Woog’s World: Third world infrastructure in wealthy Westport
Thomas Edison was quite bright.
In 1879 he devised the first commercially viable electric light bulb. A year later he developed an electric company to compete with the then-dominant gas light utilities. Over the next decade, he patented a system to distribute electricity. (You know Con Edison? That’s him.)
Edison was a brilliant inventor (and businessman). In addition to the electric light bulb, he developed the phonograph and movie camera. His vision, creativity and impact on the world cannot be overstated.
Yet even Thomas Edison might have thrown up his hands in despair at what our electrical grid looks like today, 140 years later.
Isaias was a tropical storm. It did not cross the threshold — here in the Northeast, anyway — of even a Category 1 hurricane. Yet in just a couple of hours, Isaias added its name to the meteorological history books. He’ll be remembered right up there with so many other momentous weather events like Sandy, Gloria, Irene and Donna.
And Eversource, our local utility company (aka monopoly) has earned its own notoriety. Some of the most mild-mannered Westporters I know are calling it “Neversource.”
In the hours and days after Isaias blew through — and we’re lucky it did not linger, or bring the expected several inches of rain — Eversource’s response was slow-footed and unsure. More than two days passed before repair crews arrived. Our town Department of Public Works could not remove downed tree limbs and debris until they were assured the wires entangled in them were not live.
Communication from the company was non-existent. Their outage reporting system buckled like all those wires, under the weight of so many calls. Some phone lines went dead. And anyone lucky enough to access their website — via the 21st-century equivalent of a tin cup and wire — learned only that Eversource was “evaluating damage.” That maddening, almost taunting message stayed up 96 hours after Isaias was gone.
The post-disaster disaster was so great that Gov. Ned Lamont made his way down to Westport from Hartford, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal hustled over from Stamford. They assessed the damage on Rocky Ridge Road, where for more than 72 hours residents, including a couple in their 90s, were trapped by an enormous tree. They could not leave — and, had their been a medical emergency, first responders could not have reached them either.
“Eversource made a bet” that the storm would veer away from Connecticut, Blumenthal said. “They lost that bet. And we are paying.”
Not all of this was Eversource’s fault, of course. Mother Nature is capricious. Bad weather happens. In the 2020s it will happen more frequently too, because for the past century or so the planet has not been nice to Mother Nature.
But this power outage — and Eversource’s botched response to it — did not occur in a vacuum. We’ve seen similar situations following other hurricanes, tropical storms, windstorms and snowstorms. This was not our first rodeo. We keep getting bucked, and we keep getting back on that bronco.
Using that tin cup and wire — okay, the Westport Library’s free Wi-Fi, which was one amazing saving grace last week, and on into this one — I emailed a friend in Oakland. The Bay Area is no stranger to natural disasters — earthquakes and wildfires, anyone? But he shook his head at what keeps happening here.
“Sounds like third world infrastructure,” he emailed back.
I had not thought of it that way, but he’s right. Westport, Weston and our neighbors — living in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, a place hundreds families have recently fled to seeking space and security lacking in New York City during COVID, home to countless movers and shakers in finance, business, entertainment, you name it — has an outmoded, antiquated, embarrassing infrastructure.
We’re not one of those places where the power goes off regularly. But we lose it regularly enough — and for long enough — to be concerned.
It’s not just the electrical grid either. When the roads were empty during the pandemic, I rode my bike for an hour or two every day. It was great exercise. Yet even without much traffic, I felt I was taking my life in my hands. Our streets — main roads, side streets, little lanes — are in perilous conditions. They’re rough, uneven, patched everywhere. Manhole covers pop up randomly. I always wore a helmet, but I needed body armor.
And don’t get me started on our transit infrastructure. From the “Mad Men” heyday of the 1960s to today, travel time from Westport to Grand Central Terminal has actually increased by 10 minutes. Talk about a third world system!
It’s enough to make you want to blow up everything we’ve got, and start over. No, wait! 2020, if you’re listening: I’m kidding.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.