7.22.2006

darkness

News from the Old Country.
An estimated 100,000 people or more remained without power in western Queens last night, as Con Edison conceded that the blackout that began Monday affected more than 10 times as many customers as it had said previously, and that it still had no explanation for the failure.

It will take at least until Sunday - six days after the blackout began - to restore power to everyone, Con Edison said.

A chorus of elected officials demanded investigation and punishment of the utility, and more help for the area's sweltering, dispirited residents. They voiced particular concern for thousands of elderly residents with no electricity, no working elevators and, in some cases, no water.

Utility officials and others said this power failure was perplexing, unlike previous blackouts that darkened large swaths of the city and were corrected in a day or two. This time, new problems have cropped up day after day: dozens of manhole fires, transformer fires and, most seriously, electrical cables' burning out and needing replacement.

. . .

The blackout has exposed an apparently serious weakness at the utility: its inability to measure the size of a problem. For three days, Con Edison gave estimates ranging from 1,200 to 2,100 customers without power. But those were based solely on the number of phone calls from people complaining. A customer can be a single house or a business, or a large building with dozens of apartments and hundreds of residents.

The company acknowledged yesterday, after a block-by-block canvass conducted Thursday night, that at least 25,000 customers were blacked out, possibly more. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg estimated that that meant at least 100,000 people lacked power in their homes, a number Con Edison did not dispute.

An even larger number of customers, 90,000, had reduced voltage, Con Edison said; that translates to several hundred thousand people. Some people with reduced power said it was so diminished that conditions were barely better than a blackout; elevators and air-conditioners did not work, and food went bad in refrigerators.

"We weren't trying to be misleading," Mr. Olert said of the numbers. "We went with what we knew."

Mr. Bloomberg called the utility's underestimate "annoying," but other elected officials used much stronger language. Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris called for criminal charges against Con Edison, and District Attorney Richard A. Brown of Queens said his office would investigate.

By underestimating the size of the problem, City Councilman Eric N. Gioia said, Con Edison "slowed everybody's responses, which put people's lives in danger."

"When we first talked to the mayor's office and the Red Cross about the extent of this, they were skeptical because of what they'd heard from Con Ed," he said.
This is something Allan and I relate to in a very personal (and angry) way.

In 1999, during a record-breaking heat wave, Con Ed cut off power to the large swath of upper Manhattan known as Washington Heights. The ancient cables, transformers and switches in the residential, working-class area hadn't been properly maintained or replaced, and were dangerously overloaded. Con Ed later admitted that rather than risk losing power to midtown - where the money is made - they decided to cut off upper Manhattan.

However, having deliberately done this, they still denied that there was a significant power outage. When people called to report having no electricity, Con Ed claimed the problem was localized to a handful of buildings.

Meanwhile, everything above 168th Street was in darkness - and heat. No streetlights, no subways, no refrigeration. We were the neighbourhood that time forgot. We had no power, and no one cared.

Our friends Alan With One L and Fred, back from London and looking for an apartment in New York, were staying with us. Always lovely to have company under the worst possible conditions. It was more than 100 Farenheit outside, and if you've never lived in a top-floor apartment, you can't imagine what that means inside.

My mother drove over from New Jersey with a cooler of ice, Snapple and some sandwiches. We couldn't go stay with her because of the dogs. We took the pups - Clyde and Cody, in their too-brief time together - to the park and sat on a bench, all of us panting. At night I thought I'd lose my mind.

When at last the subways were working, Allan, Fred and I went to a movie, just to sit in the cool. I'll never forget coming out of the subway at Broadway and 96th Street, seeing the stores open, the streetlights working, all the people going about their normal days. That's when it really hit me how the city had orphaned us.

When Con Ed finally admitted that there was a blackout, we had already been in the dark for 48 hours. References to the the 1999 Washington Heights blackout always give the time as 19 hours. I estimate we were without power for 67 hours.

From then on, every time we saw Con Ed trucks in our neighbourhood, we cringed and mentally held our breath.

The massive blackout in 2003 wasn't nearly as bad for us, since everyone was in it together - and it wasn't nearly as hot. If I recall correctly, the US tried to blame Canada for that one.

* * * *

Footnote. I tried to find a good online map of Manhattan to link to. In keeping with the theme of this post, most of the maps only go up to 125th Street! And that's fairly recent. Before Harlem was declared safe to visit, the maps only went up to 96th Street. There's a lot of city north of 96th - and north of 125th.

That's sarcasm, by the way. Harlem has always been safe to visit, and has never been less safe than any other neighbourhood in the city.

I also notice that the tourist maps now refer to where we used to live as "Fort George". As more young professionals move in, and the price of real estate goes up, you don't want it confused with Washington Heights, where se habla espaƱol...

4 comments:

Scott M. said...

I've heard a lot of scary things about Con Ed and other electrical infrastructure operators in the states which leads me to ask... who owns the electrical infrastructure? Is Con Edison not a public utility? If not, how is it regulated and where are the checks and balances?

Even when the Harris government decided to privatize electricity, they made sure that the grid was still owned by the public -- retailers can sell into the grid and sign up customers, but everyone was responsible for the grid.

How is the business model down there? A protected monopoly?

James said...

The ancient cables, transformers and switches in the residential, working-class area hadn't been properly maintained or replaced, and were dangerously overloaded.

Toronto has a somwhat similar problem -- it's not uncommon for an ancient underground transformer to blow up downtown and plunge part of the core into darkness. We think it's all part of Hydro's maintenance plan: it's cheaper to replace them after they explode than on a schedule. :)

It's actually much more likely to happen in the business area than in the residential, though, because outside the core, the transformers are above ground, and therefore cheaper to maintain.

If I recall correctly, the US tried to blame Canada for that one.

Yup. And, IIRC as well, the final problem turned out to be overtaxed lines in Chicago or something like that.

I tried to find a good online map of Manhattan to link to. In keeping with the theme of this post, most of the maps only go up to 125th Street!

That's what Google Maps is for! :)

Here's what I get when I search for "Washington Heights, New York".

L-girl said...

Con Ed is a private company, traded on the stock market. As a utility, they're subject to government regulations and some oversight, but not a lot.

Some years ago, there was a ruling that allowed other energy suppliers to enter the market. Now customers can choose which supplier they want, but Con Ed still delivers the energy.

Despite Con Ed's legal obligation to inform people of that, most residential customers don't know anything about it. (I have no proof of that, of course - it's just my sense, based on how people talk, who uses what service, etc. I'd be shocked if statistics didn't bear it out.)

So until recently they were a true monopoly. Now they are technically somewhat less of a monopoly, but not in any meaningful way.

The corporate information on Con Ed's website might be helpful.

L-girl said...

That's what Google Maps is for! :)

Sure, but my point was how biased those other maps are. Google Maps rule.