The power of power

By Jay Jamison

Recently, many Jacksonville area residents became acquainted with living without electric power. Having abundant reliable electric power is the normal state of things for most Americans, not the exception. I would also venture to say that having plentiful and reliable electrical power is something many of us take for granted. When we walk into a dark room, we don’t have to plan how we are going to see our way around. Most of us simply sweep our hand over the light switch and the lights come on. If the lights don’t come on, many of us become a little disoriented, and we actually start thinking about a problem we rarely think about. Is the solution the replacement of a light bulb, or does a breaker switch need to be flipped back to the on position? When it becomes evident that the power to your house and your neighborhood is out, then a truly dreadful reality sinks in.

I’ve been through several outages over the years. On Good Friday in 1978, Jacksonville experienced a citywide power outage due to an ice storm that downed many power lines accompanied by multiple transformer explosions. Not only were lights and appliances in homes no longer operational, but also the blower and thermocouples for furnaces and water heaters — which both require electric power — left many of us with no way to heat our homes.

I’ve experienced the loss of water twice in Jacksonville — once in the 1970s, and again when flooding disabled the local water plant in June 2011. Just like the aforementioned light switch example, when we turn the faucet handle on our sinks, we expect water to flow out, either hot or cold, or both. When reliable water ceases to be delivered to our homes via the vast network of pipes, then toilets don’t flush, there’s no washing of clothes or taking showers, and there’s a mad dash to secure bottled water. We actually have to plan any activity that requires clean, potable water.

We are just two or three generations away from the days when one of the chores for children was to pump water by hand from a well or cistern for the household. Large-scale rural electrification was first introduced in the 1930s. Prior to that, many farmers illuminated their homes with oil or kerosene-burning lamps.

In previous generations, getting water, getting food, heating our homes in winter and numerous other tasks to maintain a comfortable life, required planning. Today for many of us, the only planning many of us may do is to arrange to have our furnaces and air conditioning units inspected and serviced, in anticipation of the changing seasons. Our refrigerators and freezers automatically turn themselves on and off without our guidance. The same goes for our heating and cooling devices — set the thermostat and forget it.

That is until the electric power, gas and water to your home stop. Then, for maybe hours or maybe several days, we have to live somewhat in the manner of previous generations, and the way we plan each day will be dramatically different than when all these services were available.

In the days leading up to Independence Day weekend, two weeks ago, many people in our area rediscovered how much we depend on electrical power. We also witnessed the extent of the efforts made by many utility professionals, often working in difficult conditions, toiling long hours to get power to us. It’s something we should think about the next time we enter a room and flick on the light switch.

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