Excerpt from Lights Out by Ted Koppel
Extended periods of darkness, longer and more profound than anyone now living in one of America’s greatest great cities has ever known.
As power shuts down there is darkness and the sudden loss of electrical conveniences. As batteries lose power, there is the more gradual failure of cellphones, portable radios, and flashlights.
Emergency generators provide pockets of light and power, but there is little running water anywhere. In cities with water towers on the roofs of high-rise buildings, gravity keeps the flow going for two, perhaps three days. When this runs out, taps go dry; toilets no longer flush. Emergency supplies of bottled water are too scarce to use for anything but drinking, and there is nowhere to replenish the supply. Disposal of human waste become a critical issue within days.
Supermarket and pharmacy shelves are empty in a matter of hours. It is a shock to discover how quickly a city can exhaust its food supplies. Stores do not readily adapt to panic buying, and many city dwellers, accustomed to ordering out, have only scant supplies at home. There is no immediate resupply, and people become desperate.
For the first couple of days, emergency personnel are overwhelmingly engaged in rescuing people trapped in elevators. Medicines are running out. Home care patients reliant on ventilators and other medical machines are already dying. One city has hoisted balloons marking the sites of generators, hauled out of storage to serve new emergency centers. Almost everyone needs some kind of assistance, and no one has adequate information.
The city has flooded the streets with police to preserve calm, to maintain order, but the police themselves lack critical information. People are less concerned with what exactly happened than with how long it will take to restore power. This is a society that regards information, the ability to communicate instantly, as an entitlement. Round-the-clock chatter on radio and television continues, but there’s little new information and a diminishing number of people still have access to functioning radios and television sets. The constant barrage of messages that once flowed between iPhones and among laptops has sputtered to a trickle. The tissue of emails, texts, and phone calls that held our social networks together is tearing.
There is a growing awareness that this power outage extends far beyond any particular city and its suburbs. I many extend over several states. Tens of millions of people appear affected. Fuel is beginning to run out. Operating gas stations have no way of determining when their supply of gasoline and diesel will be replenished, and gas stations without backup generators are unable to operate their pumps. Those with generators are running out of fuel and shutting down.
The amount of water, food, and fuel consumed by a city of several million inhabitants is staggering. Emergency supplies are sufficient only for a matter of days, and official estimates of how much help is needed and how soon it can be delivered are vague, uncertain. The majority who believed that power outages are limited in duration, that help always arrives from beyond the edge of darkness, is undergoing a crisis of conviction. The assumption that the city, the state, or even the federal government has the plans and the wherewithal to handle this particular crisis is being replaced by the terrible sense that people are increasingly on their own. When that awareness takes hold, it leads to a contagion of panic and chaos.
There are emergency preparedness plans in place for earthquakes and hurricanes, heat waves and ice storms. There are plans for power outages of a few days affecting as many as several million people. But if a highly populated area was without electricity for a period of months or even weeks, there is no master plan for the civilian population.”
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