A Tiny Taste of "The Day After"

Sunday, September 28, 2014
A three-hour power outage triggered thoughts of a post-apocalyptic world (graphic courtesy of Christophe Dessaigne)

As someone who has worked in the national security and defense business, it isn't something that I dwell upon very often; however, I recently had a small glimpse into a world minus all of the things our society has grown accustomed to in the 21st century during a short power outage a week ago today. Last Sunday morning, in an event that was not forecast by severe weather or by homeland security notices, we lost electrical service in our and a neighboring subdivision. While it came at an inconvenient time (Sunday is my "laundry" day and we are well into the 2014-15 NFL regular season), its intrusion into my family's lives triggered dystopian thoughts that seem to be a lot more plausible than I care to admit.

My initial "tweet" on the power outage.

Around 10:40am, I noticed that the television and cable DVR had powered down (one by sight, the other by the sound of the once-energized hard drive spinning down). Thinking that it might just be a momentary interruption, I didn't even pay much attention until the 5-to-10 minute mark when I used my cellphone to report the outage to the utility company. Once I completed that action, I looked for their outage maps to see just how widespread it might be but since it was so early after losing power, my report was a single anomaly on an otherwise blank map. My wife had been chatting with the next-door neighbor and he told her that theirs was out as well so I felt better knowing it wasn't just our house in the dark. In another 10 minutes, I refreshed the map and the number of reports had grown from my single incident to one that affected up to 1,500 people in our local area. I also looked to see if there was an update to my submission and the company said it was dispatching a crew to determine its cause and provided a estimated 1pm end-of-outage time. After a quick "tweet" (and with nothing else to do), I decided to crank back the recliner and take a short nap (that actually stretched to 1:15pm).

According to Ohio Edison, It wasn't looking good for seeing any football (or doing any laundry) on Sunday afternoon.

When I woke up, I looked around to see if anything was working and was disappointed to find out that the power had not yet been restored. I refreshed the submission page on my phone and saw that the cause had been determined (a vehicle accident) and an updated end-of-outage time had been posted--8pm! That was when worry started to set in concerning refrigerated and frozen items (I just bought some perishables at the grocery store the previous evening and really didn't want to have to buy replacement items so soon). This was also the time that I started to remember a similar long-term outage that happened just six short years ago when the remnants of Hurricane Ike blew through this region and caused widespread power outages that lasted, in some cases, up to two weeks.

 My final update "tweet" (and FirstEnergy's response).

We were fortunate enough to get ours back after about eight hours during that September 2008 event and I was hoping that this wouldn't be a similar occurrence. I started taking precautions for a long-term outage by shutting down almost everything on my phone (Twitter and the ESPN app for checking on football scores were the only two allowed) and conducting a rapid raid of the refrigerator to retrieve items for my lunch. Some of them were not feeling as cool as I would have liked to them to be but they were still OK for the short term. Once I finished my meal and returned the remaining items back to the fridge, I sat down to read a physical newspaper (the lack of internet connectivity in the household forced that decision). Around 3pm, while I was making my way through the Sunday sections of The New York Times, I heard the TV and DVR return to to their powered-up states and, after a minute or two to ensure that the power was truly back on, I enjoyed a moment of silent repose and relief that we were spared that additional five hours waiting period. I posted my last update "tweet" about the return (and I actually got a response from FirstEnergy the following morning). No more crises about cellphone batteries or internet access or drinking water (we normally draw ours through a filter built into the refrigerator) to worry about--at least until the next outage.

I can imagine that my "tweet" initiated these entries on WHIO's and the Dayton Daily News' websites.

As a former military member who spent over a decade living outside of the United States, I got to experience conditions much harsher than what we did last weekend. When assigned to an Air Force installation in southern Italy, it wasn't unusual for us to lose our electrical service on a daily basis. Our rental home straddled the periphery of a city and the start of surrounding agricultural lands and there was only one shared service line that came out to our neighborhood. It was so antiquated that stiff winds would trip breakers and force the power company workers to make the trip out to reset them. While we lost our lights and water (the well pump was an electric model), we still had warmth during winter outages because of in-house propane space heaters. Jump ahead two decades or so and we are in a more precarious position than we were then (the water heater is the only gas appliance in our home). A standby generator system might be a wise investment but I just don't have the money right now to make that a reality.

A graphic from a 2004 report on potential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) risks to the United States (and the "bull's eye" is mighty close to Dayton)

Betraying the Boy Scout survivalist training I had during my adolescence, I have become like most Americans when it comes to being nonchalant about my long-term continuity minus the current trappings of technology. Growing up in the era of the Cold War and its mutually assured destruction, or aptly acronymized MAD, doctrine, we only had to worry about a meltdown in relations between our government and that of the Soviet Union and it was going to be done in a way that would get everyone's attention (i.e. the Cuban Missile Crisis) and not just sneak up on us at a moment's notice. With today's looming cyber threats and the potential of the nuclear payload of a single ballistic missile taking down the country's electrical grid in a high-altitude pulse of electromagnetic energy, we might not get that "heads-up" warning we would hope for before "doomsday" arrives. Add to that the multitude of ways our civilization could have its existence ended through means not within our control and it's very easy to see how we are all living on "borrowed" time.

Unlike this scene from the 1983 television movie The Day After, my wife and I didn't want to die out on some congested highway in the event of a nuclear attack.

Back when my wife and I lived in southern Texas, we saw a map in the local newspaper that highlighted the evacuation routes out of our metropolitan area. Since San Antonio hosted a lot of military installations, we naturally assumed that it would be on the list of targets that that Soviets would expend at least one or more warheads in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. Knowing what traffic was like on the local highways during more organized "chaos" (rush-hour traffic, inclement weather), we agreed that we would rather set up our director chairs out in the parking lot of our apartment complex and sip on sun tea waiting for the mushroom cloud to appear than die out in our car in a traffic jam of biblical proportions.

A squirrel-induced power outage affected over 5,000 customers in the Miami Valley region on Tuesday.

It struck me as disturbing but I received a text message while I was doing my Tour to Restore Ohio assignment on Tuesday that told me another power outage was experienced in the Miami Valley region. According to Dayton Power & Light sources, over 5,000 customers in Montgomery and Champaign counties lost their power a little after 9am with some not getting it restored until later that same afternoon. Officials for the utility company determined that a squirrel "got into some equipment" at a substation in Englewood and this outage caused a similar "devolution" of societal norms in regards to remembering how to drive through intersections with traffic lights and releasing children early from school due to the worries of overly concerned parents. I did a little online research and found that these rodent-caused outages are rather commonplace (the author of a 2013 story about this phenomenon shortens it to "P.O.C.B.S") and I'm wondering when jihadists strolling through neighborhoods with huge bags of acorns will be put on DHS watchlists. As a betting man, I would've suspected cockroaches to be the culprits of our demise because they're the ones that would be one of the few survivors after a thermonuclear exchange--perhaps they're subcontracting out that work to the squirrels!

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