I make no secret that my day job is doing Facilities Maintenance at a large local grocery store. At my particular location, there are two buildings. The older building, built in 1977, originally housed The Store until 1996, when the second building went up to contain the new, expanded Store. The older building now houses a few smaller businesses, but my company still owns and maintains both buildings.
The new building, with The Store, is powered from the utility company via lines that connect from streetside poles to the main transformers. The old building was powered by a buried utility line that ran from a streetside pole, into the ground, and under the parking lot until it met that building’s main transformers. In the last few years, I’ve seen both of these power systems fail, each time on the utility side. What happens is that the power goes out in the building, and then the electricians we contract are called on an emergency basis to assess the situation and determine if repair is their responsibility or if it is on the utility side, in which case the power company has to come out.
When the power went because of a pole-transformer malfunction to the new building, it took probably about an hour for our electricians to arrive and determine where the issue was; then it took another hour for the power company to arrive with a crew and a truck with a boom-lift on it; then another hour or maybe two for the repair, after which our electricians were able to re-energize The Store. The outage began early in the day, and we were back up and running before noon.
In the case of the old building, the outage similarly began early in the day–actually, this one was overnight. It wasn’t a complete outage, which made diagnosis difficult; it was hard for our electricians to determine if the problem was actually on the building side or on the utility side, and they had to wait for the utility folks to arrive. It was also hard for the utility folks to make the determination where the problem was, since the main utility line was underground, running beneath half the parking lot and a driveway. Eventually, however, it turned out that the buried power line was the problem and the utility supply line needed replaced. So there were two options here: bury a new line, which would mean digging up a whole lot of ground and pavement, laying the line, replacing the ground and repaving, or, installing a new pole and running a new utility line from the street overhead.
Because of time and expense, they went with option B: a new pole and an above-ground, in-the-air supply line.
This installation still took over a day, with the workers working overnight to install the new pole, run the new line, make the connections, and get everything energized.
Why am I bringing this up?
Because my region has just come through one of the nastiest winter storms anyone can recall, and as I write this, there are still several thousand people without power in the City of Buffalo. Many of these outages were caused by downed power lines, when poles collapsed after withstanding many hours of winds exceeding 60mph. I saw a lot of people on social media screaming about how antiquated our electrical infrastructure is, and why can’t they just bury all the lines and be done with it!
That’s a problem with our public discourse in the face of disasters, isn’t it? People just throwing out suggestions–Bury all the power lines!–as if they’re the least bit realistic or reasonable. No one in these conversations seemed to consider for one second the magnitude of an infrastructure project that would be for an entire city (particularly one that is not wealthy–but more on that below), or if it would even be possible or advisable.
I did a bit of googling and reading, and it turns out that buried power lines are preferable in many instances, but as with all things, there are tradeoffs. Burying lines means, by definition, doing a lot of unsightly digging and then covering up, and lines have to go under existing streets and roads and lots. That is a lot of very expensive and time-consuming work…and durability is an issue as well. While you don’t have to worry about buried lines breaking because their poles broke, you do have to worry about them breaking because of corrosion (even in thick insulation), and when they do fail–as I saw directly just last summer–the options for repair or limited and intrusive.
Another facet of this discussion was the constant refrain that, the power should have been back ON already, dammit! And I get this frustration. While I absolutely salute the electricians and line-workers who have to go out and actually do this work, which is dangerous and often happens in unpleasant conditions, I myself have been irritated during power loss events at the lack of concrete information that our power companies provide. I get it.
From the moment those utility workers mentioned above determined that they had to replace the buried cable to the moment the work was done and power restored to those four businesses, it was fully twenty-four hours, if not more. That’s to restore power to a single building in the case of a failed underground power line.
My point is this: while yes, the power companies should share more information, most people have very little real notion of what is involved with these repairs and how long they take in the best conditions.
Moving on, though…this storm has exposed an awful lot of failure from the conceptual level as to how to deal with a storm like this, how a city in the 21st century should be equipped to deal with a storm like this, and what the priorities should be in the wake of a storm like this.
It’s true that this was a “generational” event. Nothing like this storm has been seen here since either 1985 or 1977, so when we talk about preparation, no one is seriously suggesting hundreds of plow trucks standing at the ready. But the simple fact is that in the community of Buffalo, there simply is not enough community infrastructure to provide vital support at the hyper-local level in the event of a serious weather emergency that significantly delays the city’s and the county’s major efforts. It is simply not acceptable–or it shouldn’t be–in 21st century America for entire families to go hungry during the five or six days they are without power and unable to procure food in their food-desert neighborhoods where no stores even exist to be open in the first place.
It is simply not acceptable, or it shouldn’t be acceptable, that a city like Buffalo, whose national reputation is “Holy shit, the snow!”, should be so resolutely bad at removing the stuff, with no tried-and-true plan of attack. The city had barely finished cleaning up from the last snowstorm, which was just six weeks ago.
It is simply not acceptable, or it shouldn’t be acceptable, for a city that faces this sort of storm (if not with this intensity) to find itself short on equipment every time it happens, all the while continuing to increase its Police budget every year.
It is simply not acceptable for the city’s Mayor to go mostly silent during the event but come out with his strongest language when it’s almost over and when there’s been a small amount of sporadic looting by desperate and hungry citizens in the poorest neighborhoods. And it is entirely unacceptable for the general party line from the entire local governmental apparatus to be, at this point, “Look, we told you the storm was coming, you should have had two weeks of food on hand.” In a city where many live below the poverty line on a paycheck-to-paycheck existence.
I find myself wondering a lot of things: Why were disaster declarations so slow in coming? Why was the National Guard mobilized and dispatched to Buffalo so late in the game, and in such small numbers? Why are Military Police being used to ticket drivers instead of distributing food and medicine, and attending to snowed-in citizens who may have desperate needs at this point? Why are local towns using SWAT vehicles that they have no business owning in the first place for snow removal, which they are not designed to do?
Some people believe that climate change will mean more of these kinds of events in the future. I don’t know if that’s the case, but we have these kinds of events now, and the response has not been encouraging…nor is the fact that the people at the helm have been there for years. If we’re going to be a city in a place where once in a while weather can bring just about everything to a standstill, that’s not in itself a bad thing…but we have to be able to do more, much more, than just tell people “Guess you shoulda bought more food, then.” I find myself thinking a lot today about John Scalzi’s old Being Poor essay, which he wrote in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the appalling chorus of scolds saying things like, “You knew the hurricane was coming, so why didn’t you just leave?”
Despite all the advances in communication, energy infrastructure, etc in the past 46 years, this storm has already killed more people than the longer, snowier Blizzard of 77 when Erie Co had a larger population.
But don’t you dare criticize the performance of elected officials. https://t.co/odGgaiXhIq
— Rob Galbraith (@RobCGalbraith) December 27, 2022
Over past few years, City of Buffalo has claimed a renaissance. Does City's poor blizzard preparedness, response, recovery set that back? How can you recruit new residents and businesses if basic human/economic needs can't be met? The world is watching. The world is heartbroken.
— Bob Confer (@bobconfer) December 27, 2022