Local Warming, Flashes of Katrina

It’s hot. All day outside yesterday, I felt like I was perpetually on the wrong side of an air conditioner. On the local news in Philly they’re talking about a blowtorch effect. There wasn’t a blowtorch effect when we were kids. We had El Niño, which sounds downright quaint.

To drive myself crazy, I regularly compare the weather.com Current Temperature map to the Homeland Security Threat Level chart:

temperature . . terror

These guys gotta talk to each other about this.

(To keep myself sane, I’ve been watching the videos for Crazy and Lighters Up on YouTube.)

How’s your refrigerator doing? Having trouble keeping things cold, if it’s like mine or many of my friends’. Forget about making ice. If you drop a cube on the floor, you pick it up and use it because it is a precious resource.

This is no joke. We’re fast approaching a world where ice will be an expensive commodity. Ice is water plus energy, both of which are becoming scarce and energy is becoming expensive. The price of natural gas, which fills the elasticity of the electricity market, has gone up more than 30 percent in the last week.

We need to learn how to survive in a hot city using less energy. The recent wave of blackouts has made this abundantly clear. The blackouts in St. Louis and Queens are revealing again how unreliable the current power structures are and what that means for survival.

People’s dissatisfaction with their power companies has been in the news in Queens and St. Louis, but only in a local context. I barely hear reporters even discuss the 2003 blackout.

Mickey Z, who’s from Queens, wrote a great piece, titled “Power (Outage) to the People,” on the ten-day blackout there that hit over 100,000 people. He points out that a deteriorated infrastructure combined with the increased electricity demands of gentrification makes for a bad combination.

Our energy infrastructure is in bad shape. I was in New York the week before Queens went dark and happened to be walking through a stretch of Park Slope where the streetlights were out. It wasn’t clear why until a manhole that Con Ed was working around started shooting out flames, ostensibly from a transformer explosion.

Here’s a crappy photo I took with my cell phone a few seconds after the 20-foot-high flames had eased back:

transformerfire-jul17-2006.jpg

In St. Louis, Ameren can’t trim the trees around their power lines fast enough. Folks there got the double whammy of a powerful storm that knocked down those trees onto their homes as well as power lines and roads, followed by the week-long blackout affecting over 500,000 people.

In both instances, as we saw with Katrina, disasters like blackouts and heatwaves are deadly for the elderly and the sick. The poorest people get hit the hardest and the people on the edge – like small business in Queens or the working poor in St. Louis – get pushed over. These are the victims of disaster capitalism.

(Another Katrina comparison that came up recently in discussion, which seems relevant here, is Israel’s declaration that everyone who doesn’t leave southern Lebanon is a Hezbollah terrorist. The most vulnerable people – the poor, sick, the elderly – have no choice but to remain.)

At least in Queens, there is a limit to the monetary damages these folks can collect from the utility: $7000 for a business and $350 for a residence. That’s in the agreement between the utility and the state’s Public Service Commission. I understand why you’d want to have some limit on damages in the contract, but that is not enough money.

At least one person is suing for damages, alleging Con Ed did not implement improvements after a 1999 blackout in Washington Heights. (I remember that as an intentional shutdown, the measure that would have limited this blackout. Con Ed was criticized for powering down a poor neighborhood to keep the wealthy rest of Manhattan online. Kind of like flooding the 9th Ward to save the French Quarter.)

Personally, I don’t see why the caps on penalties should remain if Con Ed is not fulfilling service level agreements. Last year, folks on Staten Island waited for power to come back for twice as long as Con Ed promised it would take in its agreement with the PSC. (Municipal broadband and internet-as-utility proponents, take note.)

Following Hurricane Katrina, I wrote about the failure of government to address the current disaster of poverty and racism, labeling it “Katrina in slow motion.” These blackouts are a kind of Katrina at a walking pace.

When I heard that New Orleans had been listed as the North American city most in danger from Global Warming, I wondered which city was second on the list so we could start fortifying it. When Hurricane Rita flooded Galveston I thought I had my answer.

Now I see that it might be St. Louis or Chicago: a city with sharply rising temperature and steadily failing electricity infrastructure. Perhaps Sacramento or New York City. It doesn’t matter really. We’re all on the list.

The Current Disaster inspired the name for this blog because in it, I discussed the need to prepare ourselves to take care of our own communities, since disaster preparedness is a form of redistribution of wealth and the powers that be are doing such a poor job of it.

We need a civil defense corps, not to protect against a Soviet invasion, but ready to assist our neighbors in times of disaster. Most people do this as a matter of course, but we should be training ourselves to be better at it, learning from the experiences of New Orleans after Katrina, New York after September 11, and St. Louis after the Ameren Backout.

And Beirut. Before Israel began it’s invasion, those folks were living in the Paris of Middle East, with new development projects around the city and a bustling economy. Some people have speculated that destroying this economic rival must have been part of the motivation for the attack, otherwise why damage so much of the Lebanese civillian infrastructure, but the important point to make here is that no city is safe from cataclysm of one sort or another.

I have heard so many people making apocalyptic comments lately, looking at the wars and the heatwaves. “Is this what the end of the world looks like?” they ask. I don’t think so. It’s a bad time and it’s our time, but this is not the last era of the earth.

While we adjust to it, we must also plant the seeds for the next era, which will surely come, but will only be better than this one if we make it so.

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1 Comment

  1. Chris said

    “Some people have speculated that destroying this economic rival must have been part of the motivation for the attack, otherwise why damage so much of the Lebanese civillian infrastructure”

    Because destroying infrastructure is a standard military tactic. No need to let your enemies move freely, use the city’s electricity, roads, water, phones, radio, etc.

    On the broader topic: yes, people should be better prepared for emergencies. Most people are not, mentally or physically. Having grown up in the sticks, I am used to the concept of self-reliance. Most suburban or city types have no understanding of how to live without modern luxuries.

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