I called up the only hotel in a thirty-mile radius which had rooms available according to a popular online booking site. “Do you have electricity at your hotel?”
“Yes, sir we do.”
“Do you have any rooms available for tonight?”
“I’m afraid not sir”
I suspect that prospective boarders do not usually ask the Arlington Hilton staff if their hotel has electricity, but the past few days have been hardly usual.
After what seemed like an innocuous series of lightning strikes late on Friday night, millions of people (including yours truly) have been out of power in at least seven states in the United States. I say the storm was mostly harmless as someone who has experienced quite a few cyclones growing up in eastern India. What happened on Friday night didn’t wake me up. I may be a sound sleeper, but even my four-month old wakes me up. Suffice it to say that a cyclone keeps me up.
Usually, when I’ve experienced a power outage in India, it has been restored within a day. Yes, we had frequent outages, especially during the monsoon and the brutally-oppressive summer, but we also always had a Plan B for these situations. People who can afford backup power sources such as generators and batteries keep them online for our frequent bouts of loadshedding. Before we had a generator in the house I grew up in, we had hurricane lanterns and hand-fans. It gets oppressively hot in my hometown, of course, but there are thick wooden windows, thick brick walls and as Kipling said “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
The situation is vastly different if you live in a hermetically-sealed high-rise with glass windows like I do in Arlington, Virginia. In 40 degree Centigrade temperature (which is what we’ve been experiencing recently) air-conditioning is needed just to keep the apartments from turning into greenhouses.
On Saturday morning, in a suburb of supposedly the most-powerful city in the most-powerful nation in the world there was chaos. The mall right next to our high-rise shut down. Most shops were shuttered. The few that were open were taking cash but, not taking credit cards. ATMs were out of order. The major phone companies were down without any service.
By Saturday afternoon, the situation was even more precarious and our apartment was indeed turning into a furnace. My four-month old son was incessantly vomiting from the heat. Babies have very small surface area so they don’t radiate heat as well as grownups do. Due to the kindness of two close friends, we were able to stay where there was electricity so the baby was able to sleep. A number of friends and strangers offered to open their homes to us and for that we are grateful.
The following day, we were able to get a room at the Hilton: we decided to stay there primarily because the work-week had been looming and there had been no indication of when power would be restored. Thankfully, the baby has recovered and we are a five minute walk away from home.
It was the worst possible time to be traveling. On Saturday, I realized that I needed to cancel flights I had booked after checking in baggage at an airport. After that what followed is a masterclass in how not to do logistics. I was assured by various airline staff that my bags would be physically removed (since there were 8 hours before my scheduled flight) and held at the baggage service office. I decided to grab lunch. When I arrived later to pick up my bags, I was informed that my bags had somehow flown to New York City! Over two days of pestering followed in which various employees including a few desis have shown various levels of incompetence. Airline staff typed a lot and made a lot of stern faces, but nothing really happened. Finally, it was a sympathetic desi presumably at a call-center in India who put in an expedited request for my bags. At the time of writing, I am told the bags have returned to Washington DC on a flight and are somewhere on a truck.
Latest estimates are that it could take up to a week for power to be restored, though the front desk of our building has informed us that we might get back power today if we are lucky. Some folks never lost power. Others got it back within minutes.
Close to 3.5 million people lost power due to a series of storms that were literally not on anyone’s radar on Friday afternoon.
I am not claiming that my situation is either unique or representative. I am not saying that the power companies are not faced with a daunting task of restoring power. But when you take something like electricity for granted, you usually don’t have a backup plan. Next time, for there surely will be a next time, I hope there is backup.
Postscript: we got back power over 100 hours later.