Friday, November 13, 2009

Have you ever experienced a total blackout?

Brazil experienced a total blackout that left 800 cities and some 40 million people totally in the dark on the night of November 10th due to a storm damaged transmission line from a major dam.

On such nights, you have a chance to realize the fragility of humanity's energy systems.  You also have a chance to admire the beautiful night sky which city lights had drown out of your entire life if you were city born and bred. Chaos can be contrasted with admirable human behavior, generating both heroes and predators to go on the roam.

On August 14, 2003, I had the personal experience of the blackout that took out a chunk of Northeast America and Ontario, Canada for two nights and three days.  It affected 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight US States.

I lived on the 27th floor of a 37 floor condominium, some 1,000 apartment units in our building, serviced by six elevators.  I first noticed that something was wrong when I looked out of my window and saw people thronging in the street.  Sometimes when that happens you know something hit the subway.  This one continued for some hours and my husband arrived home a bit late and told me that he had to walk home.  Fortunately for him, it was only a half hour walk and the weather was mild.  For those other people down in the streets, it meant that their chances of getting home would be several hours of negotiating chaotic traffic without lights, or boarding the emergency buses called out to service the stranded passengers.  I could see good citizens who just dropped their backpacks or briefcases and stepped in to conduct the traffic.  Stories were later told how it was past midnight before some of the commuters made it back home.

Mobile phone service was sketchy since the system was overloaded. Our land line wasn't usable because our phone was electric.  I sent my son down to buy batteries at our neighborhood grocery.  He told me they were just closing the store in fear of a rampage, there was little battery left for sale.  We used the batteries for our radio to stay posted on the news.

Our building had one elevator working on an emergency generator.  Water was not running since it relied on the pump.  We saved up what water we could in some tanks and the bathtub, we couldn't shower. We couldn't cook any of our fresh food soon to spoil because for fire safety regulations, our stove was electric. Restaurants had a boom that night, but all closed down the next day.  That first afternoon, I was told that pedestrians were given free ice cream since it would have melted to waste. Our neighborhood sushi restaurant passed around notices that they were giving out free sushi sets for the elderly.

The second night we decided to venture out in search of food.  The hotdog stands were the heroes of the moment.  The long queue was entertaining as we eavesdropped or engaged with other people's story of the drama.  When we got to the hotdog vendor, we asked him how his supplies were doing.  He told us that he had his whole family involved, running around town to search out all the supply of bread and sausages.  Sausages were easier to get to than bread, eventually he would have to close because there were no more bread to sell with the sausages.

When we strolled down the darkened streets, we passed by many foot patrol.  They were shooing people back home and warning them to take precautions of the very dark corners.  All the stores we passed were closed, locked and railed.  Nobody had an idea of how long this would last.  There could have been panic, and I really admired how the good nature of the Canadians came out in those moments of crisis.  It was relatively calm.

Late that second night, I noticed that the Four Season Hotel banner lights came on first, and a few other such powerful buildings.  Our building got its electricity back in the morning, but I was told that some older buildings had to tough it out without electricity and water a day more.  Those who made it back to their houses on the outskirts of the city were hosting barbecue parties with gas burners, enjoying the night sky for the following free days by default.

Several days later, we understood that a failure in one power line caused a cascading effect and brought down a huge system of interconnected power lines.  One couldn't help wondering where were all the engineers? How could the system have been allowed to become so vulnerable?

So now six years later, we have another story of the mother of all blackouts affecting millions.  What kind of backup infrastructure  Brazilian hospitals, subways, high rises had?  I can only wonder.  How well the people coped with it without falling into irrational fear?  I supposed the Latin nature helped things. Lucky for them it was only a night.  Their correction system also worked better than the NE American and Canadian one.

I was wondering if anyone else had a story about some dramatic blackouts?  What do people think about how so dependent we are on electricity?  We don't have to imagine the end of the world, but are we prepared if such 2-3 days or a week total blackout hit us?

PS. I now have a simple phone that doesn't rely on electricity at hand, and a stock of batteries always availabe, and my old fashioned shortwave/longwave radio has become a household treasure.

Where you can read the blackout stories:

No comments: