This post appeared in December of 2015 just after our memorable wind storm and power outage here in Spokane. I thought it deserved to be posted again.
Late on the afternoon of Tuesday, 17 November 2015, at the height of a terrific windstorm here in Spokane, Washington, we lost power. It didn't come back until around noon on Sunday, the 22nd. Five days without electricity and so without heat, refrigeration, hot water, cooking, or lights. What's more, since the outage was so widespread there were no gas stations, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, restaurants, or other businesses open. City hall, schools, and the libraries were closed.
Police, fire stations, traffic signals, some stores, and a few private homes were running on generators, but they couldn't be relied on for too long and in some cases, including a few of the machines running essential traffic lights, they were stolen. Hospitals, nursing homes, and a few other places with a more pressing need for power were equipped with larger generators, but even they couldn't rely on their emergency measures for long.
Avista, our power company - formerly Washington Water Power because that's where most of our electricity comes from, dams on our powerful western rivers - well, they did a really good job, having planned for this, learning a good deal from the last major outage in 1996 when Spokane had a bad ice storm. Avista has online maps where every downed line is shown, along with how many people are affected by it. Our immediate outage was caused by a large Ponderosa pine down at the corner of Bernard and 22nd Avenue and I think 8 houses lost power because of that incident. But there was no power arriving at that corner because so many other trees - thousands of them in Spokane County - were down on other lines bringing electricity from the main distribution spots. Teams of linemen came in from nearby: Oregon, Montana, Canada. And even some from Arizona and elsewhere drove up here to help. Hundreds of men were out in the cold for days (and nights) repairing downed lines.
Meanwhile, it was very cold and getting colder. We stuck it out two nights in our increasingly frigid house. When the overnight lows were expected to be in the teens we turned on the faucets so the pipes wouldn't freeze. Wilhelm's dad, who is in his 90s, was in the same chilly boat but his situation was complicated by a clogged drain so he couldn't turn on the faucets.
Fortunately, because there is a fire station a couple of blocks down the hill, the folks on the other side of our street got their power back quickly - early on Thursday morning. And my friend Elaine's parents invited us all (Wilhelm and me, Dad, and our two cats) to stay with them for the duration. Think of it - inviting three people into your home for you don't know how long, with cats although someone in the household is allergic to cats, sleeping on the floor so your guests could have the beds. Let me repeat that. Sleeping on the floor.
Such is our community that almost everyone on the south side of our street stayed with neighbors on the north side or with other friends further north in the area where power had been restored. One woman went off to Colville where the wind storm was nothing like what it was in Spokane, and some folks stayed in the Davenport Hotel for a couple of nights. (Their chickens were not so lucky, though they made it through the outage ok.) We were invited to two dinner parties designed either to eat up food before it had a chance to go bad without a fridge or to provide us with a hot, nutritious meal when we were unable to find one except at the schools with generators that were opened as warming centers and were serving what would have been the kids' cafeteria lunches. Some of the libraries opened fairly quickly and they provided the electricity to recharge phones and laptops as well as information about where to go to fill various needs, computers to bring up maps showing where Avista was working and what their estimates were for returning utilities. They even showed the Seattle Seahawks' football game on a large screen on Sunday.
And so we got through it, using candles and Coleman lanterns, generators and generosity, city resources and kind friends.
But just think what things would be like if this were not a Spokane County outage, but a regional one that stretched from Seattle to Minneapolis, from the Canadian border to San Francisco. And if the problem weren't downed power lines but malevolent interference with the computerized systems that control the power grid. If the power were out not just for a week or two but for months.
This is the scenario Ted Koppel addresses in his book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. His book is important because, as he points out, our power grid is vulnerable. Insufficient protection is in place to prevent ISIS or Iran or Russia hacking in and taking down a segment of the power we need for our 21st century lives. Not just some schools and libraries, restaurants and grocery stores, businesses and homes – but all of them. Not just in one city and county but across a dozen states or more. And not just for a week but for an indefinite period.
Lights Out describes our vulnerability, our dismal situation in the aftermath of an intentional power outage, and finally, what we can do now to anticipate and perhaps forestall such a catastrophe.
Every week or so I see a new poll asking people what’s the most significant threat we face these days. Global warming, terrorism, unchecked and unmonitored immigration, gun violence, the spread of bird flu – all of these find their way to the top of the list over time.
But actually the most serious problem we have is what Ted Koppel describes: insufficient safeguards and planning to prevent the loss of the power that runs our world. Meanwhile Congress dithers.