Sunday, November 11, 2012


My power clicked on over the weekend. I’m lucky. The road crews and utility crews have worked long and hard under unpleasant conditions. Of course, linemen usually work under unpleasant conditions. When else does power fail? Yet, for all their hard work, there still are thousands of customers who have received no promises of service before Thanksgiving. The available resources to throw at the problem are just too stretched.

While appreciative of the efforts at restoration after the hurricane, I can’t shrug off the feeling that we used to be better in the US at construction, reconstruction, and fixing what needs to be fixed, in both the private and public domains. Example: on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria (not the present one) which was demolished in 1929, excavation for the 102-story Empire State Building began on January 22, 1930; the Empire State Building opened for business on May 1, 1931. In 2012, work on the new 104-story 1 World Trade Center is in its eleventh year and remains ongoing. After losing most of its capital fleet on 12/7/41, a short four years later the US Navy was sailing an astonishing force of nearly 7000 ships including two dozen full size aircraft carriers and scores of smaller ones, a building program hard to imagine replicating today – the navy presently operates 288 ships. Having once produced lunar-capable Saturn V boosters, we no longer can launch our astronauts as far as low earth orbit.

Much of this is a matter of evolving regulation and management styles, which in their present form often seem purpose-designed to slow everything down. When my dad built houses back around 1960, he could submit a subdivision proposal to a local planning board on Friday, get approved that night (assuming the proposal asked for no exceptions to the zoning ordinance), and start work on Monday. Today, for a similar subdivision proposal, the process of review – not just by planning board(s) but the DEP and EPA – is likely to take (quite seriously) five years, with no certainty about what, if anything, will be approved. The change in large part explains why – to reference a recent political flap – "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as expected."

Perhaps I’m wrong in suspecting that, had an equivalent storm to Sandy hit the Northeast 50 years ago, the response would have been more “can do” than “we’re trying.” But I don’t think so. Oh, well. I personally am not as can-do as I used to be either. Maybe graying has something to do with both the individual and national cases: the median age in the US is at an all-time high of 37.1 and rising. We’re all getting a little creaky in the joints.

The great Northeast Blackout of 1965, covering much of Ontario, New York, New Jersey and New England, was caused by a cascade failure of relays. Since the lines remained intact and there was little damage to other hardware, power was back up in 12 hours. The New York Times the following year quoted doctors who reported a spike in births in the affected area. Actual birth records don’t show any such spike, but then 12 hours aren’t such a very long time to go without electrically powered recreation. Between 7 and 24 days are along time. If a spike proves real next July/August, I’ll take back the adjective “creaky.”

OK, It's Not This Bad

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