Thursday, September 8, 2011
September 8, 2011 ~ Day 273
In the Dark
One would be wrong.
Our house ~ at least while starting this post ~ is sheer chaos and madness at 8pm with small children brandishing flashlights and throwing their blinding beams directly into all of our eyes.
(Letting them split a half-gallon of ice cream probably didn't help matters... but hey, it was going to melt! Tee-hee.)
Sheepishly, I'll admit that rather than writing by hand with pen and ink, I am actually typing on a laptop that shows a crucial 66% battery power remaining. Since I can't get internet right now, it doesn't make much sense to hoard all remaining battery power. It's going to go out at some point; I might as well chronicle our unusual day.
However, I still love the dream of composing in tranquil darkness!
Six hours have now passed since my husband first came to me and said,
"Hon - I think the power just went out."
At that time, basking in the glow of a beautiful (if warm) afternoon, his announcement seemed trivial. We've lived in this state for the better part of our lives and experienced too many outages to remember. They happen for many reasons, most notably winter storms and local technical difficulties.
He decided, since he no longer had electricity, to take our kids for a bike ride.
"That sounds great!" I agreed, thinking that it would be a great time to catch a catnap. I didn't sleep well last night.
My son had left his tennis shoes in our car across the street from the house. Since he knows he is not allowed to cross streets without an adult, he asked me if I would walk him across to retrieve them.
"Sure, buddy." We crossed, collected the shoes, and began to return.
"Excuse me!" called our neighbor… a lovely, folksy woman in her fifties or sixties. We'd only spoken once before. "Have you noticed that the power is out?"
She and her husband have recently come to town from New Mexico and seemed a little more nervous about the power outage than we were. "We can't get cell phone service and were wondering if you have any," she explained.
"I think my husband's cell phone works - he just got a call. Let me go check my cell."
Sure enough, I had a dial tone. I was able to call my mother's phone but she didn't answer - so I offered to try my brother out of state.
"Maybe he can Google "Southern California power outage" to see what's going on."
My brother didn't pick up, so we tried my sister in a different part of California. After a brief internet news search she confirmed that as of one minute prior a massive power outage had been reported covering territories from Rosarito, Mexico to Riverside, CA to Yuma, Az.
Strangely, the timing of the outage coincided almost exactly with President Obama's address to the nation about economic growth and job creation… a much anticipated speech taking place just days before the 10 year anniversary of September 11th.
Now that we knew it was a major power outage unlikely to resolve right away, my neighbor and I decided to go round up our candles and flashlights.
My husband laughed at me. "It'll be on before dinner," he pronounced. "Hey kids, let's go to the park!"
I knew he was probably right but decided to collect our resources anyway, scavenging through the house for useful emergency supplies tucked away here and there. My brother and I finally connected and he told me what they knew about our situation from New York, which wasn't much.
"I'll follow your local energy company Twitter feed," he consoled, "and if I hear anything I will call you."
After we hung up, I located the Red Cross hand crank powered radio that we keep for times of need (this is only the second time we've actually needed it) and located the local AM news station to find out more about what was happening.
At first, the only information coming in came from callers to the station from around our county.
"I'm stranded at a traffic light at the intersection of X and Y Streets," they would say. "There is a line of traffic a mile long and nothing is moving. The lights are all out and there has been a collision."
"We're in our office building and the elevators have stopped running. Everyone is going home early."
Caller after caller described blackout all around town.
Finally, a call came in from someone who knew something substantial.
"My friend is a ham radio operator," she announced, "and he says that power plants are down at Salton Sea and San Onofre. They've exploded or something. They both went offline at the same time."
Chills ran down my spine as I contemplated the import of what she had confided. If indeed, two power plants had gone offline at the exact same moment in an explosive way, this seemed unlikely to be a matter of chance.
The radio personalities on AM radio echoed my thoughts exactly.
"That seems a little too coincidental," they replied. "If in fact two power plants in very different areas went down at once, there is always the possibility of terrorism. It can't be ruled out."
Looking at the bright blue sky my mind flooded with memories of that other September day ten years ago - similarly gorgeous, sunny, vivid azure horizons for miles - when four planes crashed into three buildings and a smoldering hole in a field in Pennsylvania.
I remembered EXACTLY what I had felt that morning: Surprised. Incredulous. Shocked. Horrified. Worried. Anxious. Angry.
Ten years later, I shivered and brought my attention back to the current situation. "If this IS terrorism, I wonder what is coming next."
At this point I picked up my cell phone and texted my husband at the park.
"Two plants down at once. Outage bigger than we thought. Please come home."
Simultaneously I received a text from my brother:
"They say it could go into tomorrow."
Apparently, we were in for a long night.
* * * * *
As it turns out, my husband and I had very different responses to this outage.
Thrilled by the opportunity to live off-grid for a few hours, my rugged man decided to bicycle to the ocean and go for a swim.
I, on the other hand, buckled our three children into their carseats and went out to search for more gasoline, ice, water and batteries.
The experience of venturing out, even in our quiet and tranquil neighborhood, during a blackout was very interesting. The first thing I did after buckling my children into their carseats was turn on the AM radio again. Local authorities were reminding people about how to drive safely when traffic lights are not working.
"Approach every intersection as though it is a four way stop," they advised. "Do not assume that others arriving at your intersection will drive responsibly or wait their turn. Drive defensively."
Moments later as we approached the first of two stoplights between our home and the local gas station, I saw evidence supporting their word of caution. A truck driven by teenagers barreled through the intersection without stopping, oblivious to the fact that the lights were out. I inhaled, giving thanks for having been alerted to this possibility.
Carefully, I stopped and waited for all of the oncoming traffic on both sides to stop as well before we continued forward.
"The most important thing we need to do right now is get gasoline," I explained to the boys, "It's always a good idea to have a nice full tank."
Yet when we arrived at the gas station on the corner, we saw that all entrances had already been blocked off with orange traffic cones. My gut tightened as I turned the car back into the street and sallied forth to find the next station.
"I wonder if the gas stations have closed," I murmured.
At the second station there were no traffic cones but upon closer inspection I saw that none of the eight or so cars parked near the pumps were fueling. Pulling up to a pump, I turned off the engine and smiled at my kids.
"Mommy will be right back. I'm just going to go and talk to those nice men." The station attendants were mingling with customers on the front step of the service station.
"No gas?" I asked.
"Sorry," a younger man with curly dark hair replied. "Pumps are all off."
"What should we do?" I asked, not fully comprehending what he'd said. "Should we buy a gas can?"
"If you have another car you can always siphon the gas from one car to the other using a garden hose," another man volunteered.
"Thanks. I think my husband would know how to do that."
I returned to the car.
"No gas. Let's go look for ice."
As we pulled out of the gas station I noticed the local drug "superstore" in my rear view mirror. "Since we're so close let's go there."
Rounding the corner we approached the store and made a left hand turn into its driveway. No cones, but as we came closer to the sliding doors we saw that the store lights were out and on the front door a sign hand printed on brightly colored wide card stock: CLOSED.
"Wow," I sighed. "The 24 hour drugstore is closed and it's only 5pm. Let's try the supermarket."
As we drove the three blocks from the drugstore to the supermarket I noticed that my heart had begun to race a little. What if the grocery store was closed too? Did we have enough supplies at home to make it through until morning? Or longer? It has been so hot this week. Did we have enough water?
My heart sank as we arrived at the enormous supermarket and saw that the driveways on all sides had been blocked off with cones. In front of the store, scores of market workers were busily unloading a very large grocery truck, handing boxes of food from one person to the next in a sort of assembly line.
"What is it, mommy?"
"Everything is closed. I don't know if we're going to be able to get the water and batteries after all."
In fact, the only place I saw open in the entire neighborhood as we drove toward our home was a local brewery full to the gills with people drinking beer and talking excitedly.
Then, just as I had lost hope of finding any open market I noticed a tiny corner liquor store with doors open and people streaming through its doors tucked between a larger store and a parking lot.
We parked four blocks away, the closest open space we could find on any street. At this point I knew we were racing with the daylight to get back home safely before dark, given that driving without street lights or traffic lights is not a great idea. Hustling my tired, cranky children toward the corner store I remembered that we didn't have much cash… about $12 total in my wallet.
"What if we need it to go somewhere?" I wondered, and then realized that we wouldn't be getting very far on $12 but the water it could buy might give us a full day of health in the heat. "Water it is!" I decided, and we entered the store.
Small and very dark with aisles set closely together, the store reminded me of a small, dimly lit sanctuary I might have ventured into in Europe while scavenging for adventure.
The owner, a tall Mediterranean looking man with a thick dark mustache and kind eyes, was busy lighting taper candles at the end of all of his shelves, illuminating rows of vodka and wine with an almost holy glow. Rather than worrying about the risk of fire, or wringing his hands over the loss of electricity, he seemed quite at ease in the situation as though he had experienced blackouts many times before.
He and his clerk used a hand-held calculator to tabulate purchases and charged customers exactly the prices marked on the items, often offering to forget the tax or round down the dollar amount if customers (like me) didn't have the coins to give exact change. "I'm sorry, we've already sold out of ice," he told all customers - "but if you come back later we are going to try to get some. Our supplier has a large warehouse full of ice that is all melting right now and he needs to get rid of it, so he is willing to bring many load of ice here to us and we will have them for you later tonight."
By some act of a merciful power my exhausted children managed not to spin out or knock over any of the thousands of glass bottles within fingertip range... and we exited the store ten minutes later with $11.19 worth of water, batteries and candles.
The sun was setting. Time to go home.
* * * * *
We drove back carefully, taking a coastal route well away from the main drag. Once we'd safely returned to the house, our next few hours were filled with chaos and hilarity as I tried to cook dinner on our gas stove in near-darkness while my husband and sons set up a tent in the back yard for their first "camping" experience and our children downed that entire half-gallon of vanilla ice cream because,
"You always say we shouldn't waste food, Mommy. If we let the ice cream melt, that would be wasting!"
(Hard to argue with their logic on such a sultry evening... ice cream sounded pretty nice.)
I also had the joy of changing my daughter's nasty diaper in the darkness illuminated by a flashlight and unsure if I could use the tap water to rinse my hands. That was just delightful. I'm sure a lot of moms and dads shared this same experience.
Every once in a while we cranked up the hand radio to hear announcements from the AM news about the process of restoring power. My husband sat with our sons under the bright moonlight, listening to the voices of our mayor, local officials and the school superintendent announcing that school had been canceled for tomorrow.
Our boys cheered loudly upon hearing this... especially when their dad announced that he'd be staying home from work and perhaps it would be a beach day.
At last, bedtime arrived.
Highlights of their conversion in the tent, as overheard from the house:
"Daddy, why is there so much light in the sky?"
"That's the moon, son."
"But why is it so much brighter than usual?
"Daddy, what if bugs get in the tent?"
"That's why we zip up the flaps of the tent, son, so they won't."
"But what if they do?"
"I suppose they would eat us, son."
"Daddy, he's hitting me!"
"Well HE was kicking me FIRST!"
"You both need to go to sleep RIGHT NOW."
"I need to poop. How do I poop outside?"
* * * * *
My husband and sons are now sleeping peacefully in their tent in the back yard, undisturbed by the quite loud chirping of crickets in the moonlight. Our daughter has been crashed out for hours and I myself am about to turn in for the night; unable to watch television, take a shower, use the tap water to wash dishes, or even see to read a book.
I can't help but think how lucky and blessed our family was today. Right now there may be people trapped in elevators in buildings downtown. Even folks possibly trapped in elevators in parking garages, the thought of which makes my stomach turn. Talk about a claustrophobic's worst nightmare!
All in all though, I think we're really lucky that the situation didn't turn out to be worse. From everything officials have announced on the AM radio, this power outage was caused by simple human error at a single facility, no terrorism whatsoever.
The power is down, which is annoying - and now we are told we must boil our drinking and cooking water for the foreseeable future - but clearly it could have been a real disaster. Instead, we're making the most of what we've got and even having some fun.
Throughout the night I've heard much gentle laughter floating on the breeze from the homes of neighbors and there seems to be a general spirit of ease and appreciation. It's not all bad to enjoy a mellow evening and spontaneous candlelit conversation. Heck, if we didn't have three kids and a campout, this could've even been romantic!
As I fall to sleep then in our warm, silent house with my daughter slumbering only steps away, I feel so grateful for all of the good fortune we've had today. I am also praying for those good people who may not have been as lucky.
May they have the strength to make it through this nightmare, this darkest night. May they survive with health and sanity, any dark hours spent trapped or stranded… and even manage to find humor in the experience.
Lastly, tonight I'm thinking of the brave and dedicated power company workers as they struggle with compassion and commitment through large challenges to bring all of us back into the light. May you be protected. May you stay safe!
I hope we'll all be laughing about this over a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) tomorrow.