When a massive winter storm caused widespread power outages on the East Coast, Bethesda, Maryland rode out the storm without losing electricity. Hundreds of other cities were less fortunate—or should I say, less prepared.
How to Prepare For a Blackout
For weeks weather forecasters had been warning about approaching winter storms that were bringing extremely cold temperatures, snow, wind, and ice to North America. The storms were associated with a swirling polar vortex that was coming down from the North Pole carried south by the jet stream. Between December and February it would reach down past Canada and cover much of the lower 48 states. Temperatures dropped so much, meteorologists dubbed the weather pattern a “polar vortex.”
In two major phases these cold ice storms wreaked havoc on the East Coast and Upper Midwest. Millions of people lost electrical power, and a number of weather-related deaths were attributed to this weather. The effects of this storm system were still being felt in March and damage costs exceeded $5 billion.
In February, the second major storm of the polar vortex swept down and across the continent. As the storm spread, it caused sub-zero temperatures that left landscapes frozen for over a thousand miles.
People living in its path hunkered down to ride it out. Many felt it would pass by in a day or so. It didn’t. It would last three months and engulf a wide area of the northeastern states. It seemed to grow by the hour and became the worst weather-caused economic disaster since Hurricane Sandy.
The front of the storm brought rapidly falling temperatures—often dropping 45 to 50 degrees in a few hours. In addition, the clash of the extremely cold front with milder air created windy conditions that blew up to 62 mph piling snow into huge drifts adding to the area’s misery index.
Millions of people and hundreds of communities found their planning and preparations sadly insufficient to deal with the weather conditions they were experiencing. Everything in the path of the polar vortex began to freeze and cover with ice. Daytime high temperatures dropped by as much as 50°F overnight. Trees, branches, and bushes froze, and ice coated power and telephone lines. Branches and limbs began to break falling down blocking streets and driveways. When they fell on sagging, ice-covered wires they caused many electrical lines to break and electrical power began to go out across hundreds of communities. It eventually affected over 187 million people in America (60.1% of the population).
Heavy snowfall, ice, and unprecedented low temperatures caused school closures, government office shutdowns, road closures, airline flight cancellations and stranded trains as ice and snowdrifts blocked travel. Many parents were forced to work at home or just stay at home with school-age children and thousands of businesses closed down. Communities issued snow emergencies prohibiting non-essential travel on roadways. The freezing cold temperatures reached as far south as subtropical Florida.
With over half the country in deep freeze, water pipes froze and large city water mains cracked flooding homes and making ice skating rinks out of yards and streets.
Surviving the Blackout
Over 90% of U.S. households had higher heating costs—especially the 12 million U.S. homes that used propane for heat. Not only was it more expensive, it became scarce as propane trucks found access difficult, if not blocked, by road closures. Even those families burning wood in stoves and fireplaces found their supplies dwindling rapidly. Some people had to borrow wood from neighbors. Most could not go out in wooded areas to cut trees that were down—the snow was too deep.
Power plant engineers and electricians scrambled to reroute electrical paths to keep power accessible and repair crews worked in miserable conditions, blowing snow, and severe cold to try and reconnect power lines and restore electricity. Frostbite and hypothermia risks increased for anyone going out in that weather. Repair crews couldn’t keep up with the failures. Ice covered everything, getting thicker as building after building, community after community, went dark.
Residents who boasted about “all-electric” homes suddenly found themselves without heat in cold houses with water pipes freezing and no obvious way to keep warm except by layering on heavy clothing or leaving their homes. For many, power remained out for two weeks in frigid temperatures. This was particularly severe for people living with medical devices that needed dependable energy. When the electricity went out, they needed to find power quickly. Only emergency services and critical sites had electricity (using emergency backup generators). But the generators at these critical sites burned propane, diesel fuel, or natural gas, and keeping them supplied with fuel became a problem. Hundreds of trucks were called into service to keep the fuel tanks full so these generators could function. The electrical infrastructure was failing its citizens. In the midst of the crisis, there wasn’t time for finger-pointing. Everyone was too busy trying to survive. Assessing blame would come later.
And then I learned about Bethesda, Maryland. A resident of Bethesda recently shared her experience living there during this polar vortex ice storm. She said her area never lost power. Before winter arrived, her local utility company cut trees and limbs away from power lines and electrical poles. When the ice storms came, no power lines broke and the city did not lose power. While cities around them went dark, this city did not lose electricity for its residents.
Bethesda is an affluent and highly educated unincorporated community with 24,368 housing units and a population of just over 63,000. It encompasses 13.2 square miles and is adjacent to the communities of Chevy Chase and Potomac. These and other cities in Montgomery County are governed by a county council with nine district members. There is no city hall, mayor and city council. Bethesda is home to the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and most of its residents are professionals.
Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) is the principal utility servicing Bethesda. In the fall, the Montgomery County Council and PEPCO met to discuss actions that could be taken to keep power when winter set in. The county managers and local electric utility were proactive and smart. Before the weather turned bad, utility crews went around Bethesda trimming trees and cutting vegetation away from power lines and poles. By the time the first freezing polar vortex arrived, all power lines were clear of branches and potential power threats. During the storms, Bethesda’s residents stayed warm inside electrically well-lit homes. Prior planning by forward-thinking leaders prevented power problems.
The woman telling me about her city said it felt strange driving around Bethesda and looking over at the dark communities south toward Washington that had not prepared as well. The Six Ps applied here quite well—Prior Planning Prevents Pretty Poor Performance.
Kudos to Bethesda and other communities that prepare before threats occur.
This anecdote about Bethesda is reflected in similar stories. Our cottage, purchased in 2010, was located in the middle of nowhere northeast of Parry Sound, Ontario (Canada). Our provincial electrical utility, HYDRO ONE, had for years cut back on tree trimming & right of way maintenance. Power outages were frequent, common, inconvenient, annoying. At some point attitudes changed and over the span of one summer major cleanups were done in cottage country. Actually referring to it as cottage country implies only the summer matters, when in fact hundreds of thousands of people live in Northern Ontario, working, employing others, going to school, getting an education, & planning for tomorrow. Even small power outages closed businesses, interrupted incomes & services to the public. The economic impact of loss of power was a constant topic of conversation. In a single summer of significant investment the utility vastly improved the lot of people who dont live in the big southern cities. I think i used our backup generator just once in the next 4 years. Attacking the cause can have a dramatic effect. The power grid spreads across civilization like a multilegged spider, that is why a minor failure leaves lights on one side of a street dark while the other side is still lit faithfully. We need to keep politics out of utilities, whether it be electric power, water, cell service, or internet.