By Dave Glass
This is in response to Genevieve Jones article, entitled “A Solar Conversation.” It is not a critique of Ms. Jones. Instead I would like to document exactly how catastrophic a power outage can be, by describing just such a situation I experienced a number of years ago. I hope this will illustrate the situation to the readers, and, just maybe, help them prepare for such a disaster. In any case, I would like to thank Ms. Jones for her excellent article about solar electricity.
Having been though just such a catastrophic storm a number of years ago, I can tell you that my computer was the last thing on my mind when it came to emergency power. But, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. So, let me start at the beginning.
In late February of 2003, on a Saturday afternoon in Lexington, KY, there was a strange confluence of weather events that resulted in a massive freezing rain/ice storm. Over the following 24 hours, this storm deposited somewhere near one inch of solid ice on anything and everything outside. The precipitation came down as a liquid, and, upon contacting anything on the ground that was substantially below the freezing point of water, promptly froze on it. The most obvious first consequence of this is that roadways were coated with ice, which made driving treacherous. Next, the ice accumulated on power lines and tree limbs. This caused the tree limbs to fail, sometimes coming down on roads, blocking them, and sometimes coming down on power lines, causing them to break. Even without the tree limbs, the power lines were heavily loaded by the ice, and would frequently fail on their own, either breaking, or sagging to the point where they would short, or even bringing down power poles. This would cause lines to arc, fuses to blow, and, occasionally, transformers to explode. The downed power lines would also block roads, making travel even more difficult.
Having the lights go out was the first clue that something was going horribly wrong. However, a glance outside revealed the extent of the problem, as the sky was illuminated by blue flashes from the power lines arcing over, red flashes and rumbling booms from transformers exploding, and sharp cracks from fuses popping. Add to this the eerie creaking and cracking from the trees as they experienced slow, and sometimes not so slow, breaking of their fibers and shedding of limbs. Toss in the tinkling of a multitude of tiny shards of ice shattering as the trees lost their ice covered limbs. The overall effect was surreal, especially as more and more of the community was plunged into darkness as more and more of the power grid failed.
Not having electric lights was a minor nuisance. However, a much larger problem was waiting. Since the outside temperature was near 20 degree Fahrenheit, houses without electricity quickly dropped in temperature. Houses with only electric heating suffered, but so did houses with natural gas heat, and even Propane heat, since most gas furnaces require electricity to operate. And, without electricity, those furnaces will not run.
As the temperature dropped even farther, secondary effects started to occur. As the houses became colder and colder, plumbing fixtures began to freeze and burst. Some of these resulted in major water leaks in the affected houses, causing substantial damage.
An even greater consequence of the burst water pipes is that they represented a drain on the municipal water supply. As the number of leaks increased, the water pressure in the community dropped. This increased the fire hazard beyond the increased state it was already in due to the difficulty encountered by the local fire departments in reaching the scene of a fire due to the condition of the roads. Additionally, as power lines failed and shorted or arced, this sometimes produced voltage surges or arcs in some houses, and some of these started fires. Several houses burned to the ground during the event.
Also, note that municipal water systems rely on electric pumps to supply water. Most systems, at least the ones in this part of the country, use standing towers to supply water pressure. But, as the elevated reservoirs are depleted, they must be resupplied by electrically operated pumps, and, without electricity, the reservoirs will quickly run dry, depleting communities of their water supply.
Adding to the confusion, the telephone system began to fail, too. With the number of lines that were brought down by the ice, telephone service was spotty to begin with. Add to that the electrical arcs and shorts as the power lines failed and fell into the telephone circuits, and more and more of the telephones stopped working. Plus, without commercial electricity, some of the cellular telephone sites began to experience depletion of their battery backup supplies, and started going quiet.
Without commercial electricity, most of the television broadcast stations went off the air. Of course, since few people had working television receivers, that was not a large problem. Most of the AM and FM broadcast radio stations also went off the air, although there were a very few which had backup generators of sufficient size to keep broadcasting. Being able to tune in to an AM broadcast radio station, and hear the continuous, 24 hour per day news coverage of the outage was reassuring. Plus, the station also provided tips for surviving the power outage, as well as the locations of various public shelters, and emergency procedures. I have to wonder, though, how many families had an emergency battery-powered radio that they could use to receive these broadcasts? (We did.)
A more pressing concern, though, was that many people were exposed to the cold. Some people were able to huddle under piles of blankets. But, others found that they had to evacuate their houses. Some of these stayed with friends and relatives who had working heat. Others went to heated public shelters. However, with the ice still on the roads, and with many roads blocked with downed tree limbs and power lines, travel was exceptionally difficult and somewhat dangerous.
Even more alarming is that some people began to run short of medications that they were taking. Since travel was very difficult, or even impossible, and since most of the retail pharmacies were without power, and unable to sell prescriptions, some people ran out of their medications.
Along the same lines, the local hospital experiences difficulties. Although the hospital had an emergency generator, and enough fuel to last for a considerable period of time, they found that their doctors and nurses could not make it from their homes to the hospital. Thus, they were forced, for a while, to operate with a short staff. Those doctors and nurses who were present when the storm began stayed at the hospital. But, as their shifts ended, and they became exhausted, there was no one to take their place. Fortunately, some of the citizens of the town, mostly those owning 4 wheel drive vehicles (primarily trucks, which were better able to drive over debris partially blocking the roads), and who knew how to drive on ice, volunteered to transport the medical personnel.
As time passed, people began to get hungry, especially so due to bodies burning more calories than normal in an attempt to stay warm. With no commercial electric power, cooking was a problem. Electric stoves simply wouldn’t work; even most backup generators don’t produce enough power to operate a kitchen stove. Those people with natural gas or Propane stoves could usually cook food (in the dark!). However, even some natural gas and Propane stoves depend upon electricity for lighting the flames. For those without natural gas or Propane powered cook stoves, about the only option was to eat cold food, or to resort to outdoor grills or camp stoves
Of course, without electricity, refrigeration was non-existent. While most houses had cooled to the point where foods normally kept in the refrigerator would not spoil, foods kept in the freezer would thaw. This resulted in a significant quantity of spoiled food, which had to be discarded.
An even greater problem, though, is that most families did not stock much more than a few days worth of food. And, once that food was gone, they either went hungry, or had to travel (with difficulty) to a public shelter. Note that, without electricity, most grocery stores could not maintain their refrigerated/frozen food. Nor could they open for business, since the stores were not illuminated, nor would the checkout registers work. Plus, with the condition of the roads, food deliveries from the distributors were put on an indefinite hold.
To add to the transportation difficulties, fuel supplies rapidly became a problem. Most fuel stations depend upon commercial electricity to operate the fuel pumps. Plus, fuel stations only maintain a limited amount of fuel in their underground tanks, and fuel deliveries from the distributors were also suspended due to the road conditions. So, once someone exhausted the fuel in their vehicle, they could find themselves unable to obtain more fuel, possibly leaving them stranded, in subfreezing weather.
Having worked/volunteered for an emergency services outfit for a number of years, I was prepared for such a worst case scenario. We had a quantity of candles and Kerosene lamps to provide light (along with a battery operated Carbon Monoxide detector to keep us safe from that hazard). We had a small Gasoline generator, with enough Gasoline, safely stored in proper containers outside, to operate the generator for several days. This provided enough electricity to operate several lamps, as well as a small heater and electric blankets. It also allowed us to use the natural gas kitchen stove, which provided hot meals for us and the neighbors. The heat provided also was enough to keep the plumbing from freezing and bursting.
We had stockpiled a significant quantity of dry and canned food, enough to last us through the outage. We also kept a quantity of bottled water, which provided for our drinking water needs. Bathing had to be sacrificed for the duration of the outage (Besides, it’s not much fun to bathe or shower with unheated water.).
In order to prevent the generator from disappearing overnight, I secured it to the wrought Iron railing around the porch with a log chain and padlock. There were a number of people with generators in the area who would go to bed at night, and awake in a cold and dark condition to find that their generator had disappeared.
As it was, we were warm, and well fed with hot food for the duration of the outage. And, we tried to provide for as many of our neighbors as we could, especially those with young children or the elderly. But, quite a few people suffered during the outage.
Fortunately, the outage only lasted about a week, more or less. The electric utilities made a herculean effort to restore power, calling in crews from up to 500 miles away to set poles, restring lines, and replace blown fuses and transformers. The people in the towns were the first to have their power restored. Those in more rural locations had to suffer for a while longer; up to two weeks in some cases. Still, it could have been much worse.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of the aspects of this particular disaster event. But, the points I’ve listed should help people understand exactly how catastrophic such a natural disaster can be, and, hopefully, make plans to help themselves and their community survive.
 Note that it is NOT safe to use Propane powered grills or camp stoves inside a dwelling. Nor is it safe to use a natural gas or Propane cooking stove for general heating, since this can result in the production of Carbon Monoxide, which can be quickly lethal. Sadly, several people died of such poisoning in the incident.