09.09.11

Report From the Blackout

A massive power outage hit Southern California as temperatures hovered above 100 degrees. Larry Bohannan reports from a region thrown into confusion.

When word first hit our newspaper office that a large power outage had hit the eastern side of the Coachella Valley, sometime around 3:30 p.m. Thursday, my first thought was of my cat.

If my house in Indio, about 18 miles from our Palm Springs office, was hit by the outage, the temperature in the house would begin to soar quickly. And the cat, 20 years old and accustomed to air conditioning, ceiling fans, and plenty of water during the day, could be in some trouble. I checked the Internet for a quick temperature read, and it was 112 degrees in Palm Springs and 115 degrees in Indio. That’s about 10 degrees above average for this time of year and not exactly the best day for a power outage to knock out air conditioning.

But because it’s a dry heat, the website cheerfully informed me, it only felt like 109 outside.

At first it seemed like the outage was nothing more than the typical outage that can hit the Palm Springs desert when temperatures reach 110 or higher, and the desert’s thirst for electricity overwhelms the equipment of local power companies. After all, the outages were mostly in the eastern end of the valley, where Imperial Irrigation District rules the desert, not the western end, where Edison supplies power. Because outages are common, the usually civic precautions were put into place. Senior centers, with backup generators, were opened as cool stations for those without electricity. For those with Twitter capability on their cellphones, one local casino resort in Indio tweeted that they had generators, food, cold beverages, and big-screen televisions to watch the opening game of the NFL season.

Then came the stories of outages spreading to San Diego, western Arizona and even northern Mexico. And there was word that power could be out until Friday, making for a long, hot, and dark evening in the desert. My cat would not be pleased.

Leaving the office as early as I could, I made it home in bright daylight at 5:35 p.m. through a maze of stop lights, half of which seemed to work and the other half either blinking red or just out entirely. Some lines were forming at gas stations that had no power for their pumps. Traffic at one off ramp of Interstate 10, the main artery from Los Angeles to Phoenix which cuts through the desert, was backed up about half a mile onto the freeway because the traffic light was out.

I was greeted at home by a garage door opener that didn’t work and a cat that seemed to sense something was up besides the temperature. I was also greeted with no air conditioning, no ceiling fans, and temperatures inside my house already climbing above 90 degrees.

Always in fear that an earthquake (aka the Big One) might hit at any second (my house is about a mile and a half from the San Andreas Fault), many desert residents own flashlights and are stocked with extra batteries for emergencies. I put those into play for lights and a radio, knowing I’d have to restock my supplies later in the week. But the power outage is better than the Big One any day.

As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones. Somehow power in my housing development was restored about an hour after I came home. After resetting the time on microwaves and alarm clocks and putting lots of ice in the water dish for the cat, I went out exploring.

Just one mile from my house, on the south side of Avenue 42 in Indio, there was no power at all. Employees were milling around the entrances of grocery stores and home improvement stores, turning away customers who didn’t have batteries or candles at home. But just across the street, on the north side of Avenue 42, the lights blazed at Indio Golf Course, the desert’s only lighted course for nighttime play. And there were people teeing off, even as the temperatures still hovered at about 105 degrees.

In a Walgreens store on the north side of the street, a line was developing with people looking for bags of ice, plastic ice chests, and ice cream. The clerk said she expected to be busy all night, but she was just glad the store could be there for people in need. As I left, another man walked in saying, “Do you all have any ice?” One man told me he had just stopped by to get something to drink, but that he and his dog were going to cruise around the desert in his air-conditioned car until it was safe to go back home.

We heard that a rare Thursday night high school football game at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal, another small town in the agricultural east end of the desert, had been cancelled because stadium lights might not work. In fact, several schools in the Coachella Unified School District cancelled classes for Friday well before officials knew if they would have power restored by then.

The high temperature on Friday should reach only 105 degrees by midday.

By 9 p.m., with only small areas of the affected area getting power back, police were telling people without power to head to the casinos. Emergency room lobbies at hospitals with backup power were also being advertised as cool stations. Those places were getting plenty of action on one of the hottest nights of the year.

I received a call from a friend who lives in La Quinta, about 10 miles from my house, who had no power at her house. She had packed up her long-haired Chihuahua and headed to the west end of the desert, where her mother had power in her mobile home. She was lamenting how the desert, with about half a million full-time residents just two hours east of Los Angeles, is so totally reliant on power for our very existence in the summer. She was also worried that an entire pork shoulder she had just bought might go bad in her unpowered freezer.

The good news for those still without power into Friday morning is that a cooling trend is expected. The temperature should reach a high of only 105 degrees by midday.