May 23 2012 02:19 PM

What were you doing when we all went off the grid?

D.A. Kolodenko

Earlier this month, the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) ended its eight-month review of the massive power outage across San Diego, Imperial County, Yuma and Baja California on Sept. 8, 2011.

According to the FERC report, the largest blackout in California history was initiated by a single line outage during maintenance work in Arizona, but the ultimate problem was lack of coordination throughout the interconnected systems. Over a span of 11 minutes, power overloads to different lines and equipment triggered a series of tripping mechanisms across the region. The report concluded that operators must implement real-time information sharing so they can better coordinate efforts to manage the grids in future situations.

During a cataclysm, you tend to remember exactly where you were when it happened. Because the blackout affected about 7 million people from the afternoon of the 8th into early the following morning, San Diegans remember not just where they were, but what they did during the course of the day-long event.

That day at the company where I work, for instance, I vividly recall that when the computer network went down and reports of the scope of the blackout rolled in, many co-workers headed home. But the traffic from industrial east Carlsbad to the freeway was gridlocked and some turned back. When reports of the traffic mess reached those of us still at the office, I decided to postpone my drive home to San Diego and joined a group of other employees waiting it out in our cafeteria. The facilities team graciously brought us water and snacks, and I went down to my car and got the transistor radio that I use for baseball games. It told us that we were looking at hours or days until full restoration of power.

It wasn't just the traffic jam that had brought us together. Informed by zombie movies, the L.A. riots and the devastating San Diego County wildfires of recent years, those of us who hesitated to head out shared an unspoken sense of uncertainty about what kind of world awaited our commute—would San Diego descend into a dystopian blackoutalypse with mass looting and burning police cars? I'm sure some of you also shared that momentary anxiety.

San Diego, our ostensibly sunny dream world, was once again revealed as a metropolis on a tightrope—now we'd have to add blackouts to the list of things that could suddenly wipe out our tourist utopia factory: the suburb-eating fires, an international border fraught with conflict, a rundown nuclear power plant to the immediate north, nuclear-powered submarines parked in our harbor, water shortages, a giant earthquake due at any instant without warning and the subsequent tsunami it might trigger.

Feeling restless, I ditched our makeshift compound around sunset and took a walk to the strip-mall food court across the street to see what was up. The place was shut down and empty, with one exception:

The small, family-owned Chinese fast-food joint was open and serving food cooked to order in a giant wok over a propane flame. It brought to mind third-world street food. There was a line of people out the door from local businesses, and a vacationing family that had run low on gasoline and pulled into the closed 7-Eleven station next to the restaurant joined the rest of us for some chow mein. I'd never been a fan of the place, but this time the noodles satisfied in the way emergency food always does.

When I finally headed home, the freeway was uncrowded and orderly—no zombies in sight. By the time I reached Ocean Beach, the sun had set and the "black" in blackout had descended on the city. I grabbed my flashlight and visited my neighbors. At one of the cottages, I drank a glass of wine by candlelight with some new tenants I'd never met before.

Then I took a walk through Ocean Beach. The streets were dark and packed with revelers, many heading down to the beach for a massive bonfire. Newport Avenue was dark, except for The Harp—it was packed, candlelit, serving up ice-cold beer and counting change by hand. The electricity-free atmosphere was electric. I wound up walking with a group of new friends to Lucy's, the other open bar, where we remained until closing time. When the power suddenly returned around 1 a.m., we cheered and toasted, but the relief was mixed with regret. Under the artificial lighting, my new friends seemed like strangers again.

After the blackout, I heard similar stories of how it had initiated a sense of shared experience, togetherness, community. I know that some folks had an unpleasant time of it—stuck in elevators or guarding their shops from possible looting—but for such an extended and widespread blackout, San Diego stayed classy.

About a month after the blackout, some friends hosted a nighttime blackout party in Balboa Park to try and recapture the magic—we brought food, drinks, candles and guitars. We told stories about that one thrilling night without traffic lights, televisions, computers, microwaves and cell phones. We championed the idea of a voluntary, once-a-month citywide blackout—imagine the environmental and social triumph of an organized, collective escape from the grid!

The monthly-blackout idea was a pipe dream, sure—the kind of thing FERC would never recommend—but something tells me Sept. 8 in San Diego will never be the same.              

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