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Steaming over an abuse of power

Steve Lopez

Moderate irritation is the first reaction when you flip the light switch and nothing happens. So much for relaxing under the fan and watching a movie, you grumble.

At the two-hour mark, with the house nearly hot enough to poach fish, you have a choice:

Work yourself into a lather, or turn the experience into an adventure. We did the latter Sunday night when our electricity went out in Silver Lake.

The phone didn’t work, the computer was down. What could be better than the freedom you get from a power outage?

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Alison and I gathered up the candles and flashlights and tried to persuade little Caroline that sleeping on the downstairs couch, where it was cooler, would be like going camping.

That went fine. But when you wake up the next day and the power is still out, you’re no longer such a happy camper. Especially when the forecast is for yet another day of incineration.

I stepped outside my front door at 7 a.m. and suffered cornea damage from the sunlight. When my vision cleared, I realized raccoons had dug another trench in the frontyard.

I wandered into the street looking for a neighbor who might know something, and discovered that we were all in the dark, so to speak.

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Nobody had any information, but on the upside, we reached new levels of bonding over important questions: Should you clear out your refrigerator and freezer and toss everything into an ice chest, or is it already too late? Should you wait a while longer before doing anything drastic?

I turned on a battery-operated radio and heard about scattered outages across L.A., with transformers blowing because of huge demands for electricity.

Why us, we asked, but then reminded ourselves it wasn’t Katrina, and there were no insurgents pulling up to the house with car bombs. Besides, we could always jump into the pool, so who were we to complain about anything?

We felt much less generous at nap time. Our daughter couldn’t sleep because of the heat and so cried hysterically through the umpteenth radio news report conveying the following advice from the Department of Water and Power:

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Try to conserve energy. Keep the thermostat at 78 degrees or higher, and don’t use major appliances unless necessary. Also, pull the shades during the day, and drink plenty of liquids.

Thank you, DWP.

Any thoughts on whether we should curtail glass blowing and spot welding?

It’s not as if this was ever the swiftest, most efficient public utility through the years. The City Council has been after the DWP, since last summer’s outages, to get the system in better shape so more breakdowns could be prevented.

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Clearly their prodding wasn’t enough.

On our second night without power it was hard not to develop a deep hatred for our gluttonous neighbors, who, a block away, had lights on, TVs aglow and air conditioners running.

On our block, wilting neighbors Larry and Melissa, having extolled the virtues of sleeping on their back deck the night before, got smart and took off for a downtown hotel.

Neighbor Joe did something I’d already done six times. He went to turn on the fan in place of the air conditioner and then remembered, oh yeah, that doesn’t work, either.

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The air did not move. Ice cream melted. Married couples argued and babies wept.

On Monday evening, my wife finally got hold of a live person at DWP who said our outage was now a priority because we had been 24 hours without power. Two hours later, I called to find out what that meant, exactly, but I couldn’t get anyone on the line, which is no way to treat a priority customer.

Tuesday, which I like to think of as our third day of hell, brought no change. I went to work and called the DWP. Board President David Nahia, among others, told me they were doing the best they could in a killer heat wave, and that since he took the helm two years ago, the utility has been working on an infrastructure upgrade. He did note that 98% of all customers didn’t lose power, but he was telling it to the wrong guy.

At the very least, I should be exempt from the rate increase request the DWP has pending, which would cost customers about $1 a month and, the agency says, help speed the improvements. But with the DWP, you always have to wonder if the problem is really money rather than management and performance.

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About midday Tuesday, Council President Eric Garcetti returned my call. He said he’d found out what was happening in my neighborhood. The problem wasn’t a transformer, but, ironically, a circuit system in the process of being upgraded. DWP had to build a temporary bypass during the improvements, he said, and the bypass couldn’t handle increased demand during the heat wave, so it blew.

And what does that mean in terms of how long we’ll be in the dark?

Garcetti, who has not lost his power, of course, didn’t know. He didn’t jump at my offer to trade houses, but invited us to drop by his place.

At 9 p.m. Tuesday, we were into our third night without power. What ticked off my neighbors more than anything was that no one at DWP or City Hall could give us the slightest clue on how much longer we could expect to be without power.

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I don’t think we can afford to leave our house, though. Now that we and others have emptied our refrigerators and thrown all that food into the trash, the raccoons will be calling in reinforcements.

My only hope is to locate and hook up the dancing, singing Santa recommended by the understaffed Animal Services Department as a sure-fire varmint repellent.

But wait.

Doesn’t it run on electricity?

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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