Peter Eicher

Our civilization depends on electricity ... and the repair crews who keep it flowing

November 09, 2012 1:17 PM EST

I was going to continue writing about snapshots, but a hurricane got in the way.  Instead, I wanted to share some thoughts about Hurricane Sandy.

I was in the firing line, living on Long Island (not near the water). But I can’t complain about anything more than being inconvenienced.  My lights went out Monday at about 5 p.m. and didn’t come back until Sunday at just after 9 p.m.  A pretty long stretch to be without power, generally speaking, but in the bigger landscape of homes and lives being washed away, being without power and losing a storm window to a flying branch are hardly anything to moan about. I got lucky. I even managed to fill up my gas tank the second day, just coincidentally, without knowing a severe gas shortage would soon follow. So I got lucky again. 

I suppose like other data protection pundits I should turn this into a cautionary tale about backing up your data, but that seems both picayune and obvious. And there’s a much, much bigger technology warning bell here. Electricity.

One thing that really hits home in a power outage is how much we depend upon electricity. Basically, we use it for just about everything. Because I have a gas stove I could light it with a match and cook, and because my water heater uses a pilot light I even had hot showers (such a blessing! I got lucky again).  But just about everything else runs on electricity, and it was all down for the count.

Think about it. No electricity means no refrigeration. No heat (my gas heat, alas, would not start without electric power). No communications of any kind (AT&T cell service went down around midnight the first day). No electronic forms of entertainment – no music, no web, no video, no games. No access to work. Just nothing.

And most of all no light, that most basic tool of civilization for pushing back the night.

More than ever, the Greek myth of Prometheus rings true for our times. Not only did Prometheus steal fire from the gods to bring mankind light and heat, but symbolically he also brought the light of knowledge to man. And these days, that Promethean Fire of knowledge is created, stored and shared using electricity.

What on earth would we do without electricity? How long would we last in the event of a very long outage, such as might be caused by a solar flare or EMP attack? Maybe we can’t prepare for those kinds of events, but we can certainly do better dealing with storms.

Which brings me to my standard gripe after events like Sandy.  Why on earth don’t we bury the power lines? Why are so many communities which are routinely hit by storms of both rain and snow still served by power carried in a fragile and exposed overhead line? 

Sure, it’s not something you can fix in a week. It would be a decades long process. But we don’t even try, and I suspect we’ll still be having storms a few decades from now.  It would cost a lot, you say. Sure it would, but how much does it cost us when the lights go out? We recently spent  an $800 billion stimulus, and what really did we get for it? Beats me. But I suspect you could bury an awful lot of power lines for $800 billion. (One study estimated to bury all the lines in Washington, D.C., would cost $5.8 billion. Well that leaves us $794.2 billion to go!)

The gas and water infrastructures are underground, and hence almost never impacted by hurricanes or storms, even those as fierce as Sandy, other than when a facility floods.  Yet we continue to string our most vital utility overhead on poles exposed to all the blasts of nature.

I don’t get it.

But that brings me to the rest of the story. About 6 p.m. on the Sunday following Sandy, with the temperature outside dropping fast, suddenly a row of trucks appeared outside my window, coming down my street. The repair crew had arrived!

I spent a good deal of time watching the goings-on as the repair crew, dressed in awkward looking outfits with clumsy rubber gloves, started to repair the wires. (Their gloves made me think of trying to tie on a fish hook while wearing mittens, yet somehow they can work wearing them). 

Well, long story short, about three hours later the lights came on. The crew’s work was done, but not really. They had to go do that again I suppose a few hundred more times before they were through (those men and the thousands more like them working night and day).

And it occurred to me that these are the people that really keep our civilization going. Our civilization doesn’t rest in the hands of hedge fund traders and currency speculators that make billions. Nor does it rest in the hands of millionaire celebrities and athletes who live lives beyond those of kings. Nor does it rest in the hands of politicians who wag their forked tongues and take our money. It doesn’t even rest in the hands of a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs or other famous technocrats that give us endless new tools and toys.

No, our civilization rests in the hands of an anonymous man wearing awkward rubber gloves, a man with the smarts, guts and grit to get up in a bucket truck on a cold Sunday night in November, putting his life at risk to make sure that the Promethean Flame of power and knowledge keeps burning in our homes and businesses.

That’s who keeps civilization going. And we’re never going to thank them enough.