How To End Natural Disaster Power Outages

New York City after the Blizzard of 1888
New York City after the Blizzard of 1888

Millions of people along the horrific path of Hurricane Irma are and will be without electricity for days, perhaps weeks. Restoring power to this devastated population will cost power companies, along with local, state and the federal government – us – millions.

Then there's the collateral economic and productivity loses caused by this lack of power. Businesses are closed and people can't work, resulting in millions in revenue lost to both residents and government to help pay for the clean-up and recovery.

It's not like this is the first time a natural disaster has wrecked the power grid over a large swath of the country. Every snow storm, hurricane, tornado, wild fire, et al, results in the disruption of electric power.

But we never seem to do anything about these natural disaster-induced power outages. We just keep repairing overhead cables until the next extreme weather event knocks ‘em down, the very definition of insanity as Rita Mae Brown's fictional Jane Fulton defined it: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

"We," however, excludes one prominent locale: the island of Manhattan, which solved the whole natural disaster-caused downed power line business nearly 130 years ago with a stupid simple solution we should adopt as a nation:

They buried the power cables.

The Great White Hurricane

It had been just 12 years since the invention of the telephone, and less than six years since Thomas Edison invented the first power station in March 1888. The opening of the Nikola Tesla-designed power station at Niagara Falls, which would eventually supply AC power to the entire northeastern U.S., was still eight years away.

But city fathers didn't listen to the Wizard of Menlo Park, who lobbied to bury electrical cables. Instead, the municipal powers-that-be chose the economic expedient and less labor-intensive method of stringing the air space above city streets like a loom.

So strung across the 1888 New York City skyline was an intricate web of telegraph, telephone and power cables, hung from a forest of poles. (Check out the photo above and this etching from 1888 to see what I mean.)

This wire lattice roof collapsed under the weight of the 20-60 inches of snow produced by the Great White Hurricane, the Blizzard of 1888. (Ironically, several deaths caused by downed power lines in the wake of this blizzard led to the Edison-Tesla DC-AC battle dramatized in the upcoming film, The Current War.)

But look at photos of modern New York City (or, if you live in Manhattan, just look up) and tell me what you DON'T see?


That's because in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1888, New York City saw the electrified light and buried its cables underground, where they've been safely ensconced ever since.

Maybe Not So Simple Solution

Okay, I admit I might be over-simplifying things a bit. Burying power and phone cables nationwide obviously isn't a simple "just do it" proposal.

Is burying cables a local, state or national responsibility? I can already hear the jurisdictional and partisan "national priority"/"government overreach" kafuffles now.

Then there's the NIMBY issues: how long would streets be torn up, inconveniencing everyone along the chose paths? Oh, no – not in MY neighborhood you don't!

And, most importantly, who's gonna pay for all this ditch-digging? Us, of course, likely through taxes – but only if they're offset, say the GOP – and/or through a utility company surcharge that will be VERY popular (he said sarcastically).

Measured against myriad storm-induced power outages, however, these jurisdictional, inconvenience and cost factors seem to merit at least some conversation, if not a hue and cry from those continually threatened with loss of electricity thanks to exposed and vulnerable power lines.

Burying Benefits

"Bury the cable" cost/benefit analyses are often explored in the aftermath of storms. Earlier this week, for instance, the Mother Nature Network presented an updated version of an earlier economic examination of the topic, a CNN contributor examined the bury-the-cables pro-cons in the wake of the spate of the 2014 winter storms, and in 2012 the Washington Post examined several local bury-the-cable scenarios.

And this isn't the first time I've made this proposal. I penned similar columns after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, then again after the great blizzard of February 2014. In a few years from now, after some future natural disaster, I'll likely recycle these arguments again.

But several potential "bury the cables" benefits have not been proffered in any these post-storm discussions.

Drunk drivers would have one less roadside obstruction to wrap their swerving vehicles around. Kids would have to find a more appropriate location to toss discarded pairs of footwear. Our clothes and cars would no longer be spotted by poop projected from resting (but not necessarily angry) birds on the wires. Then there are the aesthetic virtues of cable-free city and country-side views.

Most importantly, there'd be jobs. Lots and lots and LOTS of jobs. A nationwide space program-like "bury the cables" campaign could create construction, manufacturing, engineering, logistical, secretarial, human resource and other private sector jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Until someone perfects Tesla's dream of broadcast power, burying cables is the best way to keep the lights on and the economy chugging, regardless of whatever weather hell Mother Nature leashes. New York City figured this out mote than a century and a quarter ago. Maybe it's time for the rest of the country to consider catching up.

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