Opinion | No easy answers for outages, except preparedness, positive thinking

Of all the things we take for granted, electricity is easily the biggest. I never realized how much of my routine depends on Puget Sound Energy’s fragile grid.

For even simple things like hot food, fingers that aren’t icicles or a face free of beard stubble, I’ve come to depend on electrical devices, to say nothing of entertainment or the ability to get the news out.

Sometime in the last six years, I forgot the lessons of 2006. My wife remembers the December 15 storm and, where we lived, the subsequent four-day outage, as a quiet time to work by the dim light of generators and cuddle under piles of blankets. I remember it less fondly, driving 20 miles just to send an e-mail, and longing to be able to take a hot shower. When the power finally came on, I told myself, “Never again.”

We stocked up on candles and lanterns that autumn, but fell out of storm-prep practice as mild five winters went by.

Flash forward to last week. I happened to be scraping a glasslike sheet of ice off the car at 7:51 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, when I watched the streetlights suddenly go dark. North Bend was dead. So was Snoqualmie. The Valley Record office was a cacophony of beeps, as battery backups for the computers ran down their stored juice. Cell phones were useless. It felt like we were going back to the stone age.

But when I hit the streets, I was amazed at how upbeat everyone else was. Folks who survive Valley storms quickly learn to stock up and buy a generator. One man simply retreated to his camp trailer. Most folks were positive about the whole thing, despite the inconveniences; they treat it like a snow day, and don’t worry about the possibility of spoilt food or spoilt weekend plans.

I was also struck by Valley ingenuity. One Snoqualmie family turned an outing to the gas station to buy generator fuel into a fun sledding trek. A neighbor kept life normal with a hand grinder for coffee and an e-reader. At the Transitional Health Center, staff quickly got residents out of cold areas, rigging up offices and the beauty salon as makeshift rooms.

A storm shout-out also goes to this newspaper’s carriers. I witnessed several young carriers making their rounds even during the blackouts. There’s determination for you!

Of course, with the good comes the bad. I wouldn’t wish this disaster we’ve just been through on anyone (except, maybe, those folks in Los Angeles who call us “snow wimps.” Come stay at my place, Angeleños!)

People who weren’t ready for this were caught flatfooted. I heard from a Beaverton, Ore., resident who was amazed that no one had checked up on his mother at her local senior residence after two days without power. I sympathize with anyone whose health or livelihood suffered due to the storm.

I wholeheartedly agree with this week’s letter writer who asks why we have to keep plunging into darkness every few years, and wants someone to do something about it. But there are no simple answers.

PSE trims trees and buries lines when and where it can, as it’s cost effective. With forest all around us, though, we may not be able to tree-trim our way out of danger. But we can prepare at a local level and in the grid, by reporting dangerous trees and stocking up. I thought that was the lesson of 2006; how many times do we have to repeat it?


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