Monday, July 9, 2012

'Derecho' - Power Outage and life in villages


You are unlikely to have heard of this Spanish word, which most US citizens are dreading and cursing.  It is ‘Derecho’ -  from the  Spanish word for "straight"  in contrast with a tornado which is a "twisted" wind. The word was first used in the American Meteorological Journal in 1888 by Gustavus Detlef Hinrichs in a paper describing the phenomenon and based on a significant derecho event that crossed Iowa on 31 July 1877.

It perhaps is a grim reminder of what can happen when you move away from nature and when things are technology-centric. A few decades ago, in India, tall building were those which were 5 or 6 storeyed – residential houses would have one upper floor or two.  Most of the facilities that we have were not there in the mid of the last century – there were ceiling fans (not in all rooms), air-conditioners only for the elite, cookers in few households, gas stoves fewer had, handful of two wheelers in a street, very few telephone connections in a street and cell phone was unheard of.

A derecho is a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms, generally exceeding hurricane-force. A warm-weather phenomenon, derechos occur mostly in summer, especially during June and July in the Northern Hemisphere.- and they are blamed for the recent outage !!  A power outage (also power cut, blackout, or power failure) is a short- or long-term loss of the electric power to an area.

There are many causes of power failures in an electricity network.  There is news that more than 1.3  million homes and businesses in a swath from Indiana to Virginia remained without power five days after deadly storms tore through the region.  The outage meant no July 4 Independence Day holiday for thousands of utility workers who scrambled to restore lingering power outages. Much of the damage to the power grid was blamed on last weekend’s rare “derecho,” a big, powerful and long-lasting wind storm that blew from the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean.  In the wake  of violent storms, the power went out for millions of Americans across several U.S. states. Governors of Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio declared a state of emergency.


an interesting photo from - http://news.nationalpost.com

The brief, violent storm that brought the U.S. capital to its knees in the midst of a heat wave dramatically highlighted that millions of Americans remain vulnerable to extended power blackouts because of a reluctance to invest in infrastructure and patchy, ineffective regulations.  Electrical utilities are advising customers in and around Washington that it may well be a whole week before all power is restored after the unusually potent storm that ravaged the mid-Atlantic region  The storm, is reported to have claimed at least 22 lives, shuttered businesses, stores and gas stations and littered the region with fallen tree limbs and downed power lines, many of which were  strung along poles above ground.

The outage comes at time of  record-breaking heat and immediately shut down air conditioning systems across an area well known for its hot, humid summers and poor air quality. So on hot conditions people were sweltering, not knowing what to do or when will things be resumed.  Officials are quoted as saying that this was unprecedented though they  were constantly studying and calculating the effects and possible responses to events like massive power blackouts, though mainly on the assumption that such outages would be caused by terrorism - either by physical attacks or through cyber warfare.  They also stated that the public should become aware of the limitations of both government and industry to respond to serious disasters. "People should be able to sustain themselves for 72 hours,"  one official was quoted as saying.   

Though comparisons would never give us any comfort, it is a fact that even in most advanced US, power grid is vulnerable to disruptions and failure.  Over there with so much reliance on technology, automation and electricity, when there is no power, there will be no lift, no water, no utilities, ATMs will not function, nor can you buy things in Malls, acquiring food and water would be major problem.  We live in a time, when a few minutes of stoppage of electricity would throw our lives out of gears and over there, most Americans do not even know what to do when there is no power.   The first to fall will be ‘cell phones’ as people are used to charging them so frequently and they retain power for so less.  And many cannot live a day without internet – mostly FB or other social networking site !!! – what city dwellers need to know is what they could cite as most prominent troubles are naturally borne by those villages without grumbling – because they still lead a life co-existing with nature.  

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.

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