Report on “Sandy” from our town

Well, civilization has returned. We saw relatively little of the wrath of the storm. On Monday there were occasional gusts of wind but nothing out of the ordinary. However, here and there, by way of warning, the lights flickered for a second or two. I was madly writing “Misi, the squirrel,” hoping to beat Sandy.

Then around mid-afternoon the flickering was less friendly and actually brought down the computer. At this point I decided it was time to stop and retired to watch television. The TV watching didn’t last long. At exactly 6:08 the power went out, this time for good.

It seems, however, that practice makes perfect. Having gone through Irene last August and the Halloween snowstorm at the end of October we were very well prepared. Every large pot, for instance, was filled with water. In fact, we had more water than we actually needed. The chest freezer was almost full anyway, but we put in four gallon jugs of water days before the storm. We also jacked up the thermostat of the freezer to the highest point a day before.

Since we have a gas stove cooking was not a problem. On the other hand, the cold was really pretty demoralizing. On the first day it wasn’t too bad because we also turned up the thermostats fairly high before the storm, but from the second day on the average temperature in the house was 50-52 (10-12C) F. So, I spent at least half a day in bed under several covers and read.

The other problem was daylight. By five p.m. it was difficult to read without a lamp and in the morning it was pitch dark until 7:00. A lantern with fluorescent lights that works on batteries is excellent but not really good enough for hours of reading. Thus one sleeps and sleeps, and sleeps. And waits and waits for news.

As for news. We did receive daily information from town hall about the progress that was being made in restoring electricity. In the first two days not much happened around here, which is not surprising because first utility companies have to remove hazards (like live wires across roads) and restore important spots like hospitals and supermarkets. Then they move on to the heavily populated areas (not us). Our town’s schools were still closed on Friday.

Around Thursday we started getting better numbers until last night it turned out that we were one of the 250 or so households in town still without power (about 30%). This morning the crews appeared on our road. They came from Kentucky and Ohio. A couple of hours later there was light! People who were walking on the road beamed at each other when one of the crew reported “You have power!”

A fairly typical scene  from an area northeast of us /ReminderNews

After having so many devastating storms lately in this part of the world I often think of how well Hungarians would cope with such a disaster. In Hungary local outages often make national news, so I hear that in such and such a town fourteen of forty apartments were without heat because something or other went wrong. These problems seem to be fixed within a reasonable length of time, but the outcry usually is great. There seems to be little tolerance of mechanical failures or acts of God. If there’s a huge snowstorm and a couple of villages are impassable for a day or two, the workers trying to clear the roads meet with little sympathy let alone tolerance of the possible difficulties of the mission.

Of course, there are people here too who don’t cope terribly well. I just had a conversation with a friend from New Jersey, a state that is much worse off than Connecticut, who was telling me that his wife complains from morning till night. He himself was fairly cheerful although they were told that they might not have power for another two weeks. But on the whole there is an attitude of “toughing it out.” For instance, although in our town there was a shelter set up for the night for those without heat, no one showed up.

And finally, since I haven’t had time yet to look at Hungarian news, let me tell you about all the reading I did last week. First, I reread Ignác Romsics’s book on István Bethlen with special attention to his portrayal of Horthy and Bethlen. Then I moved on to Balázs Ablonczy’s biography of Pál Teleki. Here I was especially interested in Ablonczy’s opinion of Teleki’s antisemitism. I finished György Litván’s book on Oszkár Jászi that I had read only halfway through at the time I bought it, and I came to the conclusion that the best representative of the October Revolution of 1918 is not really Károlyi but Jászi. He was one of those men of his generation who never wavered from his democratic convictions and who condemned both Nazism and Communism. And finally, I read with great interest Zoltán Ripp’s excellent book Rendszerváltás Magyarországon, 1987-1990 (Regime Change in Hungary, 1987-1990). It provides a very detailed description of the political events leading up to the establishment of the Third Republic. I learned a lot from it.

I’m hoping that in the next few weeks there will be an opportunity to discuss some  topics from these books, and then of course on to the latest developments in Hungary. I understand that the IMF is fairly adamant in saying no to the Orbán government concerning negotiations as long as there are “differences of opinion” with the European Commission.

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66 comments

  1. Eva: I perfectly understand the infrastructure failing from trees falling on wires in an area like yours. But I don’t think this justification stands when during Irene, a great percentage of the DC metro area (including DC!) lost power for a week. This year, we either got lucky or something really did improve in a year, but we only had the lights flickering every now and then.

  2. Jano :

    Eva: I perfectly understand the infrastructure failing from trees falling on wires in an area like yours. But I don’t think this justification stands when during Irene, a great percentage of the DC metro area (including DC!) lost power for a week. This year, we either got lucky or something really did improve in a year, but we only had the lights flickering every now and then.

    Most likely the pass of the hurricane was different this year.

  3. Eva S. Balogh :
    Most likely the pass of the hurricane was different this year.

    That’s my guess too. Call it a hunch but for some reason I doubt Pepco did anything to the network…

  4. Jano :
    Eva: I perfectly understand the infrastructure failing from trees falling on wires in an area like yours. But I don’t think this justification stands when during Irene, a great percentage of the DC metro area (including DC!) lost power for a week. This year, we either got lucky or something really did improve in a year, but we only had the lights flickering every now and then.

    It was not only DC that lost power, and priority needed to be given for power restoration (water supply, hospitals, etc.) I do not think that most people consider what we are talking about here, so here some clipping:
    “with winds as strong as 70 miles per hour and up to 11 inches of total rainfall. Power was restored to 98 percent of our customers in little more than two days. This significant effort required mobilizing nearly 3,000 internal and external personnel and effectively executing our recently updated restoration plan. In 2011, PHI invested nearly $900 million in transmission and distribution infrastructure and advanced technology to improve reliability and customer service. Over the next five years, the company plans to invest $5.6 billion in its power delivery business ” THis is just ONE companies that put that much workers, and that much money into this. Again, please consider the size of the storms that the USA gets, and size of the areas. To put it into perspective: Hungary’s current council debt is that of the amount that only this power company will spend on improvement. Hungary’s total external debt in 2011 $184.5 billion.

  5. Some1: I wasn’t talking about the restoration efforts. I was reflecting on the infrastructure being so vulnerable in the first place in such a densely populated area just as well as in a miles long road with only a few houses, like where Eva lives.

    I’m glad to read that companies NOW have “plans”, but it’s astonishing that the capital area of the world’s leading economic power can be so vulnerable in 2012 while these kind of outages are virtually unknown in continental Europe. Yes, the areas are bigger but the population density is a lot lower in most of the land and I agreed that loosely populated areas are understandably more prone to failing.

  6. Eva S. Balogh :

    Some1 :
    Also, do not forget to compare the size of the countries.

    Sometime I have the distinct feeling that our friends who live in Europe or in Great Britain don’t really realize the distances here that make underground cabling, wiring very, very costly. Just to give an example. Our road is more than a mile long and although I didn’t count them but I guess that there are no more than 20 houses found on that long stretch.
    By local ordinance the “frontage” of the properties must be at least 300 feet long because there are individual wells and septic tanks. So, imagine the cost of laying underground cables on this road for 20 households.

    While this is quite correct, – changing the aerial cabling to underground, I mean – the initial cost wouldn’t be that frighteningly high if it was laid like that from day one, and today.
    What I trying to say is, the countries with long ago established infrastructure usually has much more ‘obsolete’ appliances in service than it happens to be in use in overall less developed places.
    Sounds like a contradiction, but if you think of something installed in 1912 versus installed in 2012, you’ll certainly get the clue.
    While the stuff still in working order from 1912, it certainly far more vulnerable today than the latter ones.

    Otherwise the relation to distances – my relation to distances – has changed quite a lot, nearly said dramatically: the nearest town with some 300.000 people is something like 35 miles away – it feels quite normal to ‘go to town’, while the same distance back in Hungary was something like an adventure, nothing what someone would treat like the place where you commute to work, or go to shop around…

  7. I agree with Jano. In our city here in the US Midwest, power regularly goes out after storms in different neighborhoods, and it takes a couple of days, sometimes a week or longer to get power back. This is a mid-sized city, not a rural area, and I am talking about regular storms, not a hurricane and tornado, and no flooding.

  8. spektator: “Noticeable too, that people having lived their entire life in capitalism, tend to be more tolerant regarding such failures than people used to live under the ‘socialist’ regimes”

    According to my memory a typical image that I got from both East German or Czech comments to any such misfortunes in a socialist economy (during those times) was that this was simply impossible to happen in a “capitalist” country. The expectations about why exactly people in these societies (perhaps) are better able to cope with such calamities was that this is because they do not live in “communism” (so most calamities cannot occur by definition). This idea was so compelling that I am still taken by surprise if I see that things that I attributed to “planned economy” during my childhood currently occur also but are now said to be REALLY caused by bad weather, other unforeseen events and simply COULD NOT have been prevented…

  9. spectator :
    Otherwise the relation to distances – my relation to distances – has changed quite a lot, nearly said dramatically: the nearest town with some 300.000 people is something like 35 miles away – it feels quite normal to ‘go to town’, while the same distance back in Hungary was something like an adventure, nothing what someone would treat like the place where you commute to work, or go to shop around…

    Yes, yes. The cracked me up on my recent visit at my parents’ place in Budapest. THere was something I wanted to go for like 40 km (around 25 miles) away, and my parents were like “THat is so far to go”. bahaha I took my daughter for some activity this summer 66 km each way from Toronto for three weeks.

  10. @Kristen
    (during those times) – you said, and I don’t have any objection.
    However, having lived in a few Western-European countries. I’ve experienced, that people more tolerant about events like this where they’re aware that it isn’t the ‘government’ or the ‘state’ the only responsible actor, but XX company who having some problems right now. In my experience, the people who used to have a super in the house as tenant in a state owned apartment, or having had state owned companies taking care of their leaking roof and/or such, having much more difficult times in times of distress than the ones with ingrown responsibility about their well being.

    It’s interesting, though, that how much our experiences are different.
    But, than again, our countries were significantly different, in spite the nominally identical political system.

    Believe me, or not, I still can rely on the moral- and human values of that times, although not the political ones.

  11. spectator, I meant that the attitude by me is still ingrained (at least I can easily recollect this).

    I do not doubt your experience but in my impression you will not find many countries in “Europe” (in quotes because of the fluid Eastern border of “civilised Europe”) where electricity outages of several days will not be considered a bit “underdeveloped” (even if that does happen, some years ago this happened e.g. in some area of northern West Germany, and in such a case people ARE alarmed about the state of public infrastructure). I would not attribute that to “capitalism or not” but more to some European idea of being the pinnacle of civilisation. Small government or small public infrastructure is not considered a particular priority. So when I hear that Americans are rather “relaxed” about the state of their infrastructure and power outages, I would relate this to the strong tradition in organisation without being led by the government. You may find the Europeans too dependent on government, but after all, government has been nearly constantly effective for a number of centuries.

  12. Minusio :
    Paul: “… it must be possible to design something that allows an oil furnace to continue working for a few days without mains electricity.”
    In a small two-storey house my parents bought near Lake Constance in the late 50s they had central heating installed that worked with an oil-fired stove (like the small, smelly oil ovens you probably have come across, too). It was a stove you could cook on. It came with built-in water-pipe coils for the central heating that worked without a circulation pump. The problem was that fuel-burning efficiency was poor, and the stove and the chimney sooted up, requiring thorough cleaning twice a year.
    I doubt that a modern oil-fired furnace could be made to run like this – unless you want to have everything dismantled and cleaned after power is restored. It would require a modified burning chamber and a second – gravity-fed (!) oil intake. And the pipes and radiators must be arranged in such a way that they can be reached by the hot water without a circulation pump. If there is a mixing valve, that must be able to be pushed to open manually.
    Quite a feat. But I guess it could be done.

    I was thinking more along the lines of designing the system to use the least possible electricity (e.g. central heating systems in the UK used to run without a pump – it’s better with one, but the house stlll warmed up without one) and providing battery back-up, so that enough power to run the system was available for (say) a week. The system could even include a small generator which would supply enough power to keep it running, once it was started (like a car has/does).

    I am no engineer (although the son of one), so I’m sure if I can come up with these ideas in just a few seconds of thought, heating/power engineers/companies could do a lot better.

  13. For anyone interested in how it’s done in the UK:

    Electricity was originally supplied by local companies (ditto for water and gas), but these were nationalised very early on, so that a proper country-wide system could be developed – including a national grid. But, under Thatcher, everything that could be privatised, was, including electricity.

    I am generally against the privatisation of essential services (e.g. for water it makes no sense at all, as competition is impossible), but in the case of electricity it has actually worked in my favour as I am now able to buy all my electricity from green sources, which I’m sure I would never have been able to do under a State controlled system. But the key to the success of electricity privatisation is that competition is possible – but this is only possible because of the national grid.

    Although the grid was also privatised, it was done separately from the supply companies, who have to pay to have their electricity transmitted over the grid. The National Grid also has a legal duty to maintain and improve the system. In addition their is a government regulatory body that monitors all this and has quite strong powers to fine companies or force them to behave properly.

    The end result seems to be a ‘typically British’, and fairly successful, compromise, with what is officially an entirely privatised system running very much like a State controlled one (but without the usual problems associated with non-commercial, centralised control).

    My one caveat is over the question of investment in future power production (in particular nuclear v green), which is entirely in the hands of the electricity companies, with the government not seeming to know what direction to go in, or what pressure to apply. So, in the near future we may well have a world-standard distribution system, but not enough electricity to distribute!

  14. As “Uninterruptible Power supplies” don’t last long enough (although they kick in in milliseconds), it all boils down to a generator and enough fuel to run it for a week. That way you could run the furnace, watch tv and have a few lights on. Cooking on an electrical stove is out. So for that you should have either a gas range or a gas cooker as you would use for camping.

  15. Uninteruptable power supplies typically don’t last long because a) they are required to provide a lot of power, and b) they aren’t designed to run for long – they are intended to either bridge the gap until power is restored, or to allow controlled powering down. What I’m talking about is a battery with enough capacity to just start a furnace and run the fuel and water pumps for a few days.

    You don’t need mains electricity for lights (candles, torches, camping lamps, etc will get you through a few days), you don’t need it for keeping up with the news (batteries in a radio last for months), and you don’t need it to cook (I’m sure I would have a large camping stove in the garage if I lived where Éva does!). But, without a stove and a supply of fuel, you DO need it for heat. And, in the depths of an East Coast winter, it won’t be cooking, lighting and TV you’ll be worrying about first.

    All the other bases are covered, so why haven’t manufacturers come up with an oil furnace that can survive a long-term power cut?

  16. London Calling!

    I have in my loft an ‘Aladdin’ paraffin room heater – which when you take the lid off is a cooking stove.

    It is brand-new with two five-gallon containers of paraffin in the garden shed.

    It is a design classic – just like the Citroën 2CV motor car – in beautiful light green enamel which will last forever – and is lovely to look at!

    Which is just as well as it has been there unused (un-needed) for thirty-three years.

    Regards

    Charlie

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