walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Power and Communication

Our town has an e-group to discuss stuff. You have to be a citizen of the town (or some of a short list of other categories) and the moderator has to let you in and you have to not violate any of the rules in order to continue to be a member and participate. Hopefully, what I'm about to say doesn't constitute a violation.

On this e-group, there has been a long-running and wide-ranging discussion about the power company, the cable compan(y|ies) and whether their communication with the public during the outage was adequate. I won't mention details of the argument or names of the participants because THAT would definitely be a violation. Instead, I'm going to muse a bit about what I think is the underlying problem.

It really sucks to be out of power. It sucks more when you have to leave your home because it has gotten cold and/or unsafe. It is particularly galling when you leave because you think it will get too cold, and then the power comes back on before you really needed to leave. It is also particularly galling when you don't leave because you think you can wait it out and then you can't because it went on too long and you have to find a hotel room or other place to stay and they are All Booked Up by the people who left earlier. It is really lame that this happens once or twice a decade: often enough that you can remember (or know about) the last time, and a lot of people bought generators, but you didn't -- or you did, but you got one you need to put gas in every couple hours, and you don't have big gas containers so you have to go to the gas station every day or so, and then they don't have power so you have to find a station that does have power and so forth. Or you got one that has a big enough tank, but it doesn't power everything in the house, so you have to go out to a laundromat after a week and it's packed with all the other people in the same situation, or you lose all the meat in your chest freezer because you were only running the generator to keep the pipes thawed.

You get the picture.

Oh wait -- let's say you _did_ get a generator, and it powers your whole house off of propane and you can call (on your cell phone) for a delivery but you work from home and you _need_ broadband internet to do so and you can't get any kind of read on when that's coming back and everyone picks on you for asking because they don't even have power. Except the person who has EVDO and suggests you should get a card who you probably just want to pummel for being an ass. A well-meaning, well-prepared ass, but an ass nonetheless.

Because the entire East Coast and a bunch of the rest of the country sent all their trucks to help put your wires back up, you can't _really_ complain about the speed of service (well, you can, and some people were abusive to the workers and complained when they reduced from 24 hour work to 16, despite the incredible danger all of these guys were undertaking in the weeks just before Christmas).

Not all of this, btw, came from the list -- I got some of it via verbal gossip and e-mail and other sources. Not all of it came from this ice storm, even.

In any event, you are still _really_ upset because in addition to being put out -- and by a lot, even if you had done quite a lot of preparation -- and being expected to be grateful on top of it (you aren't dead, and all those people coming from other states usw.), what remains to pick at? Communication. The newspapers had some information (because they went and got it, presumably), but people who called (on their cells, or when phone service came back) or asked line workers got conflicting information -- conflicting with reality, with the newspaper, with the same call repeated an hour later, blah, blah, bleeping blah. We know from medical malpractice that doctors with crappy bedside manner get sued and ones with great bedside manner don't -- independent of quality of care. I can't really say this isn't an expectable results.

Given this, what should (or shouldn't) the power company do? We just kind of looked around and said, wow, this is going to last about a week. Hopefully not two. Feel bad for the retailers because an already grim shopping season just got a lot worse. It lasted for us 8 days, but we were those well-meaning, well-prepared asses with the propane generator, tetherable EVDO cell phone and a Netflix subscription. Once the Tivo backlog cleared, I upped the Netflix and all I really missed was the Rachel Maddow Show and a very few episodes of Daily Show/Colbert before they went on winter hiatus -- other than that, cable was pretty optional around this house (altho we did have to take turns using the laptop). But for a lot of those other people, that was definitely the 3-8 days from hell. My neighbor had gotten a bunch of insulation so her pipes didn't freeze (and that failure to freeze saved her enough money to have paid for the insulation, almost in its entirety), as they have in the past. A lot of people went and stayed with relatives, which was kinda stressful for many since they had just seen them at T-day and would see them again over Christmas and let's face it: there's a limit to how much Family Time we want.

What a lot of people wanted, really, was to know up front how long the outage would last so they could make one set of plans and execute, instead of hobble along on contingencies and uncertainty and not enough sleep (gas generator that needs to be fed every few hours) fueled by a lot of worry about the pipes freezing and the cost of eating out. Not to mention when the hell are the kids going back to school. And _that_ was completely reasonable (from the consumers perspective) and laughably unreasonable from the power company perspective. Built in to a lot of the discussion on the list is the assumption that crews had a plan. I suspect some of those crews were literally driving around with chainsaws and line and maybe a pole or two and stopping when they spotted a problem and fixing it. Literally: no plan, just go out there and fix. The Smirking Goddess knows there was plenty of work to do and as long as you started on the main roads, your priority order would be approximately right. I know from being alive on this planet (not to mention scheduling programming projects when I used to work for a living) that getting it done as fast as possible is not compatible with knowing how long it will take. Figuring that out takes a significant chunk of extra (like, knowing how big the problem is, for starters, which it's clear that the power company did not know on the first day or so).

People like me (and my well-prepared husband, and others who think like us), saw all those downed lines and came up with our own estimate. Other than calling in a downed service in our yard (which might be missed by a road crew otherwise), we never asked for an appointment or an estimate. We laughed at some of what we read in the paper. But still, I can kinda see where the rest of the crowd is coming from.

I don't think there's a fix for this one. I think some of the ideas brought up along the way (trim the trees better, maybe bury some of the streets that lose power frequently and bring down side streets with them) are reasonable. PSNH twittered updates and responded to twittered questions -- but even the folk on the group didn't necessarily know about twitter, and twitter has recently had its own outage problems. I'm just glad I'm a well-meaning, well-prepared ass.
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