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The Great blackout of 1998

At 8:18am yesterday morning, San Francisco went dark. Due to a human error at the San Mateo Pacific Gas and Electric sub station, all of the power for San Francisco and northern San Mateo county went off.

For the next six hours, we would remain in the dark. You don't realise everything that runs on electricity until its gone. Of course, the computer and television turned off… and the fridge slowly started heating up. But it's the small things that you forget about… like the speakerphone, and the starter/timer for the furnace, which becomes very obvious when it's only 45 degrees outside.

Bigger systems were affected like the rapid transit (check the MUNI Chronicles)… all of the city's electric busses and subway trains were stopped dead in their tracks. The BART system which shuttles in tens of thousands of workers every day was stuck as well, stranding hundreds of people on the elevated tracks or underground in the transbay tube, or in their offices with no way to get home. People were trapped in elevators, and stranded in power-locked rooms.

One person died due to the fact that all traffic signals were out of service due to the power outage.

Still, through the whole thing, Mayor Willie Brown insisted that everything was fine and that the city was functionin' as well as if the power was on.

Me? I wasn't horribly affected, as I was working from home due to a 7am conference call. The power blew, my speakerphone turned off and I had to calm down the cats who got a little spooked.

I immediately called my boss to advise her of the situation, but got her voicemail. When I tried to make the next phone call, I got an all circuits busy message. People were panicking and calling everyone to find out what happened.

Within 15 minutes, I had an old walkman rigged up to the battery-powered computer speakers, trying to find out what was happening. Then I jumped on the laptop and connected out to the local news sites. The situation: no power for over a million people on San Francisco and the peninsula.

By the time I reached my manager (who works out of the East Coast), my laptop battery was pretty much dead… so I changed my voicemail message to say that people could try to call or page, but that they wouldn't have much luck and sat there, hoping the power would come back.

Now it's the day after the blackout. The apartment building owner has re-set the furnace and interior lights timers and checked all of the circuit breakers for the other systems (like the fire alarms). By this evening, everything will be running like yesterday never happened. Except for the fact that we're going to stock up on batteries and canned food, because if a power outage can do this much damage to the city, imagine what the next earthquake is going to do.

Posted in Observations.

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