Power Failure: The Adventure

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Public Safety Power Shutoffs (“PSPS”), intentional electrical outages during fire season, are nothing like an infrequent momentary power failure we’re used to having.  For more on why they last so long, read my post, “How long will the blackout last?”

In the San Diego area, they have been lasting three to seven days and nights, having been used last year.  As I write this in June, they’ve already happened in Napa, Sonoma, and the Stockton area.  Fire season came early this year.

I’m old enough to remember a movie title from 1968, called “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?”  (I didn’t see it, but was probably the babysitter while someone else went.)  Doris Day starred in the comedy, inspired by an east coast electrical power failure that had occurred three years before.

Transmission tower and distribution lines near an electric substation in Martinez, California, part of the grid that could be shut down by a power failure.

That 1965 power failure covered parts of seven states and affected 25 million people, besides spawning headlines and the movie. 

Patients overwhelmed the hospitals…nine months later in a baby boom.

That real power failure only lasted a few hours.

The baby boom might give you an idea for something else to have in your emergency kit.

While it may be comic for the audience, in a movie, remember your main character isn’t usually having any fun.

And, even if you have fun in real life, there may be consequences.

Power Failure:  Comedy, Drama, Adventure, Disaster, the Ride?

I’ve written dozens of screenplays over the years.  I’ve learned it is the author’s duty to put each character, and especially the Hero, through their own, personal, customized hell.  You have to put them through Hell if you expect them to learn anything and change their ways.

As much as I enjoy torturing characters as a writer, and watching from the audience as a well-written screenplay puts the thumbscrews to them, in my own life, I prefer less drama.

Our attempt to avoid a disaster plot like “THE TOWERING INFERNO,” by having an extended power-outage, will likely be an adventure.  We’ll be dealing with food, shelter, and other basic issues, without electricity, but we hope it won’t be a disaster.

No doubt there will also be “good guys,” “bad guys,” and annoying, dangerous, or whacky characters.  But we don’t want suffering or violent conflict, also.

What follows is my attempt to enlist your support during a multi-day power outage, and to minimize the drama.

If we are prepared, it won’t make a good movie.

“LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE” vs. “MAD MAX”

The way I see it, there are two ways this adventure can go.  We could create a “Mad Max” scenario (a movie “based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving” inspired by the 1973 oil crisis), with all but the dune-buggies across the outback.  An adventure, but not all that safe.

Or, we could have something like “Little House on the Prairie,” with just as many quirky characters, and basically the same survival challenges, but with a more comfortable neighborly support system, and new life-long alliances, even friendships.

power line passes through tree in Lafayette California

Even so, putting 21st Century people suddenly into a domestic situation without electricity won’t be without challenges.  It’s what we writers call a “fish out of water” story, with the Hero in over his head.  Only in this case, he’ll be out of power, not water.  (We hope.)

So, let’s start with, “How bad could it be?

POWER FAILURE – THE MOVIE

If I were writing “POWER FAILURE,” the movie, many in the neighborhood would not begin to prepare until PG&E notifies them that the power will be shut off in 48 hours.  The others wouldn’t get the notice.

Okay.  Maybe one guy would be prepared, like the one in “TREMORS.”

Or, it could be caused by an earthquake, and there will be no notice.

If a PSPS is announced for their area, they hurry to prepare, at the same time as everybody else in the area.  How easy will it be to determine where the power will be on?  How far away will civilization continue?

They start calling friends out of the area for a place to stay.  They call their employer to see if they have to go to work.  The next-door neighbor who usually feeds the cat won’t be home.

Word will spread that they should get some cash, in case credit card readers and ATM’s won’t be working.  They waste time waiting in line at the ATM or for the teller to get cash, only to have the bank run out of it before they get some.  Fights will break out.

It’s too late to order a checkbook.

And they call the alarm company to see if their alarm system will still work (regular doorbells won’t).  Maybe someone should guard the house?

Stay or go?

Each household will be different.  As they consider their options and the needs of the family, they will have to make a choice about staying or going.

They decide what to do with food in the freezer and refrigerator, if they have any.  Meanwhile, at the grocery stores, they’ll fight over the remaining bags of ice and jars of peanut butter.

The nearby hardware stores will run out of generators and gas cans and batteries.  Even though some store chains, like Home Depot, are used to supplying extra plywood and other emergency supplies in hurricane country, they won’t know, in advance, how big the demand will be in a place where so few are prepared for multi-day electrical outages.

Those who consider the question won’t be certain how long the cell-towers will have back-up power once the electricity is turned off.

RV’s across the outback

"No outlet" street sign that could become an electrical reality in a power failure.

A lucky few will go get their RV from storage, and try to get it serviced and stocked up with propane and a generator.

Everyone with a gas-powered vehicle will drive to the gas station to top off.  Tempers will flare (it’s hot), as they try to fill their gas tanks before the power goes out and the pumps stop working. 

If the traffic signals are off, will gridlock prevent people from driving to work, or to grandma’s house?  No streetlights at night.  Do we have enough flashlights and batteries?  Charcoal for the grill?  Matches for the gas stove?  Medications?  Food?  Manual can-opener?  Does the water heater require electricity for ignition?  Better do the laundry.

About this time, people who did not get the notice (because they ignored PG&E’s request that they update their contact information online), will start to panic as they seek information.  They will swamp the Utility’s phone lines trying to find out if they will be affected where they are.  Rumors will fly.

Some people don’t know how to cook, or already live in their cars.  How far will you have to drive for fast food?  Will there be a long line there, too?

The media will publish maps of the areas that will be affected.  They will also report on riots and scuffles over supplies, making viewers fearful.

And then the power goes off

Responding like hoarders to an online “curb alert” or “free stuff” listing, all the burglars, thieves, zombies, and other opportunistic parasites will arrive, some via BART (which says they have their own power and think they’ll be running), to join with the ones already in the neighborhood (as seen on security camera postings under normal conditions). 

In the movie, the power will be out over a big area, but even a small area could attract the bad guys.  In a movie, the outage would accidentally expand in unanticipated ways.

You get the idea.  It gets worse.

Power Failure Comedy

If it’s a comedy, you’ll get your kids to school only to find that it’s closed.  They drive you crazy because they have no working devices.  Even if the cell towers have battery, without wi-fi, cable, TV, videogames, or pool pumps, and with nothing to do, callers streaming movies or playing games will quickly drain not only their own phone batteries, but those at the tower, too.

The ice cream melts all over the floor.

In the dark, a homeowner will catch someone stealing solar lights from the yard and spray them with the garden hose.

Power Failure Tragedy

If it’s a tragedy, elderly people hiding from prowlers, will die of heatstroke without A/C.  None of their neighbors will think to check on them.

Bored teens cruising in a car with the radio on, run into a roving band of looters, and are caught in a shootout with police.  The suspected solar thief will turn out to be a dog-walker, and the homeowner will accidentally shoot the dog in the dark.

The hot, dry, wind, will knock over your candle and set the house on fire.  The fire department will be understaffed with other fires.  Even if you could get through on the phone…or they could get through gridlock without working traffic signals.

Upping the Ante – Calling Out the National Guard

If all goes according to the movie script, it will get worse.  The writer will keep upping the ante required of the Hero to stay in the game.

On night one, random shootings, encounters with bad guys, and accidents caused by the absence of streetlights.  Accidental fires, medical emergencies, and mischief.  Followed by TV News vans with satellite dishes.

By night two, there’s a curfew and the National Guard makes it nearly impossible to get to Grandma’s house.  Is she safe?  Is it safe to go get her and leave the house unoccupied?

So far, I don’t think I’ve got anything in this movie that hasn’t already happened in real life under similar circumstances. 

Although Cal Fire has some good tips for dealing with wildfires, the prospect of a three to seven day power failure makes advice like this, seem a bit inadequate.  (For them, the power failure is an impediment to evacuation, not a complete lifestyle change!)

Civil Unrest in Real Life

I was living in Los Angeles area during the Rodney King “civil unrest” event.  My employer, a movie studio, sent everyone home.  Spreading out from the epicenter, some (relatively few) hooligans went around tossing Molotov cocktails at small businesses on every corner.

My co-worker, a new single mom, was home with her new infant, so I called to see what she needed.  Because of that errand to take her some groceries, I only missed the arsonists by a block, as they hit up the retail streets while I detoured down a residential one, on my way home.

The streets were deserted outside the immediate riots.  It was freaky.  Bad guys could do what they wanted without witnesses or opposition.

After I dropped off the groceries, I saw one shopkeeper on the roof of his store with an automatic weapon.  His shop did not burn, but a popular family-owned camera store down the street was not so lucky.

People huddled in their homes watching it all, live.  The media would go from fire to fire, showing aerial footage.  The camera would linger on the flames, and then the “looting” of the burning building.

Press coverage encouraged civil unrest

It was my impression that the initial rioting was over, quickly, so that, by day two or three, most of the problem was from one or two cars full of arsonists.  The rest of the damage involved people removing merchandise from burning shops.  It looked bigger than it was, by then.  The news coverage was part of the problem.  (Ignore bad behavior and reward good, behaviorists say.)

Because fear, greed, and anger, were all based on the perception of what was reported as happening by the press, those feelings were magnified.  By now, everyone was off work and watching it on TV at home.  Businesses were closed and unprotected.  Some people simply took advantage of the deserted streets.

A day or so later, a few looters returned the stuff they had taken, recovering from having been swept up in the looting frenzy.  Or possibly chastised by their elders.  Or maybe they were just trying to save the inventory in the first place.

I was so angry with the media for hovering in helicopters over freshly lit fires instead of getting the arsonists–just ahead on the next block–on tape.  Every single time they got to the next corner and another building on fire, the camera lingered on the flames.  That there was a car full of arsonists a block or two ahead committing crimes did not seem to occur to them.

Keeping Perspective

From these events, I saw how useful it is to see for yourself what is happening.  The behavior of people in the news is not as important as the behavior of people in the neighborhoods, at home and elsewhere.

Wars start the same way.  Too many people allow themselves to be influenced by headlines about the few.

I try always to remind myself that most people want to live in peace, and that there are more of us who are willing to be supportive of each other in exchange for being supported, than those who aren’t.

Huell Howser was my hero.  He lived in the area, and I heard that he rounded up some neighbors and they defended neighboring businesses by sitting in front of them.  I recall reading in the paper that the arsonists simply kept driving.

Power and Failure – Restoring Order

The governor sent in the California Army National Guard, and federal troops from the 7th Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division, joined them.

The Guard camped out at the movie studio where I worked, which had been shut down for employee safety.  The sound stages had room, and we had a commissary and other useful assets for a command center, including very large generators, if needed.

Getting back to normal took a few days.  Most of the greater Los Angeles area was not really near the action, but they huddled at home, anyway.  I’m sure they felt relief when the National Guard was called in.  I just think it was a mistake for society to let it get that far out of control in the first place.  Calling in the government should be a last resort and prevention should be the first strategy tried.

True, this was in the era of pagers, not cell phones.  But we had electricity, and except where the fires burned, there weren’t any power failures to speak of.

Imagine the looting if the lights were out.

9 – 11 and Earthquake (not the movie)

The so-called “Northridge” quake also happened while I was in Southern California.  A co-worker was tossed out of bed by it, and it did lots of damage near the epicenter in Canoga Park, and beyond, and in Santa Monica.  The freeway overpass I drove under, daily, fell down.

The quake happened about 4 am early on a three-day weekend Monday.  Temporarily without power, my neighbors, my elderly cat, and I, waited out by the condo’s pool for daylight and aftershocks.  It was very reassuring to have neighbors with us as we watched water sloshing in the pool.

We had damage, and some were injured by broken glass and panic, but generally, it was nothing that would make a good movie.  It was almost fun.  The power outage didn’t last long.

For the day or so after the “Northridge” quake, and again after 9-11, most businesses and employers were closed.  The streets were again deserted.  From aftershocks or fear of terrorists, the stress level was palpable.

But the traffic signals were working.  The streetlights were on at night.  People could watch the news (mixed blessing) and had Internet connections.  They could make phone calls using landlines.  DWP and Edison had the power back on, most places, very quickly, if need be.

Moon rise

Perception and Experience

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not let the rest of the world see looting and mayhem happening in my neighborhood because we’re all huddled in the dark.  It doesn’t take much to defend a neighborhood if we work together to set the right tone.

In much of California, one city runs right into the next, so your “community” isn’t geographically defined.  Los Angeles, a city and county full of strangers, was like that.  The neighbors weren’t unfriendly, but we didn’t really know each other.

Civilization relies on us to set a good example, and set a good emotional and moral tone, as well as to prepare for challenges.

Success or Failure of Power Shutoffs

How you and your neighbors prepare and respond will make all the difference to how we experience the next power failure, PSPS, flood, earthquake, or other disaster.

Old people know how to do without smartphones, and can even light a gas stove with a match.  They can replace a microwave with a double-boiler.

My late paternal grandmother lived in a sod house on the prairie as a child, and both my parents came from homesteading stock, so maybe I can tap into that heritage.  I barely remember what it was like “BC” (“before computers”), but some of my neighbors have dealt with recurring hurricanes.

In urban and suburban areas, most young children in California won’t have experienced power failures, let alone ones lasting for days, but if they’re young, it’ll just be exciting and new.

Teenagers, well…be prepared to appeal to them to step up to the plate like adults.

They’ll mostly take their cue from us, or even set the example.

With a few exceptions for medical needs, the mere absence of electricity should not be a life or death issue for most of us.  It’s more likely any drama will come from how well we handle the disruption of our assumptions and routine.

The Social Grid

I think the main thing we need to do is get together with our neighbors, perhaps using Nextdoor.com just to brainstorm ideas before panic sets in, and preferably before the 48 hour notice from PG&E of a PSPS.

What I like about Nextdoor.com is that you can focus on your immediate area.  If every neighborhood and street is self-sufficient, calm should prevail and spread.

Social media, when accessible, is useful for organizing, but having an actual bulletin board could be good, too.  Replace cut and paste with actual, not virtual, scissors and glue.

Local Talent and Skills

Solar lights the sky at dawn regardless of any other power failure
Sunrise over Mt. Diablo from Pleasant Hill
photo credit: John Blake

I know my neighbors have skills.  Some have generators.  Some have experience in hospital emergency rooms or in a pharmacy.  Others can put out fires, cook, and entertain.  If the rest of us know this, too, we won’t panic.

It doesn’t take much to prevent a riot in favor of a block party.  More importantly, we have the power to improve the odds that a blackout won’t become a failure of civilization.

It just might be a good idea to meet ahead of time so that no one feels a need to cower at home, and just a little bit of advance preparation can be done.

Since most vehicles these days have car-alarms, neighbors might want to consider having their key fobs handy, in case they hear someone breaking in or have another emergency.  Some homes may be vacant, but neighbors can agree to come to each others’ aid, or at least set off their own alarm.  If I were an evil-doer, I’d be freaked out if car alarms started going off all around me.  And, like I said, some neighbors have skills that are useful in response to a call for help.

Distributed Generation to Avoid Power Failures

I’m a big fan of decentralizing power, electrical or political.  Self-sufficiency is a good idea.  Save the official resources for those in desperate need.

About a year ago, I was out talking to neighbors about solar for their homes, and I met one who already had it.  She and her husband were very interested in battery backup for solar.  At the time, power failures were infrequent, short, and not a big problem, so there wasn’t much demand for batteries.

So I asked, “Why the interest?”  It turns out that she sits in on Contra Costa County disaster preparedness meetings.  Evidently, she has a good understanding that we may be on our own.  The PSPS plans weren’t announced until early this year, but they aren’t the only thing that can mess with our electrical infrastructure.

New technology is available to retrofit rooftop solar to establish a “mini-grid” within your home, disconnected from the utility grid, during a power failure or PSPS.  Ballpark cost to add it is $140 per month, financed.  Some households save enough on electricity to pay for the whole system when installed along with new rooftop solar.  Contact me if you’re interested in your options.

If your lights stay on during a PSPS, you could be the most popular neighbor on the block.

Power Failures – Next Steps

So, I hope you see that it could be fun to survive a PSPS or other failure of reliable power, since that’s our reality.  Knowing it can be fun is a first step.  Knowing we can probably influence the excitement level is good, too.

If you haven’t considered the odds of a lengthy outage happening to you, be sure to read my post on the odds, and what PG&E is saying.  I have links to the maps they’re using to determine if power lines are in a fire danger area subject to a PSPS in hot, dry, windy weather.  Also, why where you live is less important than where you get your power.

There are many ways to prepare, and you can get many suggestions online or linked throughout this site, but of them all, the most important are discussed in my next post, “How long will the blackout last?”

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