Saturday, January 20, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Civilization Is On The Brink…
If We Run Out Of Doughnuts

Like many families, we bundled up this past Sunday morning and headed to Church. We had a lot to be thankful for when the second ice storm in as many days failed to materialize on Saturday night. True, Friday’s storm had knocked much of St. Charles and North St. Louis County off its feet. Over 100,000 Ameran UE customers, mostly in St. Charles County, were again without power.

Who could have guessed this would happen again? Who could have anticipated that old growth trees would snap like…well twigs under the weight of ice? What kind of psychic power would it take to know that heavy falling branches hitting thin electric cables would cause those fragile electric lines to fall to the ground themselves?

Who could have foreseen all this?

Well, I guess just about anybody and for that matter, most of the five year olds we surveyed. Still, the problem eludes the top executives of our electric utility company.

The resulting lack of power, which hit our house around midnight on Friday, plunged most everyone into darkness. Thus began this week’s episode of…48 Hours…without power or heat. You could stand on our back porch and every minute or so hear the distinct loud crack of another limb falling somewhere in Midtown. When they fell close enough, like in my own backyard, there was also the dull thud the bigger limbs make as they hit the earth. You don’t want to be under one when it hits. Some of the impact holes are eight inches deep.

It took a while for the heat in the house to dissipate, but we still passed a cold night under extra blankets. About twelve hours later, we had power again for a few hours. Then it went out again as darkness fell and the cold rains set in. Either they were toying with us or whoever runs the giant hamster wheel Ameran UE uses to generate power had decided to go home for the night.

My parents and brother were huddled at our house by then. Fortunately Sue’s and my 19th Century survival skills provided us with candles and lanterns of every conceivable shape and size. Tapers lasted the longest. I’ve also scratched beeswax candles from my list of household essentials as they burn twice as fast and leave a puddle of sticky wax. We also broke into the game closet and reintroduced ourselves to the fun we use to have before the electronic revolution.

We ventured out for lunch Saturday and found refuge in Friday’s on South 94. There wasn’t much else open between us and them except for the Jack ‘N The Box on Zumbehl which had a line of cars stretching around the building. Everything else on Zumbehl was out, as were all of the restaurants along Veteran’s Memorial Parkway. But if they won’t tell people what’s in their secret sauce, I’m sure Jack ‘N The Box isn’t going to tell us how they keep their lights on.

The wait staff at Friday’s was in a good humor and making the most of the situation. There was a little less gallows humor at Quick Trip which had posted handmade signs in the windows that read: “no ice, no gas, no milk, no bread.” The signs were still up Sunday when I filled up my tank and went in to pay. I tried joking with the cashier about what I had filled my tank with if they were out of gas. The sunken eyes seemed to stare through me as he said the pumps had just come back on line. I could tell he was suffering from battle fatigue, having probably stood his post all night, brave soldier.

By late Saturday, still expecting the second storm, my wife quipped she was checking out hotels down South. I think she meant the deep South. Somewhere near Tampa. I joked back that there was an unwritten rule that a local official has to go down with the ship. She asked if that applied to the wives of local officials. I’m still checking on that.

In all seriousness, I can’t say enough about the professionalism and dedication shown by our Street crews, Police personnel, Firemen, EMS workers, dispatchers, Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes, Police Chief Tim Swope and the City Administrator. They kept us informed as best they could, worked long hours and will continue to work long hours. Ameran UE also made sure there were enough emergency crews out this time, knowing all eyes would be watching them. I know how hard their rank and file personnel worked. It didn’t look like much fun playing with high power electric lines in the rain.

While I’m on a serious note, we also have to do something to “harden” the power distribution system in this city. Too many lives are being put at risk from these kind of outages. What would have happened had a benevolent God not spared us the second storm?

To that end I will ask for cost estimates on undergrounding a few select areas, to see what the relative costs would be. If Ameran keeps the cost artificially high to discourage the conversion, then we will need the help of the Missouri General Assembly to force a change in their corporate attitude. In the meantime, I hope someone in Jefferson City took the time to read the resolution I sponsored a month ago, asking that the Public Service Commission have the authority to require Ameran to trim trees more frequently than they do on their own.

I also want to commend the Good Samaritans among us. Four different people called our family to offer us shelter in their own homes. It was much the same for others. I would estimate that over half our population found accommodations with friends and relatives to stay warm. The warming shelter at Memorial Hall was needed, but never full.

The area was so self-reliant, that I was surprised the Governor made his visit, but we can always use more tourists. It was also a bit surreal to see National Guardsmen on South Main. I don’t think anyone was close to looting for early Victorian accent pieces, but better safe than sorry. I heard on the news the Guardsmen were going door-to-door passing out information. They never got to my home, but it’s nice to know they can get to St. Charles when needed.

Getting back to Church on Sunday, the starting point of this story, attendance did seem down somewhat, but people were in good health and their spirits uplifted by the choir and Father’s sermon. He asked how many people were still without electricity and about eighty-percent of those seated in the pews raised their hands. Then he announced that the reception in the cafeteria, scheduled as having doughnuts and coffee, would be sans doughnuts. It seemed the power outages had effected IGA’s ability to provide them.

An audible groan could be heard in the Church. A Sunday morning without doughnuts? What was the world coming to? Had all our technological genius and marvels come to this? We all realized in an instant just how close our society had come to collapse.
A friend later quipped that mankind had gotten along for millions of years without electricity and that it therefore wasn’t essential to survival. I’m not so sure we could survive without electric hairdryers, cable television, surround-sound, e-mail, automatic icemakers, dishwashers, the internet and the Holy Grail of our power driven social fabric…the remote control.

That reminds me. I think I’ll go out and buy more batteries and perhaps a box of doughnuts…just in case.