well into Friday before everything was running again) and their excellent use of social networking to keep the public informed.
Huge thanks to all those men and women who worked tirelessly into the night to restore service to the people of San Diego. I also am immensely thankful to Target and Albertsons for being the only stores in town with the foresight to have backup power so they can continue to serve the community in an emergency.