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Hurricane Sandy’s generating unexpected debate

“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.

Author

  • 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 often. Visit Micheline's blog, Watching in Washington, here.

6 Comments

  1. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 2 November 2012

    I do sympathise with those affected but it is rather a 9gag scenario of ‘first world problems’.

  2. Enough Said Enough Said 3 November 2012

    More storms on the way for the USA as climate change begins to bite, more power outages, more freak weather killing people and destroying property, more droughts, etc. etc…

  3. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 4 November 2012

    @Momma Cyndi: The death toll in the US stands at 113. Seems a little more than a First World Problem.

    @Micheline: “This freakishly supersized destructive storm will hopefully cause climate change naysayers to have a rethink.”

    I admire your optimism. But I’m afraid, “Facts have a liberal bias,” has gone from being a joke about the thinking on the Right to being an article of faith among them.

  4. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 5 November 2012

    Rich Brauer
    ….. and if the article had been about that aspect, I’d have commented on that aspect. It isn’t, so I didn’t.

  5. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 6 November 2012

    @Momma Cyndi:

    Fair enough.

    But if I may be so bold, I think you’re missing the point of Ms. Tusenius’ posts.

    I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Micheline a couple of times. And I don’t think she’d ever be so arrogant as to describe herself as a pundit. Rather, I think she posts here occasionally to offer up a South African perspective on what’s happening in the USA.

    I think she’d add, admittedly, a privileged South African.

    She offers a snapshot. One of many, many thousands available.

    But she makes valuable points. She mentions how old American infrastructure is. It’s been estimated that several *trillion* dollars are required to upgrade failing infrastructure in the US.

    That’s not just her snapshot. That’s true across the country. She takes her personal experience, and expands it to explain that even the “richest country on earth” (which isn’t really true, per capita) has serious problems.

    Not terribly unlike SA.

  6. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 7 November 2012

    Rich Brauer

    I get that.
    It isn’t just a US problem or an SA problem – its pretty much global. My comment may have been a bit harsh but (having been to both places and seen the GDPs) comparing it to the Liberian problems …… I’m sure you understand my point. (I won’t even mention my thoughts on America and the Kyoto Accord)

    One of the biggest problems is that we (mankind) does something that we are comfortable with and then just rest on our laurels. If gas lighting didn’t keep burning down half the cities, I’m sure we’d still have them as streetlights today. Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. Until we ‘need’ to get better technology, we won’t bother looking for it. Unfortunately, once we really need to find a different approach to electricity production, we probably won’t have sufficient electricity to find it quickly. Ye olde ‘why fix it if it ain’t broke’ philosophy.

    For the devastation that Sandy brought. It is both horrifying and strangely beautiful. Such a lot of destruction and so many great acts of kindness. The South Africans and other colleagues that I know who are currently on the East Coast of America have been keeping me informed of just how ubuntu they have over there. Seems like they really are just like us. When it comes down to the wire, a sense of humour and a lot of humanity are readily available

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