The air was heavy and oppressive with searing humidity as a cloud-swollen night sky boiled with lightning. It was about 11 PM, Friday June 29th, 2012.
As I prepared to leave for my job on the night shift, a massive wall of wind smashed into the neighborhood. The ponderous tree tops instantly accelerated into a frenzy; lights flickered and then died. Oh well. I shrugged. The same exact thing had happened again just a few days before. At work a generator had activated in response to the outage. The lights had been dim, an emergency light flashed on the ceiling, an alarm buzzed endlessly. Employees putting in hours of overtime far into the night had been frantically rushing back and forth hauling hundreds of pounds of meat and seafood off to the large freezers. As I performed my typical menial labor, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was a heroic protagonist trying to aid Soviet defectors aboard the Red October or busy fighting my way out of a research facility after an experiment gone horribly wrong.
This time was worse.
Even as I approached the door the streets were flooded within seconds. I grabbed a rain coat before wading out into the deluge but it provided little real protection.
This wasn’t rain as you would usually think of it. It did not fall. Rather, it was flung to the earth. It foamed and roiled as it struck. As I made my way to the metro station, I was actually thankful that the power was out. Swaying power cables were all around me and so was lots of water.
As I made the short walk, I was nearly forced to my hands and knees by the sheer force of the gusts. By the time I arrived, I was soaked through and had to wring out my socks…
Some geniuses who must have known hurricane force winds are not uncommon in the mid-Atlantic summer had decided on a brilliant way to implement an electrical grid: A random spaghetti of power cables running sloppily from house to house, many going right through the tree tops. Whenever a high wind arose, fast moving tree branches were sure to send broken power cables flying everywhere.
As it was, extensive localized damage was to be expected but this was somehow the least of it. Somehow stations and substations went down all at once. There was no backup plan nor any kind of temporary generator. Of the local power company’s 700,000 customers, over 400,000 were suddenly without electricity.
3 million people across the entire East coast and Midwest were without power.
The storm, while violent, had barely lasted half an hour as it passed through.
All this had happened in the midst of one of the worst heat waves ever recorded in the area. Temperatures soared into the triple digits.
I lived a full 3 days without access to electricity in these conditions. All of my perishable food spoiled and of course I couldn’t cook anything. In the worst of the heat, I had to sleep on a small stretch of cool concrete floor in the basement by the washing machine.
As I write this, there are still more than a million without power.
Perhaps a million people will be facing Independence Day without any electricity at home. In some places, 4th of July celebrations have already been canceled.
There’s no reason any of this needed to happen.
Things go wrong from time to time. Storms arise. But a massive breakdown of critically important infrastructure at the first sign of trouble tells us important things:
-The socially adept but incompetent have triumphed.
-If you’re just one of the peasantry you aren’t nearly important enough to be supplied with reliable utilities. Too expensive to plan a reliable system and maintain it properly? How much do you suppose it collectively cost ordinary people for all the inconvenience and spoiled food? The whole thing could be seen as a big ‘fuck you’ from the rich.
-Social atomization has progressed so far that the ability to work together to create functional public resources has vanished.
-The one thing a country like the US has long had in its favor: It’s been a decent place to settle for awhile and make some money. Reliable infrastructure is one of the key lubricants of commerce. If these basic services become unreliable, everyone has to spend their time and resources planning around it. The whole society becomes poorer. We have a phrase that’s often used to describe a society like this: ‘third world.’
-Loss of face and legitimacy. It is an embarrassment when a ‘developed’ country can’t even sustain an electrical grid in its Capital City.
The present system’s Mandate of Heaven is eroded that much more.