Friday, September 9, 2011

Into the dark: the San Diego blackout, social media, and being prepared.

 A little before 4pm yesterday, BP telephoned me to tell me that the power was out at her workplace.  "We think it's out all over this mesa", she said.  "Can you see what you can find out?"

I was standing on a platform at Los Angeles Union Station waiting to board a southbound Amtrak train.  Equipped with my trusty iPhone, I went to the internet:  first, going to the San Diego Gas and Electric outage website.  I couldn't load it.  Uh-oh, I thought.  THAT can't be good.

There was nothing on the websites yet for either San Diego paper (the Union Tribune, or the North County Times).  So I turned to Twitter, performed a search for "SDGE", and immediately saw a flood of tweets complaining about the outage, that was a geography lesson of San Diego.  El Centro, El Cajon.  La Jolla, Hillcrest.  Encinitas, Escondido.  Oceanside.  All the way across the Mexican border  into Baja California  in the south, and up into Laguna Niguel, in Orange County.  Reports east as far as Yuma,AZ.
I phoned BP back. "It's huge," I said, "looks like the whole county, and SDGE has no idea what happened or when it will be fixed. I'll keep you posted!"  And I got on the train and headed south.  Slowly, word spread through the railcar about the blackout as commuters phoned home.  One guy played the news on his laptop (glad I don't have to pay for HIS wireless data plan!)

I figured that both the iPhone and the train would stop when we reached the region of the blackout.  While i am  creative   in dealing with commute problems, I know my limits, and assumed it would be a long night with this one.  Amtrak trains have food, water, and beer, and their own power, so even if we got stuck, it would't be too bad.  To my surprise, however, both Verizon and Amtrak kept going.  Seems trains do not rely on the local utility for power on the switches and signals (although they did have to go very slowly for crossings).  And while my 3G network became spotty at times, and some calls got dead air, I was able to stay online and follow #SDblackout and #SDoutage for news.  (ATT apparently wasn't so lucky.)

I stayed in contact with BP till her work phone went out.  She would head home before dark and pull the manual handle on our garage door, open up the camping gear, and pull out some battery lanterns, and locate the campstove and hand-cranked radio.  She would check on our elderly neighbor.   I would make it home when I could.  Fortunately, unlike eastern San Diego which is scorching, we live near the coast, and while it was hot, it wasn't unbearable (we don't have or need A/C).   We have about 10 gallons of water stored and while it's no doubt stale, it's still potable.   I phoned my mom and emailed my brothers in Northern California to tell them we were fine.  BP was able to contact the kids and close friends to make sure everyone was safe.

I was able to follow the news conference that informed us the 500kV transmission line in from Arizona had gone down, and that had taken down the San Onofre nuclear power plant that provided the other major line into SDG&E.  1.4 million SDGE customers were without power just from SDG&E. Note that figure doesn't count the many who are not "SDGE customers" -- not every individual pays a utility bill, and a household may have many members. Over 3 million people live in San Diego county. The impact was far greater than 1.4million in terms of people affected, and many more were impacted in other regions as "collateral damage" as far east as New Mexico and south into Baja California. Some news sites estimated over 5 million people were without power.

Twitter was invaluable in this.  While eventually the main web pages of the LA Times and the San Diego papers picked it up,  the active tweets from SDGE and local folks were much more helpful.  The CBS affiliate (CBS8/KFMB)  tweeted the SDG&E news conference and other information.

However, as with any live and unverified information, a grain of salt must be taken.  One breathless tweet said falsely that there had been explosions at powerplants at the Salton Sea, which lies at the far east of San Diego in the desert.  This did get picked up by a few other twitterers, but most ignored it since the news didn't say anything.  While I know everyone was thinking "terrorism?"  everyone was also very calm.

As the train ran along the beach, surfers were still in the water watching the sun set. The train eventually arrived at my station about 1 hour late, in  deep twilight.  A man standing behind me fretted over whether he would find a taxi to his hotel , and another passenger immediately offered him a ride. While much of the area was gridlocked traffic-wise, I was fortunate that my route was not too bad. Amazingly, the Google Maps app on my iPhone was able to tell me the traffic--apparently, the traffic sensors in the freeways also are independent of SDG&E.  However, at the intersections with the dead signals, far too many cars blew through without stopping.

When I got home, BP had candles and lanterns out and the house looked warm and inviting.  The neighbors were lingering outside, and looking at the stars.  There was a bright moon.  We decided to keep the fridge closed, and ate fresh, home tomatoes with sorrel and basil from the garden, with smoked oysters and white wine.   We listened to the news conference on our hand-cranked radio.  The cat enjoyed pacing the garden in the darkness, lit only by some wimpy outside solar lights.  We went to bed, kinda hoping that the power would stay out for a power-outage day off work tomorrow.  We could grill something from the freezer!  Cook up stuff on our campstove!

Alas, we were awakened at 2.45am by the cat urping up the grass he had eaten outside, and discovered the lights on.  So much for a power-outage day off work.

The best news is that everyone did what they were supposed to.  There was no looting or criminality.  People helped their neighbors (the elderly lady next door had a steady stream of visitors from the neighborhood checking on her).  The city is up and running, albeit cautiously.   Fortunately the weather is much cooler today which should ease the load.

Having the camping gear and the hand-crank radio helped us be very prepared.  We did identify a problem with batteries (need to stock up with fresh ones).  We want to put in more canned food, and recycle the water we are storing in the big containers in the garage.

Other people weren't so lucky.  For example, a  woman behind me on the train said that she couldn't get in her garage, or her house--because she deadlocked the front door from inside, since she always left through the garage, with its electric door.  And of course, you can't pull the over-ride handle for the door if you can't get inside the garage.   Also, due to pump failures, some of the areas of the city are under "boil" rules for their water, at least till the weekend.   The airport has still not cleared out the chaos from all the cancellations and there was a massive sewage spill that will affect numerous beaches.

Still, of course, a power outage on a warm summer night is one thing.  A major earthquake would be something else.  We take it as a useful warning.

Now, apparently there was a speech?

Picture from the SD Union Tribune


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the play-by-play! I wasn't worried about you two; enessene you are too resourceful. But it is still good to read about exactly how it went down for you. Will I embarrass you w/xxes & oos in a public forum? 'Cause that is exactly what you are going to get!
xxoo sb

IT said...

Aw, hon, you can never embarrass us w/ love! We are just glad it went well for all in the city. XXOO back atcha.

Brother David said...

Shocking that one worker in AZ could cause that much havoc, by accident. What could a crew of terrorists do on purpose? The electricity grid is way too vulnerable.

Counterlight said...

Sounds like the New York blackout of 2003. It's like the whole city went on a camping trip. People had cookouts and grill parties on roofs and balconies all over town. That first night was a beautiful evening, so a lot of people slept on the rooftops. By the second day, the dark, the heat, the reek of rotting food, and the terrifying risk crossing the street started to get really old.

Thanks for your story, and I'm glad the commute home was safe and not too terrible. I was fortunate in 2003 to be within walking distance of my home when the blackout hit.

And Brother David is right. The power grid is way too vulnerable.

Chelliah Laity said...

When reading this I felt like I was caught up in it too. Well written. Isn't it good the way people rally together when there is a genuine crisis on?

JCF said...

Glad your power's back on, IT. (Good recap!)