Afternoon Inquisition

AI: I (don’t) have the power

Last week was a strange one in Connecticut. A freak snowstorm last weekend knocked out power to nearly all of the state, putting 2 million people in the dark (and cold).

One week later, there are still counties where less than 15% of the residents have their power restored.  And people are getting really crabby:

“Tempers are snapping as fast as the snow-laden branches that brought down power wires across the Northeast last weekend, with close to 300,000 Connecticut customers still in the dark and the state’s biggest utility warning them not to threaten or harass repair crews.

Angry residents left without heat as temperatures drop to near freezing overnight have been lashing out at Connecticut Light & Power: accosting repair crews, making profane criticisms online and suing. In Simsbury, a hard-hit suburban town of about 25,000 residents, National Guard troops deployed to clear debris have been providing security outside a utility office building.”

I know of several fist fights that broke out at gas stations, since with no power, stations that had gas to dispense + electricity to actually pump it into your tank were scarce.  “Cut in line and I will cut you”, I guess.

I only got my power back late Thursday, so I spent 5 days with no power.  But at no time was I ever tempted to threaten anyone, hit anyone, or do anything besides whinge pitifully.  And frankly, I think headlines like this are bullshit:  “Third World” power outages plague US homes, businesses.

world sanitation mapYes, it does really suck to not have heat, or lights, or running water. But well over 2 billion people live every day without those little amenities.  Take a look at this map about which populations have access to sanitation–which means toilets and, indirectly, clean, safe water to drink.  It’s rather a small part of the world, isn’t it?

My New England neighbors go a week without flushing toilets, and they completely loose their shit (ahem)  and start talking about a “Third World Country?”   I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Afternoon Inquisition Question:
What do you think? Are we spoiled?  Is it a fair comparison? Does it matter?  What would you do if you didn’t have power (or internets) for a week?



Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Thanks Bug Girl! I also live in CT and the griping is fierce! Let’s face it, this was a freak storm. Nothing like it has been seen, like ever! What would customers have the power company do? Pay hundreds of crews to stand by at all times? You can bet the necessary rate hike would be met with howls of protest. We are spoiled and so accustomed to cheap, easily accessible power that we think it is a right.

    The self-pitying, ignorant and insensitive comparison with a “Third World Country” makes me mad and underscores just how spoiled we are.

    Not having power for days on end SUCKS! We were lucky (prepared?) and have a generator and city water, but it was still a huge relief when the power came back on. But it takes about an hour to begin to take it for granted again.

  2. A few years ago, a huge ice storm hit Tulsa, and I was without power for 11 days. It was really dark, it was really cold, and it REALLY sucked. My conclusion was that our biggest problem is that our whole lives are structured around electricity, and most of us don’t have a backup plan. We could not do anything in our house without electric. The stove, while gas, had an electric starter. Heat was electric. We were fortunate enough to have a fireplace, but it had an electric blower. Water heater was electric. Lights, duh, were electric. Everything we needed to stay warm, fed, and clean was tied to the electric grid. Whereas when our ancestors were making their way across the plains, they had systems that kept them warm, etc, without relying on electricity. I suppose the same holds true for people currently living without electric. We’re not worse off than folks in the developing world, we are simply completely unable to cope when the lights go off. Just call us electricity junkies.
    I’d like to point out that the reactions you are seeing in CT, illogical as they may be, are so normal and expected in these situations that they train utility crews on how to deal with them, according to a utility worker I spoke with. Not an excuse for bad behavior, but that’s just how it goes when things go all apocalyptic on ya. And yeah, the Third World country reference is way over the top. How long has Iraq been without reliable electricity now? With no end in sight? Meanwhile, I’m sure all of CT will be up and running again in the near future.
    All of this bodes ill for the day when the US crumbling power grid begins its death cycle…

  3. I’ve had ice storms take out the power here in Joplin two out of the last three winters. Water and oven are both gas, and I’ve got a small wood stove. So I’m not that bad off. The first time I was without power for just over a week. When the crews show up in the alley, I take them a brown-bagged six pack of beer. I can’t be sure it makes any difference, but the second ice storm, I was only out for three days. When the tornado hit, the power was back on in a matter of hours.

  4. This is something for communities to consider next time a suggested tax increase comes up. Thanks to all the corporate influence in media and politics, many people tend to consider ALL taxes skeptically. If a community has a more robust winter weather plan than is absolutely necessary, all that covers is the margin of error. you can’t bet on a mild winter and win every time, now can you?

  5. I was thinking about this topic recently too. There was a lot of power outages due to that same weather system here in Jersey, and in my old hometown of Livingston, 1010WINS news radio interviewed a woman who admitted to crying frequently since being without power for 3 days. Now, I sympathize with the fact that she had young children, and it was a lot tougher than I had it. However: Perspective, people.

    It’s no wonder we’ve become obsessed with zombies and post-apocalyptic settings in pop culture … so many of us are so woefully unprepared, the anxiety level has got to be high.

  6. A part of me always thinks “This is it! Better prepare for the total collapse of civilization and figure out how to Mad Max-equip the car!!”

    I may read too much dystopic fiction.

  7. Yes, we are spoiled.

    And another point. Why are people never prepared for a situation like this? I can understand the very poor, or someone who can only afford a tiny studio, but any homeowner should have a camp stove and a weeks worth of food put away. And a few gallons of water. Especially if they have kids. But instead we sit around and demand someone come and bail us out and we don’t even think about it.

  8. When the power fails, I walk around my suburban neighborhood looking at the broken wires, fallen tree branches, and tilted phone poles. I also get to meet some neighbors, who at other times are invisible.

    My generator is the thin thread to 21’st century god-like living. My 68-year-old arm pulls the starter rope 20 or 30 times at 8 AM to get it running. It’s loud enough to drown out a politician. Then I run the oil-fired furnace to warm the house. When the house is warmed, I turn on the pump and fill pails with water so I can flush the toilet. I even run a hot plate to fry an egg or two for breakfast. No refrigerator, though; I don’t want to panic my generator. A picnic cooler and snow keep food in the garage. Such hardship.

    Power went out at 8:05 PM on Saturday. On Wednesday, crews swept the neighborhood cutting wood off the wires and trimming trees. The next day, a neighbor saw that a wire had popped off the insulator at the top of a phone pole and snapped into the branches of a tree across the road. It had also broken a cross beam on an adjacent pole. That wire normally carries 2000 volts. I reported this to a surprisingly courteous person at Public Service of New Hampshire. She seemed grateful for the news. Less than an hour later, two large white service trucks appeared, with crews pulling wires back to their proper moorings and repairing phone-pole woodwork. The trucks were from Edwardsville, Illinois. I visualize an ocean of trucks sloshing from the Midwest into New Hampshire, and trucks sloshing into Connecticut, and then the whole lot of them sloshing back.

    I read most of The Monuments Men by wind-up flashlight. The lights are not bright, but adequate, if you don’t mind turning the crank every few minutes. Books take on a special tone in a flashlight beam.

    Power returned Thursday evening, while I was at the town’s library, tapping its wifi. More hardship.

    It is stupid to berate the service people. Even the managers of the utility company are largely blameless. Their resources are not adequate to keep up with tree trimming and reinforcing the wire grid. But we are right to complain. That’s what provokes progress.

    Regards, Bob – Southern NH

  9. Yeah, stuff happens, but details I’ve been hearing:
    House fires have started when the power returns, because CL&P hasn’t been controlling surges on the lines. Out of state crews aren’t showing up because CL&P hasn’t paid from the last time they had to request help. CL&P is leaving dangling live wires, “call if it starts a fire.” modrachlan: this isn’t a tax issue; CL&P is a corporate (publically-traded) monopoly. It doesn’t seem like they’re handling this terribly well.

    1. Actually, it is in part a tax issue, because it’s local municipalities that pay CLP to trim the trees.
      And the AG of CT is starting an investigation–it does look like CLP not paying its bills is related to the delays in power restoration.

      I just want to know when we are going to stop putting powerlines in the air. CLP says it’s easier to see when things break if they are out in the open–but I find that specious reasoning at best.

      1. Lightening loves to find buried power cables not to mention all the fools with backhoes and shovels who love to find/cut buried cables. Our current neighborhood has buried power lines and we have more power issues than our previous neighborhood where the lines were strung on poles down the alley.

  10. But didn’t Saint Nikola solve this with wireless power transmission? I mean, if it wasn’t being repressed by the man that is. No, wait.. that was in fantasy land.

    @plugger – I’m not surprised that there were crews from the midwest. When a derecho hit Illinois in July (causing ComEd’s widest outages ever, 860,000+ homes) there were crews from all over the country who came in the help get thing going again. It seems fair they would return the favor.

    I don’t remember too much grumbling beyong a personal level at the time, but it was July and not too hot so the circumstance was different. Even without snow on the ground some areas were out for well over a week. Overall I think ComEd did a decent job for what they had to deal with, but then I only lost power for around 20hrs so I may not have as dim a view as some.

  11. Yes we’re spoiled, but we’re also dependent. How much can we do without our electricity?
    People getting violent at gas stations is just stupid though. Get a fucking bike you asshat.

  12. This is just a big red herring fallacy. It was the wrong word choice to call these “third world power outages”, but it’s also incredibly wrong to tell people to just get over it because other people have it worse.

    Yes, it’s bad that so many people lack basic sanitation, but it’s also bad when people are without electricity for weeks at a time. Really, how is this any different than saying women shouldn’t worry about the wage gap because at least we don’t get our genitals cut off?

    Restoring power to those who lost it won’t affect third world countries. Leaving people without electricity for longer won’t divert funds to help build sanitation systems in other parts of the world.

    And it’s easy for healthy adults to get by without power, but it has surely had a bigger impact on some people. People who need medical equipment that runs on electricity, and fragile babies who need heat will be affected by this more than others. It could easily mean loss of life for vulnerable people. So no, I don’t think they are acting spoiled for wanting to get electricity restored.

  13. I did say it was the wrong word choice, but I did NOT say that people should “get over” not having power.
    One of the first deaths in this storm was a woman on oxygen at home that lost power. It is a very serious issue–the death toll for people who have asphyxiated themselves by running generators or stoves in their houses because of no heat is around 12.

    What I am saying is that not having power is *not an excuse* for behaving badly.

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