Like many other editors, I have put aside the topic I was originally going to write about in favor of the Big Blackout of ’03. With candles lit and playing cards with my husband, I wondered: Were the people in upstate New York having blackout parties? (See the editorial that ran in the June 25, 2001 News: “Hey Kids, Let’s Have A Blackout Party.”)

The homeowners mentioned in that editorial were going to protest high energy prices and rolling blackouts by holding blackout parties with their neighbors: “a poetic and direct response to the irresponsible behavior of energy suppliers, utilities, and government officials.” If they held parties two years ago, I wonder how they compared with the real thing.

(Sarcastic, me? Perish the thought! Perish the milk and tuna salad, too.)

Some people had blackout parties on Aug. 14, 2003. My parents’ neighbors had a pool party/barbecue, complete with Tiki torches and rum. A lot more people were concerned about terrorism. Security was heightened to Level 2; even though the blackout wasn’t an act of terrorism, it left some areas frighteningly vulnerable.

Those of us whose elderly neighbors did not hold pool parties played cards, read, or talked in a stillness that also gave us the ability to hear our own thoughts.

Hot Comfort

None of us at BNP knew exactly what happened at 4:11 p.m. Aug. 14, except that the building’s power was gone and it was therefore time to go home. I think we all expected to see traffic lights functioning again at some point along the way.

I didn’t know the magnitude of the problem until I got home and heard from my sister: “Michigan ... parts of Ohio ... New York ... Canada ...” At first I felt sick, but I remembered some information from my days as a tech writer at Detroit Edison. She was describing the Erie Loop, the huge grid that allows several power systems to buy/sell power as needed.

My job involved a lot of site visits, and some days I could not visit a power plant because it was down. Even after repairs are made it takes some time to bring the system back online; do it too quickly and you can cause more damage. Massive turbines are involved, and boilers, and motor stators of very large proportions. And that’s just the coal-fired plants. The Erie Loop contains a few nuclear facilities with still more complicated startups.

It was good to recall that information. The downside was thinking of how complicated startups could become at that magnitude.

The time of day that the blackout occurred was also very telling. The cooling load was starting to peak, and the entire area was hot and muggy. The wind didn’t stir at all.

Practical Matters

I hope I wasn’t the only person making resolutions to use less energy. The options are bleak. Some TV pundits have suggested the construction of new power plants just for summer loads. We know where that summer load is coming from. This industry can do something about it.

The loss of power and often water also required a bit of improvisation. Among other things:

  • Rubbing alcohol splashed carefully on your arms provides temporary cooling.

  • Elderly neighbors need to know that socks are not always necessary.

  • In an emergency, my pets get the bottled water. They don’t have any choices.

  • Brushing/rinsing with mouthwash is horrible.

  • Blue mouthwash turns old porcelain green.

  • Without TV, smaller events are more significant.

  • Without TV, my house gets cleaner.

  • Some microwave dinners can be cooked in a frying pan.

  • Sitting on the front porch, you can talk to your neighbors. It’s also a good way to keep an eye on the older ones. (Just realize that they, in turn, are keeping an eye on you.)

  • Most importantly, I realized that I do not just live in a neighborhood. I live in a community.

    Barb Checket-Hanks is service/maintenance and troubleshooting editor. She can be reached at 248-244-6467; 248-362-0317 (fax); barbarachecket-hanks@achrnews.com.

    Publication date: 08/25/2003