On Thursday Dec 14, while millions of sports fans watched the Seattle Seahawks take on the San Francisco 49ers in a Thursday night blizzard in Seattle, a storm was gathering from off the Pacific. By the afternoon of Friday December 15, the storm had swept through the Northwest states leaving a broad swath of downed trees and even more downed power lines in its wake. The storm caused some flash flooding and many uprooted trees, but the damage that caused the most death and misery was the loss of electric power to more than 1.5 million people, about half of all people in western Washington, including roughly half of the city of Seattle. Many people eventually died from carbon monoxide poisoning using temporary heat to keep warm in the winter cold. Read story.
In the end more people died from the lack of electricity than from all other storm related causes.
By the following Tuesday, December 19, five days after the storm an estimated 200,000 residents were still suffering the winter cold without electricity. We are a civilization that has become dependent on continuous electricity for survival. Even homes with gas or oil heat are not equipped to be heated without electricity for the fans and control systems. Pipes freeze and burst in unheated homes, water destroys ceilings and walls, then ice covers the floors as night comes again. We are just too dependent on electric utilities to survive days of winter weather without electricity.
A full week after the storm has moved on news sources report that about 200,000 people are still suffering in the cold and dark without heat or light. With hundreds of thousands of people still dark and cold and more deaths still being reported from lack of electricity, one Seattle newspaper, The Post-Intelligencer, started asking if the electric utility company, Seattle City Light, had been sufficiently prepared to restore the electric grid after the storm. Had the crews been sent home? Given several days forecast before the storm were sufficient efforts made to find out of state crews to assist in recovery? Read story
Those are good questions to ask, but they ignore the fundamental flaw at Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Power, and other utilities. Why did so much of the electric distribution system collapse and fail when the wind blew? Its not like the storm was unique. Seattle and western Washington has similar storms ever few years. Any resident over 20 years old has seen them before. So they knew or should have known that every few years a similar storm would blow through the area. The other major facilities in Seattle and Washington did not blow down. Seattle's famous Space Needle is still standing, all 600 feet of it. University of Washington Husky Stadium is still there. Dozens of tall buildings still grace the skyline in downtown Seattle. None of the cranes on the piers of the port blew over. With the nation watching nobody was even concerned that the Seahawks' stadium might blow down. All other important structures and facilities are engineered, designed, and constructed to withstand the forces of any expected wind storm. It would be really surprising if any of them had collapsed.
But while all of the buildings, stadiums and other works remained standing, half of the electric power system collapsed and failed. Its not the first time. It happens so often that people EXPECT the electric system to fall down when the wind blows. The newspaper reporter asks only why they hadn't prepared well enough to put it back up afterwards because everyone, including the utility management, the government, and the news media expect that it will fall down when the wind blows. When the electric system falls down millions of people are severely inconvenienced. The millions of people who lose their electric service spend billions of dollars on temporary solutions to survival during a week of winter with no heat, water, cooking facilities, etc. Many people are killed by direct electrocution, hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning or related causes.
It doesn't take a masters of engineering degree to notice that none of the other major structures have fallen down. Only the electric system fell down. That kind of faulty design, shoddy construction, and abysmally criminal mismanagement of public funds should not be accepted. When structures are designed there are always design figures for wind loading, or there are on all structures except the electric power system. The team that designed the Seahawks' stadium knows that it will stand in a 150 mph hurricane without damaging anything substantial. So do the men who designed the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Empire State Building in NYC, and every other major building. Wind load design is part of required structural design. Every engineer and architect who designs a facility figures wind load for expected winds, every engineer except those who design electric power grids. The electric power grid is designed so poorly, and constructed so shoddily, that they EXPECT half of it to fall down and fail in a wind not even up 70 mph. They expect it to fail. They accept that it will fall down, And failed electric structures are so common that reporters only ask why they haven't prepared to build it again instantly after it falls down.
What did they do, we might ask, with all the millions of rate payer dollars that they had to design and construct an adequate reliable electric system? Who's corrupt politician pockets were lined with greenbacks? Which utility executive spent the construction money on special perks, fancy dinners, dancing girls, and under the table bonuses?
Now, of course, the extra emergency crews from out of state will cost millions in overtime pay. All the broken and damaged poles, transformers, and wires, etc., will cost more millions. And all of it will be billed to us rate payers who already paid them to design and build it right the first time. And its not limited to Washington State. Chicago IL, Buffalo, NY, Pittsburgh, PA, and a thousand other communities across the USA have had similar unacceptable freezes where the electric power has failed from ice or wind. Of course it doesn't fail everywhere. The utility managers in some areas design adequately for their local weather and construct adequate electric facilities. It only costs 10% or maybe 50% more than the shoddy workmanship and cheap materials used near Seattle.
If Bob were the Mayor of Seattle or the Governor of Washington some heads would roll in the management of the utility offices. Criminal malfeasance and violation of public trust would head the list of questions to ask these nominds with their hands in the till. How many people need to die, how many people need to be frozen for a week without heat, how many lives need to be disrupted before the people demand that utility management and government officials do their jobs?
A week after the Seattle storm many thousand people are still freezing in unheated homes with no cooking or light. The electric grid still is on the ground, alone of all the structures in our communities. We need to stop accepting utilities that fall down when the wind blows. We need to demand that our money pays for quality design and construction what will stand up to expected winds. Our homes stand up to it, why shouldn't our electric system?
If we ever get the jerks at the electric company to start designing a power system that doesn't fall down every time the wind blows, maybe we can get around to asking why houses in "tornado alley" all blow away when there is a tornado? For an extra 10% cost during construction they could be built to still be standing, but shoddy construction sets them up to be blown away. Let us design our homes and facilities to survive in the location we build them. Enough said!