Our power went out at 2 a.m. during the first night of Irene’s window-rattling fury. And so my wife and I became part of an involuntary army of 5.5 million Americans who would be learning to live a bit more simply. We grabbed flashlights, matches, and candles, ready to face what reporter Patrick McGeehan of The New York Times later called days of “darkness and disconnect.” The enforced pause gave me time to ponder how even a category-zero tropical storm could take out huge swaths of the electrical grid in a dozen of the most densely populated states. By daylight, I had the answer, at least for our neighborhood. A large maple, ripped from the earth by fierce winds, had crashed into overhead power lines. It was much the same story all along the East Coast, as it is year after year when hurricanes, snow storms, ice storms, and nor’easters knock out power for days and weeks. Utility executives are always taken by surprise, and customers are outraged by the delay in getting power back.
Isn’t there a better way? Given the choice of keeping the trees or the power lines, I’d vote for the trees. But what to do about the 3 million miles of overhead lines in this country? Bury them underground, says Don Buckner, who heads Underground2020.org, a nonprofit group that lobbies power companies to do just that. Most utilities “don’t want to spend the money,” he said, though their savings could easily reach into the trillions. Getting them to see the light—“that’s the challenge,” said Buckner. And wouldn’t it be better to face it rather than to just wait for the next disaster?