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Long power outage a wake-up call to be better prepared

After 36 hours of what seemed like 19th century living, a reporter emerges with a better understanding of how fragile America's infrastructure is.

I've just emerged from a brief visit to the 19th century (via a storm-driven 36-hour power outage) and among all my other experiences and impressions during this odd weekend, none was more powerful than an extremely visceral understanding of just how fragile our modern infrastructures are.

This all began when, just as I was about to run out of my Sausalito, Calif., house on Friday morning, I decided to do a quick e-mail check. Oddly, there was no Internet connection, and after a cursory check to see why, I realized that our power was out, a condition that had taken down my Internet service and home phone--which comes in via Comcast cable.

It was no wonder. Outside, fierce and heavy winds and rain were blowing trees nearly horizontal. But I thought it would be a brief outage and, giving it little mind, I ran to catch my bus into San Francisco.

Because of strong winds and heavy rain, hundreds of thousands of Northern Californians lost power beginning Friday. Some are still without power on Monday. PG&E

For more than 20 minutes I stood in the full force of the wind and rain, getting soaked to the bone, wondering where the bus was. Finally, I pulled out my cell phone and called Golden Gate Transit to ask what was up. There were no buses running through Sausalito, I was told, because the town's downtown was "flooded."

I slogged home, unsure what to do. I figured perhaps I could go work at a nearby library or cafe, but it quickly became clear that power was out not just at my house, but throughout Sausalito and in much of the Bay Area. All told, I found out later, something like 1.2 million people throughout Northern California had lost power.

But it wasn't just electricity that was unavailable. In addition to no buses running through Sausalito, sections of highway 101 and the San Rafael Bridge--a major connector from Marin County to the east side of San Francisco Bay--were shut down due to wind-driven chaos. In addition, ferries weren't running and, to my dismay, I discovered that once home, my cell reception was extremely intermittent, far worse than usual, a condition that made it impossible for me to get online via Verizon's EV-DO like my colleague Rafe Needleman did during his own time without power.

Left with no way to get to work--driving really didn't seem safe--and no way to get online or make phone calls, I stayed at home where my wife and I huddled under blankets for most of the day, trying to figure out what to do.

Now, I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. Our experience was pretty mild--we were able to do some modest cooking and make coffee on a propane stove, and we had some battery-powered devices so we could listen to music.

And my wife and I are both veteran campers, so we know how to survive without the amenities American homes offer. And yet, the whole experience was strangely debilitating.

It was also very clear after just a few hours of this just how easily broken America's infrastructure is. It's not that we--or others in similar circumstances--would soon starve or freeze to death. But it was striking just how poorly the system was able to handle what, for many parts of the country, was really not a very serious storm.

What was even more clear was just how reliant we all are on energy--specifically the energy that comes from the grid--and how few options there are for most middle-class Americans.

To be sure, there are plenty of alternatives to electricity from the grid, but from what I know of them, they're not easily available to people with modest means. For people like myself, it feels very much like the only option is to buy electricity from fill-in-the-blank power company, in my case, PG&E, and that I, and most Americans, are stuck using nonrenewable energy for most of the things we do in our daily lives. That really must change, as we all now know.

Which brings me to one complaint I do have about how the power company handled this "crisis."

On Friday, I called PG&E to try to get an estimate of when the power would come back on. At first they told me it would come back by 11 a.m. the same day. That hour quickly came and went, all with no electricity.

That evening, I called again and was able to use their automated system to find out that there was no available estimate. However, the automated system informed me, for those customers who had been without power for 24 hours or more, there was a separate toll-free number to call to talk to an actual human.

Well, that was fine and dandy, except that it hadn't yet been 24 hours since the storm knocked out power throughout the Bay Area.

On Saturday, I called the number again, and for the second time, the automated system told me no estimate was available. But I was waiting for it to tell me the number to call if power had been out for more than 24 hours. I now qualified.

This time, however, it said that for those without power for more than 48 hours, there was a special number to call. How handy for PG&E that no one was yet without power for that many hours. Typical for a utility that declared bankruptcy in 2001 in the middle of one of California's worst-ever energy crises while its corporate parent was hauling in billions in profits from the outrageous price hikes we were paying for power.

By Saturday, my wife and I were kind of at a loss. We were still able to make coffee and, thanks to some dry ice purchased from a nearby market that stayed open with the help of generators, we had saved most of our perishables.

One thing was odd about going to the market was the sense of cultures mixing: those with power and those without. The store had blocked off its freezer aisle and was offering limited services, but it had received a regular delivery of bread from a bakery in Berkeley. And in the checkout line, I overheard someone saying what I had been thinking since soon after this all began: This would all be just fine if we could just watch movies.

Hearing this woman say what I was thinking made me feel guilty. As crises go, this was pretty mild. Yet, because of the systems we're used to, we're often left with few internal resources to know how to handle a loss of basic infrastructure. It's not something to complain about, but it's a warning sign that when a real crisis hits--a major earthquake, for example--it is painfully obvious that our way of life will be abruptly cut off. Just look at what happened in New Orleans or in Southern California during the fires there last fall.

Finally, late on Saturday, as my wife and I were contemplating what seemed like the reality that it could be a couple more days before the power returned and that we might have to spend a few hundred dollars on a hotel room, the lights came on. Just like that, with no warning. In those first few minutes, it seemed so tenuous, like counting on the power staying on was foolish and unwise.

Yet stay on they did. Thousands in the Bay Area are still without power at the time of this writing, however, and another fierce storm is expected Tuesday, so who knows what will happen then?

All in all, this was an eye-opening experience for me. I realized just how poorly prepared I am for dealing with something like this, and I have way more knowledge than most due to the time I've spent camping and being far off the grid.

And what it tells me, and what is probably abundantly clear to everyone else, is that we either need to confront our unpreparedness head on, and right now, or risk being cut off from the world for much longer than 36 hours if something really serious ever happens. And if the latter is how it goes, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves.