HARVARD, Massachusetts —The curses were flying in the predawn darkness.
The extraordinary winds that came when Hurricane Sandy blew into our small, New England town Monday felled a Hemlock tree, which took along with it a utility pole supporting the main power and phone lines for our street.
And so the wires were still lying in the road as of Wednesday morning. There was no sign of a National Grid truck anywhere. That made us one of the 350 homes in our small town (population about 4,000) without power and phone service going into a third day, and one of millions of homes on the East Coast affected by the super storm.
People in New York and New Jersey were, of course, hit hardest and I feel for them. There were more than 70 deaths associated with the storm and far bigger problems than the relatively small issue causing my little morning tirade.
But it was 5:10 a.m. and I wasn’t thinking big like that. I was working on hooking up our home generator.
I was cursing and asking myself in the quiet, existential darkness why the Ffff…ukishima , I was on the hook for jerry-rigging our Briggs & Stratton 8,000-watt generator to get the hot water heater going and a few lights turned on? I was wondering where the help was from the local, state or federal government or the private-sector energy providers who seem to let us rate payers down every time a storm hits?
Why the hell was I being handed the Shhh…. itaki task of squinting at on/off switches on the circuit breaker and trying to carry out some very primitive, DIY electrical engineering on our circuit board to get the connection and the load balance just right? Why are we as individuals suddenly responsible for picking up the pieces of an electrical grid in America that suffers from chronic neglect and deferred maintenance?
Wall Street was running on a generator as it kicked back on Thursday morning. Even our own website, GlobalPost, was operating on servers that were being powered by a generator. We were talking about an estimated $20 billion in costs associated with this storm and felt like the whole East Coast was suddenly left foraging for power and scrambling to make sure dusty generators could handle the load.
I was getting my professional rage up and I hadn’t even had coffee yet. That’s an ill-advised way for a journalist to start the day. It’s supposed to be the other way around. We read into the news, drink coffee and slowly build rage into the late morning, trying out our arguments and our hard questions on our spouses, children, colleagues and really anyone we can get to listen.
But something even more ill-advised and potentially dangerous than a journalist waking up in a fury of opinions on big issues of the day is the idea of me doing anything that involves electrical engineering.
You have to know me a bit to know just how absurd that is. Painting, plastering, some light carpentry, I can be your guy. But electrical work? You’ve gotta be kidding! I can see the horror on many faces at the notion of me messing with electrical circuits in a big, old home made of wood and lots of old, funky wiring.
But if you did know me, you would know that I have spent a bit too much time in war zones and, yes, I know generators. They’re a fact of life in a war and in many corners of the developing world where power is always a daily struggle, where the hum of a generator is the sound of daily life.
Having set up bureaus in Kabul and Baghdad and Kosovo and elsewhere, I actually do know a fair bit about running one of the things. I know the best models, the best way to mix the fuel, how to keep the fuel lines clean and how to change out an oil filter.
I would estimate I have purchased, borrowed or somehow funded more than a half dozen generators in my life. There was the one we carried in the back of the truck in Kosovo when the NATO troops were forcing the Serbs out of Pristina and we were left foraging for food and fuel and power in the war-torn landscape. There were two generators I purchased in the weeks just after September 11, 2001 when I there in Afghanistan at the outset of what would be the longest war in American history. And there was one in Northern Iraq and then one in Baghdad and, well, the list goes on a bit from there. I was always waiting for the accountants at various news organizations to ask me about these generators and where they were after I returned from covering the conflicts.
But I digress. The question is really, why am I hear in the darkness pulling on the starter cord and praying our generator would kick on. Why was my son Tuesday night forced to do his homework by the glow of a solar-powered LED light that came from an innovative NGO that uses these ingenious lights in the tent camps in post-earthquake Haiti?
I live in a nice town where we pay a hefty tax bill. And so why the hell am I as a citizen and why the hell are we as a country living on generators every time a big storm hits?
What I didn’t know in the pre dawn hours was that GlobalPost’s technology director, Greg Stout, was also struggling with a generator problem. The internal servers for our website, which are hosted out of New York, were operating off a huge generator that had apparently suffered a malfunction in its fuel pump. Rule one of generators: Keep your fuel lines clean. So my colleague Greg was no doubt muttering a few choice words at exactly the same time I was, though he is hard-wired to be far more calm than I am in such situations.
How many Americans reading this column have lost power in the last five years and had to find a way to hook up a generator at their home or business? How many hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of headaches has this cost us all? Has anyone else noticed that we are having 100-year storms just about every other year? Has anyone else noticed that the market for generators is going gangbusters? Has anyone noticed that our infrastructure is crumbling?
Okay, so you might think I should have been cursing the fossil fuels and the resultant climate change we have all brought upon ourselves, and how that bad environmental karma has unleashed weather-related events like Sandy on far too regular a basis in many corners of the world.
But I wasn’t cursing global warming nor Sandy as much as I was muttering un-publishable words of fury about the fact that we’ve outsourced the maintenance of our electrical grid to private companies that are becoming the bane of existence, particularly for small towns like ours where we have little clout as rate payers to hold them accountable for the misery of multiple days without power.
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So beneath a cold drizzle in the backyard, there I was cursing the fact that we as a nation seem to have allowed our infrastructure, really our entire electrical grid, to fall into disrepair. Who is responsible for doing the maintenance of the trees along the road so they don’t take down power lines? Where is the government in making sure that our infrastructure is cared for and, when it is damaged, repaired with some speed?
After I finally got the generator humming Wednesday morning, the hot water on and the coffee brewing, I left for work. I listened to NPR and heard about President Obama and was surprised to hear him being praised by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Was that really a Republican attack dog who loves to trash big government praising the president for the federal government’s reaction to the crisis? In my observation it is pretty rare to find anyone who stands by that belief in cutting government when a storm hits or there house is on fire or their aging parents need Medicare.
Then I heard about Governor Romney dodging questions about a speech he had given earlier in the campaign that suggested the need to further cut the Federal Emergency Management Agency. NPR played the clips of Romney saying, “Every tine you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and give it back to the state, that’s the right direction. And when you can take it from the states and give it to the private sector, that’s the right direction.”
Sure doesn’t feel that way when you are calling National Grid, the privatized provider of electricity in our area, and you get the recorded messages. It seems under Romney, we wouldn’t have a president like George W. Bush who famously said to his FEMA director at the height of the failure of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!”
No, under a Romney presidency, it seems that we are more likely to hear, “You’re out of a job, Brownie,” though Romney now seems to be backtracking from statements he made last year suggesting the federal government should play a smaller role in disaster relief.
And so the coffee and the questions were flowing as I was driving. Keeping the hum of the generator going was now in the capable hands of my wife back home and the more moderate points of view were taking shape in a more orderly fashion as this journalist was starting to get back to the flow of a more manageable rage, and a bit of perspective and an important set of questions for voters in this election about the role of government.
The news in New Jersey and New York sounded genuinely bad and there were some heartwarming stories about people pulling together to help each other in a time of crisis, “as we always do,” as President Obama said, trying his best to be reassuring.
Now I was back to cursing the traffic on my long commute just like everyone else as I contributed to the whole global warming phenomenon that is still the long shadow that Sandy casts as she recedes into memory.