hacker emblem
jaegerfesting
Search | Tags | Photos | Flights | Gas Mileage | Log in

Outage

Started: 2020-08-31 18:56:23

Submitted: 2020-08-31 22:49:31

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator brings his kids back to Loma Prieta in the midst of a multi-day power outage during an epic heatwave and under the threat of devastating wildfires

I flew to Seattle on Saturday afternoon, the 15th of August, to pick up the kids and bring them back to Loma Prieta. When I left the house Saturday morning the marine layer had burned off Monterey Bay and I could see all of Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean beyond, stretching towards the hazy horizon. (My house is perched at 3000 feet near the top of the the Santa Cruz Mountains; according to the horizon calculations I found that means the horizon is 67 miles away.)

View of Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean
View of Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean

When I arrived at security at Terminal A at San Jose, there was absolutely no other passengers in line ahead of me. I waited for my plane around the corner from the now-shuttered restaurant where I did the last normal thing I did before COVID-19 took over my life almost six months ago: I ate a burrito at the airport, before getting on the plane and learning that people had died of COVID-19 in Kirkland, kicking off a wave of cancellations and elbow-bumping and germ paranoia before Friday when I started working from my house, never to return to my office.

While waiting for my plane I saw reports that the California electrical grid operator was asking power companies to impose rolling blackouts to manage the load on the grid due to high temperatures statewide — the first such widespread rolling blackouts since the summer of 2001.

I couldn't see the rolling blackouts from the air as I flew north out of the Bay Area, but I could see all the way to the cloudless ocean, indicating the high-pressure system bringing along the heatwave.

San Pablo Bay and Carquinez Strait
San Pablo Bay and Carquinez Strait

The night I was gone I missed the excitement of a series of lightning storms that rolled onto shore from Monterey Bay, bringing wind and lightning and very little (if any) rain. Sharon, our au pair, arrived at the house late Saturday night and texted me Sunday morning to report the power was out (and wondered if she had done anything to trigger the breakers). At first I thought it was a rolling blackout; then I looked at PG&E's outage map and confirmed that we were just one of thousands of other people across the Santa Cruz Mountains (and across the entire state) that were without power.

Dude-bro on the tarmac at SEA
Dude-bro on the tarmac at SEA

The excitement I did see was that, while I was waiting at the airport for our flight home to San Jose, a dude-bro, apparently agitated at having missed his flight but seeing that his plane was still sitting on the tarmac, walked up to the emergency exit at the window end of the seating area, overlooking the planes on the tarmac through large picture windows, hesitated a moment, and pushed the crash bar on the exit door. (As I recall he wasn't wearing a mask, or if he was he was wearing it in a sloppy manner that didn't adequately cover his nose and mouth.) As the alarm blazed he strode confidently down the stairs to the concrete, walked across the pad to the stair leading up to the end of the jet bridge, while I joined a small group of passengers in the boarding area standing at the window gaping at the spectacle. After a moment two ramp workers had herded him back down the stairs and onto the tarmac, where they apparently had words with him (the moment captured in the photograph above) and then escorted him back to the vicinity of the emergency exit door, where one of the ramp workers stood waiting with him — presumably for airport police to show up and arrest him. In one moment of entitlement the dude-bro took a bad situation (missing his flight) and made it so much worse (waltzing onto the secured area of the tarmac, probably committing several federal felonies in the process).

Jaeger and Julian wearing masks on a plane
Jaeger and Julian wearing masks on a plane

My flight to San Jose was unaffected by the drama two gates away. We wore our masks for the duration of the flight, which exposes the terrifying fact that Julian is able to wear a mask better than many so-called "adults" who are of the inexplicable opinion that they are the only people who matter in the world.

Julian watches the plane descend into San Jose
Julian watches the plane descend into San Jose

When we arrived at the house the power was still out. I resumed unpacking while the kids looked around the house; then, presently, the owner (and our neighbor) showed up with a portable diesel generator to plug into the electrical panel, shared between our two houses. With the generator on we had enough power to turn on the lights and run fans and make supper, but not enough power that we could run the AC.

Generator hooked up to power panel
Generator hooked up to power panel

We could hear the generator running in the background, lurking on the other side of the garage, a low growl of the small diesel engine just on the edge of perception. Before the generator turned off at night I looked around and found flashlights so we could see at night. I gave one to each kid before they went to bed, then carried my head lamp around with me until the power went out at 21:45, which was my signal that it was time to go to bed myself.

I woke with the generator at 07:00, when I heard the engine come to life and, along with it, the fan and lights in my room. The forecast said it was going to be hot, so I ran fans in the windows as long as I could, then watched the temperature so I could close the windows.

The kids had started school (remotely, because COVID-19) at the end of the previous week, so I made sure they had desks set up and could log into their classes. As of this fall, Calvin is now in sixth grade, which counts as middle school; he has six periods during the day and several different teachers, each with their own video conferences. Julian had only one, half-hour-long Zoom call starting at 08:30; his teacher is gradually building up his schedule, starting with "how to Zoom"; by his third day in school he was learning hand signals to interact on the video, and could mute and unmute himself better than most adults.

Julian on his kindergarten Zoom call
Julian on his kindergarten Zoom call

Julian is starting kindergarten remotely this year; our official policy is that we'll enroll him in school and continually evaluate to see if it's working, up to and until the point next year when we decide whether he should advance to first grade or do kindergarten again, based on whether he's learned what he ought to know. One of the problems he's stuck with for his entire formal education is that I expect many of his classmates will delay entering school until next year, so his class will be small and the next class will be huge, and it'll be a challenge every school he attends will have to deal with (no doubt some will deal with it better than others).

CZU August Lightning Complex smoke
CZU August Lightning Complex smoke

In addition to the heat, there was another atmospheric complication: the lightning storm had sparked several fires, known collectively as the "CZU August Lightning Complex" (which was soon somewhat simplified to "CZU Lightning Complex"; "CZU" is the name for the local CalFire wildland firefighting unit covering Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties). The nearby fires dumped smoke into the air, turning the sky gray and the sunlight a pallid yellow. Depending on how the wind was blowing we might smell smoke. When the outside air cooled down enough I had to consider the outside air quality. I pulled out the indoor air purifiers we bought two years ago and ran them indoors as long as the power lasted.

On Monday afternoon the temperature at my desk got up to 88°F by the time I decided I was done working.

Calvin DMs a tabletop RPG for Sharon and Julian
Calvin DMs a tabletop RPG for Sharon and Julian

The generator power went off overnight again, then came back Tuesday morning. I obsessively reloaded PG&E's outage-tracking site and watched other outages in the area get fixed and waited for the state they were reporting for my outage to change. By Tuesday morning the reported "Found a broken power pole in the area" and "PG&E repair crew is on-site working to restore power" but estimated the time of repair by Wednesday night. I spent some time on Tuesday trying to build my own evaporative cooler by attaching a wet sheet to a box fan, but it didn't really seem to be very effective at cooling my room. (The indoor humidity, according to the sensor I had sitting on my desk, ranged between 25% and 45%, so I figured I could jack up the humidity by a significant margin before I started to feel it.) By Tuesday afternoon the temperature in my office had gotten up to 89°F so I decided we were going to the beach.

(I had to drag Calvin away from his computer to go to the beach. I could only imagine him complaining online, "I'm sorry I have to go, my dad is making me go to the beach.")

I gathered camp chairs, the beach towels I could find (in our partially-unpacked state) and a long-sleeved shirt for Julian (though it seemed ridiculous to be packing for cold weather given how hot it was) and drove to the nearest beach, a half-hour away in Capitola. I played with Julian in the waves, then went to get pizza, and we ate pizza sitting under the setting sun, the sky golden from the nearby wildfires, the air delightfully cool compared to the top of the mountain.

Julian eats pizza on the beach in Capitola
Julian eats pizza on the beach in Capitola

I left my laptop in front of my open window on Tuesday night, and by Wednesday morning ash had fallen on it like snow.

Wildfire ash fallen on laptop
Wildfire ash fallen on laptop

Our power finally came back on Wednesday afternoon, and I immediately turned the air conditioner on and watched the temperature in my office drop from an uncomfortably-warm 84°F to a much-more-reasonable 79°F. And then, that night, the outside temperature dropped below 80°F for the first time in days, making it that much easier to cool the house overnight. I was grateful for the generator that kept my Internet and fans running; and I couldn't help but wonder if I should invest in evaporative cooling in case this happens again.

It's probably a mistake to let filmmakers talk about their films.
- James Cameron, _The Abyss_ Special Edition