Heard of the 'Great Northeast Blackout?'

Later on I'll quote some more of the very interesting "is American infrastructure in trouble? or not?" messages that have come in. This is just a data-point note:

Nearly seven days after the historic storm that ripped through a swath from the Midwest to the East Coast, our house in northwest DC has no landline telephone service, no TV, and no Internet -- all of these coming through cables that the storm apparently messed up. It does now have electricity. I'm not there, which is why I can write this. My wife is there, in touch via cell phone.

Again, this is not whining -- she does have the cell phone -- but a data note that, in the era of "the cloud" and "big data," these cutoffs seem more taken for granted than I remember in days of yore. As a kid in California and through my 20s and 30s on the east coast and in Texas, I never experienced a power or phone-service failure lasting more than a few hours. When I was in high school, I remember hearing all the furore about the "Great Northeast blackout" of 1965. I looked just now to see what had happened. Via the Wikipedia entry:

Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles (207,000 km2) were left without electricity for up to 12 hours.

Thirty million people is a lot. By modern standards, "up to 12 hours" is nothing. (As a reminder: in DC we had no electricity for a five-day stretch last year, and nearly four days just now.)

Maybe it is time to bring in just one note. A reader writes:

[Regarding the continuing coverage] of Blackoutaggeddon 2012 (or whatever not at all clever name DCist-types have come up for the current situation), it occurred to me how important it is that this sort of thing happen to the DC area. Just as with the freak snowstorm a couple of years ago, only when unusual but hardly unique events occur in the District, thereby impacting those in and around government, do the issues it raised become public policy issues.

Now I don't think we're going to have a massive power line burial program (and FWIW as someone who writes federal grants for utilities to bury power lines, it's generally a bad idea). But there have been major unusual weather events leading to blackouts and other major infrastructure issues (I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis) that don't start a discussion about our crumbling infrastructure.

As someone born and raised in DC proper and who believes it to be a vile cesspool whose culture is as much responsible for our country's woes as either party; more than anything, the blackout reinforces my belief that DC is the most self-involved city in the world. The storm may have been a freak occurrence, but being without power on occasion for a few days is nothing new to most Americans, and only a crisis because Washingtonians are so coddled.

PS: My personal belief (as a former Hill rat) that the military-industrial-political complex has deliberately made DC a playground for its residents so as to distract them from the actual problems facing the country, and to make them forget that they are failing us is an entirely separate issue.

Of course I completely agree about the narcissism of DC and (even worse) New York. I agree about the economic coddling of the greater DC area, which enjoys a nonstop military/security boom. I agree about its insulation from the rest of the country and the world.

I don't agree about multi-day power outages being a norm in the rest of the country. And if they are -- that's not great in itself, since they're certainly not the norm in other developed countries. That's all for now.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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