The thermometer reads 102 degrees Fahrenheit, and people on streets are racing from their cars to air-conditioned buildings. Last week saw record temperatures in DC, followed by violent storms sweeping through Washington from the Midwest to the Atlantic. Four million people were left without power suffering in a triple-digit heat wave.
For the United States, a power outage does not mean just the lack of electricity, halted elevators, and romantic candles on the table. First of all, this means no AC systems, which are vital in summer in most states from Louisiana to New York and from DC to Arizona when daily temperatures hover above 100 degrees for weeks on end, recalling Turkmenistan, Bahrain and Malaysia combined.
Even dogs feel the heat, and stop by the bowls of water that managers of most restaurants and shops set out in front of their doors.
Only cicadas are rejoicing these temperatures and singing all night.
According to statistics, nearly 90 percent of Americans have air conditioning in their homes. This is one of the essential attributes of American life, along with shorts and t-shirts, hamburgers, Coca-Cola, fridges and a bottle of water in hand.
And suddenly a blackout happens. The entire neighborhood is immersed in darkness; indoor temperatures become critical within a few hours. Items in the fridge melt and spoil instantly. Traffic lights don’t work, and car accidents – rather rare in the DC area – multiply. People are confused and frustrated. Fire and ambulance sirens blare more often. Since the storm was accompanied by powerful winds, many trees fell on cars and houses, cutting them in two. There was one house, and now there are two…
Those who were fortunate enough had their electricity restored in less than a day. But there were thousands who went more than four days without power. This provoked a new wave of criticism. According to surveys, Pepco, the dominant utility responsible for electricity supply in many areas of DC and in Montgomery County in Maryland, is one of the most hated names in the United States. Compared with other utilities, Pepco ranks below its competitors in the pace of outage repair.
Two remarks are required here. First is technological. While relatively new neighborhoods of the American capital and suburbs have underground power lines, the older areas have aboveground. Therefore, any falling branch can cause serious disruptions in energy supply. The second remark is paradoxical. The irony is that Montgomery County is considered one of the wealthiest in the United States, full of prestigious and pricy houses and white rich neighbors. And yet with surprising punctuality it suffers from the weather effects.
Ten years ago, the county’s residents had no power for two weeks in the wake of a similar thunderstorm. They bought up every diesel generator they could find within driving distance.
And this happens not in the remote areas of Montana or Oklahoma, but twenty minutes from the White House and Capitol Hill. In the scale of Moscow, it’s somewhere between Kuntsevo and Novo-Ogarevo.
Following an accident ten years ago, the word “Pepco” took on a new semantic connotation of something that is never resolved. There were hearings in the legislature, and a special commission worked out proposals on increasing supplier’s efficiency. The county residents now say that the work has noticeably improved, but air conditioners fail in a heat wave, and this puts the company’s reliability back into question.
The governor of Maryland, who may run for president in 2016, also faces harsh criticism. The Atlantic magazine wonders how the “Democratic Party's hope for the White House in 2016” can run when after six years in office, the governor “has done nothing to address his state's power-utility woes.” This claim to national leadership “seems a practical joke,” says the magazine.
Discussions are actively underway to further enhance the reliability and efficiency of the utilities. More changes will likely follow for the power companies as well as for the prospects of certain elected figures, especially if new blackouts occur, a likely event. Record temperatures appear almost daily from the Midwest to the East Coast with the ever-present threat of “severe thunderstorms.”