In The Dark (Who needs terrorists when deregulated energy companies are already destroying our infrastructure?)

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It’s now clear that the Big Blackout of 2003 started here in Cleveland. I was at the Funny Times office reading cartoons that afternoon when I noticed my box fan slowing to a halt. It’s twenty years old, and the blades are caked with gunk, but I gave it a little kick and it started spinning again, as it usually does. Then I reached down for the stack of Life in Hell and all the power in the office went out.

“Oh, crap, I probably blew the fuse. Do the neighbors have any lights on?” I asked Barb, who was sitting by the window.

“No,” she answered, “and it looks like the traffic lights are off, too.”

“What a relief,” I said. “That means it’s not just my problem.”

Boy, was I right about that.

The first thing we did was shut down our server computer, which has a battery-powered uninterruptible power supply. This is particularly necessary in our neighborhood, because the power goes out almost as often as my dog. Electric service has gotten increasingly unreliable in Cleveland ever since Ohio de-regulated utilities and First Energy bought our local power company.

With government regulators no longer on its case, First Energy has little financial or legal incentive to maintain and upgrade local power lines. The company now makes most of its money by generating electricity as cheaply as it can, and then selling it for whatever the market will bear. Rather than regularly maintaining power lines and other infrastructure, it fired hundreds of repairmen and instituted a policy of only fixing things after they break. The company squeezes maximum lifespan out of its deteriorating equipment, and Cleveland businesses and residents get to spend more and more time in the dark.

First Energy’s “wait till it breaks” policy almost came to a disastrous conclusion in February 2002, when an inspection of their Davis-Besse nuclear power plant in Toledo revealed that a corrosive coolant leaking from the reactor core had eaten through over 6 inches of carbon steel in the reactor pressure vessel, leaving just 3/16 th of an inch of metal to protect Toledo, Ohio from becoming a nuclear wasteland. Although many have long ago written Toledo off as uninhabitable, take a look at the bottom of one of the pots on your stove to get an idea of how close the city was to being cooked by plutonium for the next 24,000 years.

It was no surprise to Clevelanders that the Big Blackout was caused by the same company that brought us The Nuclear Reactor With A Hole In Its Head. The surprise was that after 9/11 and all the Homeland Security Big Brother Patriot Paranoia, our government, media, and businesses are still completely unprepared for a major accident of this sort. Forget about nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, our society was barely able to cope with the power going out for 12 hours.

First we found we had no phones. The phone lines might have still worked, but most phone systems don’t work without power. Our cellphones were also useless; the circuits were jammed with calls. (“I’m stuck in traffic and all the stoplights are out. Where are you?” “I’m stuck in traffic and all the lights are out. Let’s call Dad and find out where he is.”) Out on the street it was hot and the rumors were hotter. “The power’s out all the way to New York.”

“Is it a terrorist attack?”

“No. The President says it was caused by lightning.”

“It’s not raining today.”

“But he’s shutting down the border to Canada, just in case. They don’t have any power either.”

“Well then, what do we need them for!”

The economy as we know it rapidly fell apart. Stores closed because cashiers couldn’t ring up sales on their electronic cash registers and would never be trusted by their corporate overlords to make change out of a cigar box. Gas stations shut down because their pumps stopped pumping. Then the mayor asked citizens to turn off fire hydrants they had started opening to cool off, because there was only a two hour supply of water before the system ran dry. In 100 years, the Cleveland water system has never run out of water. But this time, it did. Fire brigades had to depend on pumper trucks to put out fires. The sewage treatment system stopped working and millions of gallons of raw sewage flowed into Lake Erie.

The airport closed. Cars broke down and ran out of gas. If stranded motorists were lucky enough to get through to AAA on their cell phones, it didn’t matter: AAA had installed a new computerized system of notifying tow-truck drivers of breakdowns. Naturally, it didn’t work without power.

Meanwhile at a major area hospital, the back-up generators kicked on, and promptly broke down after overheating. In the operating room, doctors in the middle of a brain surgery were forced to abort the operation and sew up their patient’s head by the light of a handheld flashlight.

What the hell was going on? Without access to phones, TV or the internet, we tried to find out by turning on our cheap transistor radios. But most stations in Cleveland are now owned by Clear Channel Communications. They continued playing their regular programming as if nothing unusual was happening. For hours the oldies station continued playing the Beatles, Elvis, and commercials for businesses that were no longer doing business. There was no hard news or official reports. Where was the emergency broadcasting system they’re always testing? On the 24 hour news radio station, listeners called in obscure tidbits: “There’s a traffic signal working at the intersection of Ridge and State.” Another listener asked, “Does anybody know where there’s a store open selling diapers and vodka?”

Fortunately, in Cleveland we don’t let the fear of the unknown or the threat of possible imminent doom bother us too much: We’ve grown up expecting the worst and are almost relieved when it finally happens. Once people had gotten safely home and it became clear that there was nothing to buy and nowhere else to go, the parties started. All over our neighborhood, impromptu yard and block parties had neighbors drinking, singing and laughing. They tried to eat up all their refrigerated food before it spoiled. They lit backyard barbecues and began to appreciate the cooling night air.

As luck would have it, we’d already planned on having a party at our house that night for a friend who was going abroad. They brought a cooler full of cold beer and ice (a precious commodity) and we spent the night talking and staring up at the vast darkness toward the Milky Way, never-before seen in my lifetime within the city limits of Cleveland. We had no water, toilets, gasoline, air conditioning, lights, TV, or computers. The people who came by were confused, excited, worried, drunk, giddy, and amazed. It was the best party of the summer.

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