“Should we buy a generator?” This question is being posed, of all surprising places, in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. The pattern of losing electricity for days at a time a few times a year is creating a surge in generator purchases.

This was the case even before Hurricane Sandy knocked out electricity for about eight million people on the eastern seaboard this week and did much worse to thousands in New Jersey and New York by destroying lives, homes, and livelihoods. The damage in and around New York City is catastrophic for many.

Sandy’s impact here in Washington, DC was mercifully substantially milder. Although some suffered damage and trauma with trees collapsing onto their homes, the “worst” many in the DC metro area, including my family, endured was again being without power for a couple of days.

Driving rain and powerful wind felling trees and breaking power lines has become routine around here, causing us to lose electricity thrice in the past four months. The first storm, on the night of June 29, was the much-discussed “derecho”. This widespread, fast-moving wind storm, that typically includes violent thunderstorms, came without any warning. It was so forceful that more than a million people in the DC metro area were without power, refrigerators, and air conditioning for days, some for well over a week-in the middle of a heat wave in the steaming, humid, soupy cauldron that is Washington in summer. The derecho, in fact, hit Washington much harder than Sandy, causing far greater destruction and disruption. The second storm, in early September, resulted in a blackout that lasted about 24 hours for most. And then came Sandy, leaving people in the region again living by candlelight and with torches for 48 hours.

I wasn’t expecting life without electricity so regularly in Washington. Of all places! The capital of the world’s wealthiest nation! Imagine!

Declining Artic sea ice is reportedly partly responsible for the atypical weather extremes, with high-altitude winds that separate cold air from warm now surging further south than before, and often becoming stuck before being pushed north again. The way in which a cold front from the north moved Sandy west toward land — instead of the hurricane more predictably dissipating over the Atlantic — is being cited as another manifestation of newly unusual weather. This freakishly supersized destructive storm will hopefully cause climate change naysayers to have a rethink.

Suburban Washington’s power grid is susceptible to all this severe weather because most area power lines are above ground; in downtown Washington itself, most power lines are subterranean, so the power tends to stay on better there. The problem is also Washington’s wonderful tree canopy. During intense storms, the area’s abundant trees become liabilities. Branches break and trees snap often collapsing onto already fragile power lines and poles. The power equipment is also ageing and has not been well-maintained.

The enraged public outcry to the summer outages resulted in utility companies taking determined preventative action in anticipation of winter. More trees around power lines have already been cut down, others frantically trimmed. There has also been a push to bury the most critical lines and install new poles, wires and transformers.

To make the power grid more resilient and dependable, costly investments will have to be made in infrastructure. Pepco, the utility company serving parts of the district and Maryland, plans to spend half a billion dollars over the next five years performing overdue maintenance. Paying for this maintenance has proven controversial. In the end, the utility was granted permission to charge customers a small monthly surcharge in advance of maintenance upgrades.

In another plot twist for South Africans, unionized Pepco workers threatened to strike when their demands to arbitrate changes to health and welfare plans were denied. Linesmen and electricians, the people who restore service in disruptions, were among those who were threatening to strike. A federal mediator was brought in and the company then agreed to an arbitration process. Last month union members accepted Pepco’s new four-year contract thereby averting a much-feared strike. Given the reliability questions already plaguing area utility companies, the last thing Pepco needed was a strike by key workers as preparations for winter are under way.

President Barack Obama stresses that the United States needs to invest in its crumbling infrastructure to ensure its economy can grow and endure for the long term, saying that America needs to “nation build at home”. Certainly investing in infrastructure would also stimulate economic growth. Investment in infrastructure needs to be a high priority if the US is to remain competitive against emerging economies like China.

Every city seems to have some infrastructure quirk. Johannesburg’s issue would be the struggle to keep traffic lights in working order, while Washington’s would be the inability to keep suburban power on in big storms.


Micheline Tusenius

Micheline Tusenius

Micheline Tusenius is a South African, presently but temporarily living in Washington DC, with her American husband and their two children. They last lived in Johannesburg in 2010, but visit South Africa...

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