Thirteen years ago on this day, a massive power failure swept across the northeastern US. The satellite image shows the blacked-out area like some alien had taken a giant bite out of Canada and New England. At that moment, I was faxing (remember that?) a quote to a client, and my first thought was “Damn terrorists”. But turned out it wasn’t any sort of attack, it was a failure of the archaic US power grid, with a crash on the east coast cascading through system after system until finally halted just west of Detroit. Some 50 million people were affected.
I made my way down three flights of stairs in pitch black (so much for those emergency lights, I noted) and into a city with no stoplights and thousands of scared people. The car radio let me know the shocking extent of the problem, and as I made my way home, it was encouraging how courteous the drivers I encountered were. I made it without too much trouble, unlike folks in bigger cities like New York, Toronto, and Cleveland. Pity those poor people stuck in elevators, in subway cars, or on planes hoping to land! I felt the adrenaline burst of excitement that accompanies the start of any emergency but it quickly wore off to hours then days of anxious boredom. No lights, no TV, no work, no school, no gas for the car, no A/C, and after Day 1 no water since the pumps at Detroit W&S were electrically powered. (Luckily I was able to fill the bathtub before the flow trickled to nothing, so we could flush the toilet, something I truly appreciated in the August heat.) A few local radio stations broadcasting with generators suspended their playlists and filled the airwaves with news of who needed help and who had help to offer. I found this comforting in a small town cozy way as I tried to fall asleep at sundown with my ear glued to my battery-powered portable. In the morning, coffee was possible on the camp stove, so I thought, okay – we’ll play Little House on the Prairie and rough it for a while.
On Day 2, everyone in the neighborhood emptied their melting freezers and held a giant block party BBQ, washed down with lukewarm drinks as we sat up late and talked by lamps, candles, and tiki torches. In typical American fashion, I had never met most of them before. Alas, there was too much haze to fully enjoy the completely dark night sky but I can attest that a single candle becomes a beacon in a world without electricity. Finally on Day 4, my boys and I were hiding out in the only cool spot, the basement, playing Mousetrap when the lights flickered on again. And so back to normal, the only harm to us a refrigerator full of spoiled food.
The real impression I carry from that day is that despite the passage of 13 years, the US electric network is unimproved by meaningful infrastructure investment. This sword of Damocles hangs over us every day, with our a rickety conglomeration of regional grids unready to handle our growing population with its plethora of 4G devices, and vulnerable to physical and cybersecurity attacks. It is only a question of time until the next emergency.