Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In the dark and out of gas

Two days ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ike passed through greater Louisville. We received essentially no rain, but for two hours had winds gusting to 70 mph. In the grand scheme of things, this would rate as a minimal encounter with a hurricane. As fate would have it, though, the two hours of wind shattered thousands of trees and hurled large tree limbs dozens of feet, bringing down over 6,000 power lines and leaving over 300,000 people without electricity. Our power company, LG&E, had already sent many workers to the Houston region to help with hurricane relief prior to having an unprecedented demand for their services back home in Louisville. Today, major streets are still blocked by downed trees and utility poles and many neighborhoods remain without electricity.

Transportation here is suffering not only from the trees, poles, and lines stretching across major and minor streets, but also from the lack of electricity to power traffic signals and street lights. One can drive for a mile along a street with functioning traffic signals and suddenly face a string of dead signals requiring all-way stops. I need a special effort to remember to stop at dark signals, because I am so conditioned to responding to the illuminated signals. Riding last night through darkened sections of Cherokee Triangle and Crescent Hill required constant vigilance to avoid downed trees, storm debris, broken guy wires, and ordinary road hazards that would ordinarily show up in the light of street lamps. Confused drivers at dark, unsignalized intersections add to the danger.

We probably still have over 150,000 people without electricity. Many gas stations have stopped operating, either because of lack of electricity to pump the gasoline or because of disruption of their gasoline supply. Grocery stores without backup power supplies are losing perishable goods for lack of refrigeration. Gradually, people without electricity are losing not only the food in their own refrigerators and the electricity in their own homes but also the ability to go elsewhere to get food, wash clothes, or otherwise take care of business. LG&E says that it could take another 10-14 days to restore power to all of its local customers.

Enough of Louisville is back in operation now (including, thankfully, the office of Bicycling for Louisville) that most people can probably walk or take a bus to meet their immediate needs. Our transit system, TARC, is still working - though with much stress on their staffers working under difficult conditions to keep the buses going. Most Louisvillians will probably remember the aftermath of this wind storm as a major inconvenience but not a tragedy.

Nonetheless, it leads me to consider how little it takes to turn modern life upside-down. Loss of electricity affects our homes, our livelihoods, our food supply, and our transportation. Interruption of our gasoline and diesel supplies would have similarly far-reaching effects. Obviously, relying more heavily on bicycling for transportation would not eliminate all of these vulnerabilities. It would, though, improve our resilience to deal with extreme weather events and other disasters.


D Morse said...

For the first 48 hours there was what I'd call "extreme road safety", as 95% of drivers came to complete stops at every darkened traffic light. Then impatience set in, and people "forgot" in their favor a little too often to be coincidence.

Meanwhile, my hybrid bicycle was on loan to a friend. Then my street got blocked by 34,000 downed trees. It was still possible to wend down the street by ziging and zagging to opposite sides of the sidewalk, so I reposessed my hybrid. He seemed a little hurt that I was cutting him off, but frankly he didn't seem to grasp that my fragile 18-spoke road bike was not capable of rolling on the road system we had at the time. :P

So this is just an elaborate way of saying that even some bicycles are fragilely vulnerable to sudden collapses.

Hilary said...

Hmmm- we've witnessed the same fleeting miracle of extreme driver courtesy out here in the Seattle area during our annual power outages. For a brief time, it appears that everyone DOES know how negotiate a four-way stop- until the novelty of being self-policed wears off...