September 22, 2010

High Winds

There was a severe thunderstorm warning for southwestern Pennsylvania this afternoon, and it turned out to be appropriate. Sometime around 4 PM, heavy rains and strong winds hit Mt. Lebanon, the Pittsburgh suburb in which I live. I was writing a blog post (see “S.C. Via Media Group Calls for Investigation”) when the storm hit, and, shortly after the rain began, power failed. My computer and my VOIP telephone service both went down, and, unfortunately, as I had discovered only about an hour earlier, the battery charge on my cell phone was almost gone. I didn’t even have enough power left to call the power company to report the outage.

The storm did not last long. The only physical damage I suffered was to a begonia that fell off a picnic table and lost a good many stems on one side of the pot. When the rain abated, I got into the car, attached the charger to my cell phone, and called Duquesne Light Company . Duquesne Light already knew about the outage in my area. The automated message asked me if I had any more specific information. Since I did not, I hung up. The question caused me to walk around the neighborhood a bit, however, looking for obvious problems with power lines. I didn't find any, but I did discover a large tree branch blocking a street half a block away. I called 911 about this. I was on hold for a minute or two—there were lots of calls today to the county 911 service—and was then told that the branch in question was already on the list of downed trees in the area.

It was clear that the brief storm had done a lot of damage, so it was uncertain just how long power was likely to be out. I was capable of making dinner from items in my refrigerator, but I was reluctant to open it, lest I decrease unnecessarily the time before food began to spoil. I thought I could drive a short distance and find a fast-food restaurant open that could provide an adequate dinner. The closest restaurants were on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard, but all the establishments on the north side of the street were clearly without power. Subway, on the south side, did have power. After being discouraged by traffic in another direction where I thought I might find food, I doubled back to Subway, only to find a long line of people who were, no doubt, in the same situation as I was. Stupidly, I sought greener pastures.

I headed in the direction of another set of restaurants, including another Subway. Everywhere I went, however, traffic lights were out, trees were blocking streets, and restaurants were conspicuously dark. A few intersections had police directing traffic, but it wasn’t clear that such intersections were operating any more efficiently that those without either traffic lights or police. Drivers were treating the latter as four-way stops, and traffic in all directions was moving, albeit somewhat slower than usual.

Not having found the edge of the power outage, I headed for home via a different route, hoping that one of several restaurants I would pass would be open. I became hopeful when, as I drove down Bower Hill Road, I began to see working traffic lights, streetlights, and homes with lights inside. Sure enough, the Italian pizza and hoagie restaurant I thought might have escaped the power outage was indeed open. I decided not to wait to see if Panera’s was also open. (Panera Bread would have given me more attractive food and Internet access.) I had a hoagie and Pepsi Zero and headed home. The Galleria, the mall housing Panera’s, clearly had only emergency lights working.

Remarkably, when I returned home, the power was back on, and I got back to my blog post. On the 11 o’clock news, I learned that Mt. Lebanon was particularly hard hit by the storm, with many areas still without power and trees down everywhere. KDKA-TV reported that Duquesne Light has 23,000 customers without power.

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