Electrifying!

The first sign on Friday evening, December 26, was a little flicker of the lights. I remember saying to my wife, Sally, I wonder if someone hit a telephone pole somewhere down the highway. Then a few minutes later the lights went out — then soon enough all over Oahu. Yup, for the second time in two years the complete island of Oahu went dark as HECO totally shut down:

People were stuck in elevators, the airport was basically shut down, traffic lights were out, of course. Stores closed early, a lot of gas stations couldn’t operate. In short, it was a disaster.

My wife and I had come home an hour earlier, so for us it was just a brief bumbling in the dark to retrieve our battery-powered lights. Within an hour Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann came on the battery-powered radio to tell us the lights would be out about 12 hours. Hmmm: Longer than some of our experiences, but not nearly as bad as others. I suspect a lot of people went to bed early that night, hoping the electricity would be back in the morning. Indeed, for quite a few people it was, but we live in Laie, which is generally considered to be the “country” part of Oahu. In other words, we would be among the last to get our service restored.

In the meantime, the Polynesian Cultural Center has its own generators, so they continued with the night show — but had to close down the next day when the power still hadn’t been restored by noon (it came on about 2 p.m.) The Laie Hawaii Temple, which is closing down for about two years’ worth of renovations, also had to cancel some of its last sessions. Foodland was letting a few people in at a time.

A lot of this is familiar stuff to those of us who have lived here for any length of time. Over the years the power has gone off many times in Laie, or parts of Laie — usually, as indicated above, because some poor soul ran into a telephone pole on Kamehameha Highway, or the termites finally ate enough of a pole to collapse it and cut service. Sometimes the power was off for minutes, other times for hours. You can count on it happening at least a couple of times a year. But two years ago there was an earthquake off the Big Island which gave Oahu’s electrical system enough of a shake to shut everything down. Most people went without power for approximately one day in that disaster, but a small pocket of us in Laie didn’t get hooked up again for three days.

Years ago the power went off all over the island during a hurricane, and in some cases it took a week or so to restore electrical service. A decade earlier during another hurricane we had what they called “rolling blackouts,” where we got power for part of a day while HECO tried to restore the islandwide system. But this latest storm damage incident was yet another chapter in a book of very rainy weather we’ve been experience this month. HECO said some of their main transmission lines might have been hit by lightning, but nobody really seems to know why the whole system has to shut down . . . or why, given our modern technology and the wake-up warning we had two years ago, there can’t be enough redundancies and breakers built into the system to prevent these disasters.

It’s a funny thing about the modern convenience of electricity: Those who don’t have it get along just fine. Most people nowdays, get a little taste of this — sometimes — when they go camping for a few days without modern conveniences; and of course, a lot of underdeveloped places in the world don’t have any electrical services.

For example, in other parts of this blog I’ve written that I spent over a year of my mission in Samoa in the mid-1960s living without electricity. At night we used kerosene lanterns, a lot. We even had a type of slide projector device that could be used with kerosene lanterns, and I also mentioned the rare kerosene-powered refrigerators. People used battery-powered radios at home and foot-powered organs at church.

Of course, having reliable electricity beats all that any day, and getting it for the first time is always a big deal. For example, as an East-West Center grantee in 1971 I talked my way onto the malaga [official traveling party] of the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who came back to Samoa and for the first time in 50 years took the then-six-hour boat ride [air service to Manu’a was still in the future] from Pago Pago to Ta’u, Manu’a (where I had been assigned for six months as a missionary), where she had conducted her well-known doctoral field research, that was eventually published as Coming of Age in Samoa. There were and probably still are many different opinions about the accuracy of that book, but all the Samoan chiefs there that day in Faleasao seemed pleased to have her back and put on a very impressive kava ceremony in her honor. The ceremony also marked the dedication and start-up of the first electrical power plant in Manu’a. I still remember it started up with a loud bang, and in her remarks she said, now the children of Manu’a no longer had to be afraid of the dark.

Of course, getting electrical service, and keeping it running regularly is a perennial problem. For example, the one-and-only time I went to Guam about five years after I was in Samoa, the power there would go off a half-dozen-or-more times a day, every day. I seem to remember they brought in a Navy generator ship to tie into Agana’s electrical grid.

In other places I’ve been (including Apia, Western Samoa) there were actually schedules, where the power would be on until a certain time, but not overnight; and here in Hawaii years ago it was weird to watch the power lines in the rain: Electric blue sparks clung to the lines and arc’ed around the transformers.

As I finish this blog entry, I’m so glad to have electrical power…but I wonder when somebody’s going to hit a pole again, or the termites strike, or HECO’s going to have it’s next enigmatic islandwide failure.

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