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Powerlessness in DC - A Pepco-Dismal situation


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

The storm came out of nowhere, scything through the landscape and toppling trees like they were matchsticks. Two of six tall oak trees in our backyard were knocked over. One, perhaps hit by lightning, cracked in the middle, and the top half fell on our roof. The other was yanked out root up, seemingly by a whirlwind, and crashed over my neighbour's house. We were all home at that time - around 11. 30 pm last Friday - but falling trees all over the place knocked out power lines, so there was no electricity, and it was raining to boot. We could only see the outlines of a giant tree limbs over our roof each time there was a streak of lightning. The sound of water dripping inside the house told us the roof had been cracked open or punctured.

All this happened on June 29, more than a week back. We were fortunate electricity was restored on our street within a few hours. Our neighbours behind our home on whose roof one of the oaks fell haven't been so lucky. It's been a week and they still don't have power. In fact, electricity hasn't returned to tens of thousands of nearly 3 million people in the mid-Atlantic region who lost power due to the storm. In the Washington DC metropolitan area alone, more than 440, 000 of 770, 000 customers of the local electric utility, Pepco, lost power in the storm, and a week later, many are still in the dark.

To compound matters, temperatures are peaking daily at 40 degrees C. "On 5th day without power in 100F - which capital city in the world am I in? Yes (Washington ) DC, " British journalist Christina Lamb tweeted on Tuesday, suggesting that the capital of the sole superpower ought to have done better. Indeed. Many area residents decamped, leaving for out of town getaways or crashing at friends' who lucked in on power. Many suffered through the outage, counting hours to restoration, and charging their devices in gyms and offices. "Every time I see the word 'outage' I can only read it as 'outrage' no matter how hard I try, " one angry neighbour wrote on our local listserv. Another called the incident "Pepco Dismal" cursing the utility company in a play on the digestive drug Pepto-bismol.

All this happened just a day after I'd written an edit page commentary arguing that for all its weaknesses and purported decline, the United States still remained the greatest country on earth, copping plenty of flak from friends critical and folks cynical, who are less charitable towards America and convinced (or hopeful) of its imminent demise. The sense of schadenfreude was evident among many fellow Indians who took comfort in the fact that the great superpower can mess it up too, as if that will somehow salve the daily miseries we suffer in India. But hadn't Hurricane Katrina demonstrated American ineptitude? "Nature's Stuxnet, " groaned a journalistic colleague, referring to the computer work that US and Israel have reportedly used to throw a spanner in the Iranian nuclear programme. "Indian survival skills came in handy... lots of 'jugaad'. "

Perhaps because I was less affected by the storm this time (although I know what it's like;it took three days for electricity to be restored after a snowstorm last year) I tend to look at the upside of the power outage aftermath. The good thing was no one went out and burned down power stations or beat up Pepco workers and crew. There were plenty of Plan B options - getaways, hotels, and for those who couldn't afford it, shelters run by civic authorities. Neighbours and neighbourhoods with power offered rooms, and even extended power lines. There were intense discussions online (even without power, people managed to charge their devices and stay online using 3G) on utilities, power generation, local budgets, etc, including a furious debate on the cost and efficacy of burying overhead power lines.

Meanwhile on my home front, I had three contractors, licensed and bonded, give me estimates within 24 hours for roof repairs because I expect to be travelling from next week. A tree removal company assessed the means and cost of evicting the giant oak, whose rootball measured an awesome 25 feet in diameter, from my backyard (it will need a crane). My home insurance company sent a rep to assess the damage and write out a cheque. The roofers will replace the entire roof in just one day on Friday - I will simply hand over the house keys to them and decamp, and it will be done and dusted when I return in the evening. Payment only on satisfaction as per terms agreed.

So here's the upshot of it all: Greatness is not merely about numbers and statistics but also ideals and ideas. America isn't perfect - it's not a faultless country or a flawless society. There are plenty of governance issues and infrastructure cock-ups, from traffic pile-ups to power outages. None of these are constant or remain unaddressed. All things considered, especially when it comes to an active civil society, a vibrant civic discourse, responsive local governance, growing citizen awareness etc, it is a constant work in progress. It wants to remain the greatest.

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