San Diego Blackout

The computer, lights and phone cut out in a split second. It was late in the afternoon and instantly I lost whatever I’d been pounding out on the keyboard. Power was out to the entire house. Outside I heard voices – neighbors were coming out to check their garage circuit breakers. We were all without electricity, caught in a San Diego blackout.

Time for a break anyway, I thought, and drove over to the local bookstore. The power was out there too. That was the second surprise. Over the next couple of hours I researched and followed what news I could gather on Twitter and Facebook. From all I could tell it this San Diego blackout was county wide but the range was still being investigated.

It wasn’t my first neighborhood power outage. I’d been through worse in Southeast Alaska, where it can be a life or death issue if you’re not prepared, and in Marin where every rainstorm blew trees into power lines and left us one fall without power for four days. Each time the inconvenience grew to relief as family and friends collected, helped each other out and bonded over our shared situation.

The San Diego blackout was different

As it turned out the range of the outage was unprecedented. Here were over 1.4 million homes, businesses, hospitals, airports and services out of sudden commission. There were few generators and homes discovered quickly how paltry their disaster preparedness was. One business found out that the acre of solar power on their rooftop couldn’t power their freezers or computers because the breakers ran on county electric lines. Another business found out that over 75% of their computers with backup desktop generators were plugged into the wrong outlet and fell victim to sudden shut downs.

I prepared for what might lie ahead – perhaps days without electricity or internet. I called my immediate family, my out-of-area emergency contact, gathered batteries, dug out the hand cranked emergency radio and collected candles, matches, lighters.

Then I realized what was looming – one, long, dark night. Blessed with a gas stove, I dug through my vegetable bin and quickly rummaged through the freezer for what might spoil first. Water was boiled for noodles, veggies were sliced and everything prepped for a quick Pasta Primavera. Ice cream didn’t survive to dessert.

The light was going quickly and I noticed how naturally dark my kitchen is most of the time. What might be hardest to locate after it was completely gone? I walked outside for a moment and realized that I hadn’t thought of sunset as more than a pretty phenomenon for a long, long while.

My own man-made blunder was losing touch with a primal metronome, the beat of dark and light as our planet turns.

It’s a rhythm that I’d been disconnected with. There I stood in the growing shadows, wondering what lie ahead in the coming hours. It was a vast contrast to my habitual evening routine. I hadn’t thought about sunlight as more than a given. I hadn’t longed for dawn or dreaded the dark since I was a child.

The natural rhythm of days had been forgotten

It’s easier here in a season-less latitude where winter is a matter of ten or twenty degrees. In San Diego it seems our greatest seasonal marker is daylight savings time when suddenly dinner is served after dark, kids hustle home from after-school sports at dusk or rush hour commutes are headlight dependent.

This morning I woke to a familiar glow – the clock radio was winking from across the room. Power had been restored. Throughout the morning I was able to piece together more details. It had been a man-made error, a switch causing a chain of shut-downs in a power system gone postal. Fingers are being pointed and media pundits are talking about a brush with Armageddon. My own man-made blunder was losing touch with a primal metronome, the beat of dark and light as our planet turns. Now I’m determined to keep time more consciously and not wait for another San Diego blackout. I got rhythm.

Elaine J. Masters, September 9, 2011