Superstorms and Super Bowls

I was watching the Super Bowl when the lights went out and I found it very disconcerting. One of the biggest events in America, with so much money on the line, 100s of millions of dollars in advertising and sponsorships, and BOOM! The lights went out at the Mercedes Superdome in New Orleans. And the power must have gone out in the broadcast booth because for a long time, there was silence. No voices. Just disoriented players and officials walking around aimlessly in the limited light. Sooo weird. Eerie.

Eventually they managed to get one of the mic’s on the field working and some guy who usually reports on player injuries was trying to explain to 100 million people what was happening, which was pretty difficult since no one seemed to know. You want to talk about stress – can you image the crew in the booth trying to direct the TV broadcast? No lights. No audio from the broadcast booth. No explanation. Stress levels through the roof!

It doesn’t surprise me that the lights could have been knocked out by a power surge.  The one thing I’ve learned in 15 years of living off-grid and learning about electricity is that it’s a miracle that the lights stay on at all on the grid. It is so complicated. How does some power plant know when my neighbor Ken, who lives hundreds of miles from the nearest generating station, is going to turn on his welder? Because the power has to be there when he cranks it up. And then when he turns it off, they’ve got to figure out what to do with the power they just revved up. Really, it’s just a truly wondrous, this thing called the electrical grid.

But it is just one of many, many things that humans have created that we have now become dependent on. Too dependent on. Dangerously dependent on. As long as everything is working well, life can seem pretty great today. But when things go wrong it just seems we have way too much trouble dealing with it. One of things I remember from Hurricane Sandy’s chaos was one disgruntled homeowner in the dark wondering why the electric utility wasn’t better prepared. You mean they should have started fixing stuff before the storm even hit?

Recently the news was full of stories about the cruise ship that was “dead in the water” in the Gulf of Mexico after an engine fire took out the motors that move the ship, and generate electricity. Funny thing when you’re off-grid or on a boat, if you don’t have power, your toilets don’t flush. Just imagine 3,000 people and only 5 working toilets. Ouch! No air conditioning. No stabilization to keep the ship from rocking in the waves. No refrigeration. Boy that’s a cruise I’ll bet people will remember.

I know what you’re saying, but Cam, thousands … no, hundreds of thousands of people take cruises every year, so really, the odds of this happening are slim. And the power goes out all the time, it just happened to occur during the Super Bowl this year. I would agree that the odds of these types of events happening are slim, but if they DO happen they can be more than just inconvenient.

What I sense is that as things get more complicated, and as we become more networked and interconnected, and as those connections and interdependencies become more pronounced, our susceptibility to a shock or disruption to any one of those systems disrupting multiple other systems increases. Complex tightly interconnected systems are not resilient. They are by their nature fragile.

And we, the people that operate in those systems don’t seem to have the skills to deal with them when they collapse. We’ve never lived without electricity, or air conditioning, or flushing toilets or high speed internet and so when we suddenly find ourselves without these things we don’t react well. We are at a loss. We are flummoxed.

Now it’s not as though having a “bug out bag” would have done you very much good on a stranded cruise ship. You can’t “get out of Dodge” when you’re surrounded by the ocean. But I guess you have to ask yourself how often do you want to put yourself in a situation where you are completely dependent on someone else to feed you, and keep you warm and keep your toilet flushing and the lights on. Oh wait, that’s not just what it’s like when you are on a cruise, that’s how most of us spend every day. Hoping that some guy isn’t asleep at the switch or that some O-ring doesn’t blow and set an engine on fire.

These are the sorts of events that have convinced me to write “The Sensible Prepper: Practical Tips for Emergency Preparedness and Building Resilience.” It is the logical step for someone like me who has watched the trajectory that civilized society is on. It seems kind of messed up. We seem determined to keep making things more complex and less resilient and increase how exposed we are to disruptions of all of these essential systems.

Sensible Prepper CVR

And the complexity continues to increase as our natural systems are starting to throw us more and more curves. Heat waves, droughts, wild fires, storm surges and super storms. We don’t need more complexity – we need less. You need less. You need to be in control of essential systems, because the guy in control, well, he’s already on a lifeboat, which he apparently just accidentally fell into, when he finally gave the order to abandon ship. Thanks Captain, appreciate your help.

We’re researching and writing like crazy right now. The book will be out by next fall.

In the meantime, buy yourself a good LED flashlight… and some granola bars. And keep them in your pocket or your purse. And don’t get the chocolate granola bars; they don’t do well in pockets.

My favorite image from the Super Bowl blackout was of a group of women who had been smart enough to make their way down from their seats and were standing in a corridor beside the exit doors. They hadn’t “left the building” but they could in a flash if that became necessary. The Superdome announcer kept saying “everything is fine, just stay in your seat.” And then there were those smart women. I’m wondering if they had heard about those announcements telling everyone in the South Tower to return to their desks and get back to work after the plane had hit the North World Trade Center Tower. In a crisis situation, my money’s on those women who were smart enough to stand by the exit, just in case everything wasn’t quite as fine as the voice on PA was saying.

6 Responses to “Superstorms and Super Bowls”

  • Waiting for the book. We have a generator and a stocked pantry but no solar yet. We don’t get a lot of sun on our property and until the neighbor decides to whack some trees the only sun we get is where the garden is. Living on an island there is lots of potential for the power to go out. I’m surprised it is as dependable as it has been. I think preparing for 2 or 3 days of no power, water, or food is stupid. If you are going to go to the effort do it for a lot longer stretch of time. A lot of people that find themselves in an emergency situation wait much longer than 3 days for help.

    So for your research I have a suggestion for a movie for you to watch. It is called Holes in Heaven: HAARP and advances in Tesla Technology. Netflix has it. I am really interested in your opinion. It would maybe make for an interesting post.

  • Connie Murray:

    Having lived thru Hurricane Sandy down at the Jersey Shore, things went better than most people probably expected. Family helped family, neighbors helped neighbor, friends helped friends, etc. Sure we were without power for an entire week (which seems like a long time without electronic entertainment for young children) but we survived it well. Of course, we did have a small generator which meant we could wash our laundry and take the occasional hot shower so it wasn’t too awful. We pitched in at clothing drives and clean ups, stood in long, long lines for gas and met lots of people and found out how they were doing. No rioting, no raping, no looting. All in all, if we just keep our heads, we can work our way out of any tough situation. Its the people who scream “Me First! Me First at any cost!” are the ones that endanger everyone else.

  • John:

    Looking forward to the new book, to add to my collection of Cam & Michelle Mather useful litature. Many years ago when Suzie and I moved to the country we where hit with a massive winter storm that put the power out for four days. In those day’s we where unprepared. Suzie and I now have water storage for a month, solar panels, generator, and a fully stocked pantry. Call me want you want, I call myself, prepared. Looking forward to reading the new book.

  • Cam Mather:

    Hi Mike
    You’ve got it. That’s exactly my take on the issue. Generators are part of what inspired me to write it. I saw a group of people on a New York street after Hurricane Sandy gathered around this tiny generator that would be hard pressed to keep a TV powered, and once it started everyone cheered. And I thought, man are they going to be disappointed. So the book will just look at logical, reasonable steps to take to deal with things like extended power outages that seem to be becoming commonplace.
    And no, I’m not a “doomer”.

  • Mike the Carpenter:

    Hi Cam,
    As I have glanced at some of the books written by the Doomsday preppers, I can’t help but wonder “Are these guys nuts!?” Stocking up 3 months worth of food and water and 1,000s of rounds of ammunition for an end-of-the-world event seems pretty silly to me. Granted, if their worst fears do come true, I’ll be the one looking pretty foolish.
    I’m hoping your book will be written for the “rest of us”. Those whose more-likely tragic event could be dealing with an ice storm knocking out power for 2 or 3 days up through something like what happened to the victims of hurricane Sandy where the power outage would last for weeks. I hope you will be including a chapter on generators powered by propane and their different power outputs so those of us who are city-bound and grid-dependent (for now) can be better prepared for an emergency of realistic proportions. Thanks and keep up the great work. Mike

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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