On Sunday afternoon, when things had settled down and the rain had temporarily stopped, I walked downtown to survey the damage. It didn’t look too bad, though there was a large tree lying across William Street near 185 Nassau. As I walked back along Olden Street towards Prospect, however, the big oak at the corner by the Fields Center seemed to be leaning a lot more than normal. It had started to pull up the ground around it, so I skirted it carefully; only a minute later there was a loud crack and a thump as it went down.
When I got home shortly afterwards, my wife told me that the power had just gone off, which didn’t seem like a coincidence. After a while, I called PSEG, where a robo-person walked me through a voice-recognition dialog (“Please press or say two”) and assured me that although no problems had been reported in my area, someone would call back with a resolution by Sept. 4, a full week away! That was the first real inkling of the extent of the problems.
In retrospect, we were lucky indeed. Our power came back two days later, which seems to have been about the norm in Princeton. Many people in the Northeast were not nearly so fortunate; their power stayed out for days, and there was disastrous flooding in many parts of New Jersey. We never did hear back from PSEG, which clearly had bigger problems to deal with.
All this is a reminder of how dependent we are on infrastructure without which we can’t operate at all, let alone enjoy the services that we take for granted. For example, our house has a gas stove with an electric igniter. If my wife had not laid in a large supply of matches, we would not have been able to cook. Luckily I had bought half a dozen cheap LED flashlights last year, so we could even cook in the dark, and they’re better for reading than candles are. Fortunately our gas supply was unaffected and we had clean running water throughout (and thanks to a gas water heater, it was hot); many people did not. Our furnace burns gas, but the motor that drives the fan that forces the hot air needs electricity and of course so does the specialized computer that controls the whole thing, so it’s just as well that the power failed when the temperature was in the 70s instead of the teens. Of course there was no air conditioning.
Our cordless phones were all useless, but we have one old-fashioned phone that doesn’t need house current; it operates during power failures thanks to Verizon’s backup batteries, which are probably good for a week. Cell phones might have lasted a few days if used sparingly. Computers could soldier on with batteries for a few hours, but since the wireless router in the basement needs electricity, we were disconnected from the Internet. Naturally the TV and the cable box were dead, so we had no news.
Locally, things came back to normal quickly, but next time could be different; after all, this was just two days of heavy rain and moderately high winds, and, unlike earthquakes, there was plenty of warning. The more our lifestyle depends on robust and complex infrastructure, the more vulnerable we are when major disruptions come along. The longer we go without problems, the harder it is to cope when troubles do arise, or even remember how to do things. Where are the flashlights and matches? How do I silence a powerless smoke detector with a weak battery that’s beeping in the middle of the night? (Answer: swear a lot, rip it off the ceiling and put it outside.) How long will food last in the refrigerator? How do we open the garage door when the opener doesn’t work?
We depend on an intricate web of electricity, phones, gas, water, roads, sewer systems and of course an army of people who work long and hard when things get rough. The longer we shortchange and cut corners on maintenance and upgrades and lay off experienced workers to make financial numbers look good, the more likely it is that there won’t be any resilience when it’s needed. Those who say that there is no role for government and that market forces will take care of everything might want to think a little more deeply about what happens when things go seriously wrong.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.