Saturday, August 18, 2012

rude awakening


Snapped awake early this morning by the sudden loud slamming of the emergency fire door a few yards down the hall, the noise was our first clue that the power had failed. Naturally, the first thing you do after realizing you won't be able to make coffee or turn on the news, is to look out the window to see if other buildings may be affected or if it's just the one you happen to be inhabiting. Since it was daylight it was hard to tell. It's not the first time the electricity was lost since we came to live here (one event lasted more than ten hours) but it was one of the more mysterious episodes. Had there been a wild storm going on outside, it's understandable even if not acceptable, but this was a quiet summer weekend morning, just normally warm for the time of year.

In a neighborhood of family sized houses and small apartment buildings what usually happens is that people go outside to ask each other about what might have caused the problem. Some might even have news or funny stories about where they'd been or what they'd been doing when the lights went out. Such is not the case when you live in a high-rise apartment building, especially if you live above the fifth or sixth floor. First, since there are no windows, other than those in the apartments, the hallways are pitch dark. Naturally, the elevators won't work even if you have a flashlight to help you find them. The enclosed staircases may or may not have emergency lighting but even if they do, the walk down to the lobby won't be easy and, depending on which floor you live on, the climb back up will be worse. Should I even mention the lack of running water?

So there I was sitting in bed this morning drinking juice instead of coffee considering how reliant we are on electricity. I wondered if it was just our building or if it might be the whole city. What if it was one of those cascading blackouts similar to the one in the northeast in 2003 or the storm system across the US this summer? What if a massive solar flare had caused a modern day Carrington Event like the one that happened at the dawn of the electrical age in 1859? That time a geomagnetic storm lit up the sky with aurora borealis lights all the way to Florida and also burned out every telegraph junction in the Northern Hemisphere.

You've probably decided by now that I can get carried away by my imagination more than might be absolutely necessary but it doesn't take flights of fancy to consider how changed our world has become in this past century and a half by having easy access to electrical power. What if it suddenly went away for longer than a few hours, or more than a few days? We're all aware that the infrastructure built in decades past whether for highways, bridges, sewers, water mains, or power grids are much more difficult as well as expensive to maintain or repair these days. In regards to the North American grid, major budget cuts proposed by Republican politicians in the U.S. could have disastrous implications on both sides of the border. We're all more connected than we know.

Ah well. It didn't happen this time and our power was restored a few hours later. If it hadn't been, I certainly wouldn't be sitting here drinking my ice tea and writing as the fan blows a gentle breeze across the room.  Maybe I shouldn't worry so much. There's fun to be had even without electricity:

Holi from Variable on Vimeo.
..but it sure would be nice to have a warm bath after the festivities. 

Do you have a power outage story to share?


top picture is the Forest Spiral House in Darmstadt, Germany by Hundertwasser
(much more attractive than the building where I live)

16 comments:

  1. I do have an outage story but I don't kiss and tell. ;-)

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    1. Me neither - at least not in a public forum.. :-)

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  2. I hope you have been re-empowered by now. No electricity = no water? Hmmmm. How does that happen? No reserve power for the city's water system?

    Outage story. Back in 1965, there was a huge power outage in eastern Canada and the US, similar to the 2003 event. Nine months later, there was a spike in the number of births. I believe those two events might have been connected. I was single back then, and going to university. I had no involvement in the increase to the population. Sadly, I don't have a "kiss and don't tell story," like Gina. But, for me, that is just fine. I guess.

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    1. It's not the water supply so much as the fact that pumps are required to get that water much above street level.

      Ah yes, attendance at the poor man's opera probably did rise but I think lots of people were just trying to get home.

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  3. Now there are the reasons I don't want to live in a high rise - imagine being on the 26th with no elevators, no water, no heat or a/c and with bad knees. I'd feel panic as if in jail, yikes. On the other hand , that Hundertwasser might make me change my mind. Glad your power was restored witihn a few hours.

    We've only lost it in late fall or winter storms where trees fall over power lines. (Another reason to have them buried underground.) Our wood burning fireplace sure came in handy when we were out for three days, and husband invested in a generator for such emergencies (only good as long as fuel is available).

    With the intense heat waves in large swaths of North America, and so many using air conditioning, the electricity demands soar beyond capacity, hence the brown outs. Also there's less and less water in many areas for the dams. Then I heard the water is too warm for cooling the nuclear palnts so they have to run at lower power. We're heading for serious trouble with heat and droughts becoming ever more common. Does anybody think about changing our ways? I fear we may be too late.

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  4. Without electricity life would very difficult no matter where we live, but you're correct that it would soon be impossible to live in a high-rise building. I was reading an engineering report earlier that stated an after the fact problem in Vancouver is that the very mildly acidic water there has been corroding the copper water pipes in the new condos. Don't you love how side effects are always found years after the work has been done?

    Air conditioning in tall buildings with glass curtain walls is a necessity because of the tremendous heat retention. It's strange but true that more energy is used in summer for cooling than is used to keep people warm in winter. You're right that our systems haven't provided for a radically changed climate or for broad use of human scaled building projects.

    It's good you have some choices available that would allow you to have time to make longer term changes.

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  5. glad this outage wasn't long.... frightening thought, being trapped in a high rise w no power.... my outage story is 6 years long, and voluntary.... living on the banks of the Yukon River, heating and lighting a la rustique. being voluntary, there was time to prepare and stock up on little-used 'technologies' that make the experience more comfortable and less dangerous.

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    1. Power outages in apartment buildings can be lots worse than having one when you live in a house. I'm still amazed that you lived in a cabin way far north for all that time. You are one very stalwart woman.

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  6. We have been having problems with brown outs where I work. When one gets increasingly dependent upon computer systems to maintain other systems and then when power fluctuates there is bound to be problems that crop up.

    Do you have a gas stove or electric? When the electric goes out I use an old fashioned percolator upon the stove to make coffee. I gotta have my coffee!

    The one funny story I have about a power outage happened in 1987 when we had an ice storm that caused some trees to fall upon the house. I was pregnant with my son at that time so the hormones were in flux. Anyway, the neighbor comes by to check on us after the tree hits the house. It was around 3 o'clock in the morning and we were awakened by the big bang as it were. The neighbor was peeking in the window with the flashlight under his face and when I saw him I screamed! He was scary and it was kind of stupid to put that light under his face but he was trying to be helpful so yeah...

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    1. Yes, that's another one of the things that makes me worry about e-books. At least if we have a real book and daylight or a candle we can get by.

      Unfortunately, I haven't lived in a place where gas stoves are common since I left New England. We do have a small butane counter unit if we really have a serious problem but happily so far that's been rare.

      You poor thing. I can only imagine how frightened you must have been being awoken by that crash and then seeing an underlit face in the window. I wonder if your screams scared him too?

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  7. If the galvanic whirring machines stop running, I can live without work, but lack o' tuneage would make me cry rivers of sadness. I will say that when the big blackout happened, one gets a new appreciation for, not just the beauty of the night sky, but how freaking DARK it really is.

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    1. When we lived in Providence our power was out for days twice - once after the famous Blizzard of 78 (you're too young to remember) and again for a week after a hurricane. Yes, the night skies are beautiful but most people can't sing to modern professional standards.

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  8. A couple of decades ago, a power cut was annoying. Today, nothing works without electricity. Most of us live in a largely unavoidable state of dependency. gfid is in some ways to be envied on the banks of the Yukon, but what if 7 billion people all try to take the same road ...?

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    1. Yes, that morning I thought about whether we had any money besides the change in the jar and then realized it wouldn't matter because all the cash registers are computerized. There are even some stores where the doors weren't designed to be manually operated.

      Gfid is a remarkable woman who has been living the civilized life most of us do for a while now. She's one I imagine could quite easily make the transition back to basics but not most of us..

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  9. oh my...so far behind I am...I shall return....xo

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