San Diego County is filled with people who are self-reliant and prepared for any emergency - or so the narrative goes. When I covered the 2007 wildfires, I heard a lot of comparisons to Hurricane Katrina and the chaos of the Superdome versus the well-behaved, organized events at Qualcomm Stadium. "Hell," said one guy back then, chuckling and waving away gently drifting ash, "we even have clowns here for the kids. Clowns!"
There is no discounting the indomitable human spirit, kindness, and resilience people showed during the fires. However, yesterday's blackout, which not only covered all of San Diego but touched adjoining counties and stretched well into Mexico and Arizona, showed that San Diegans handle crises very well, but unexpected inconveniences just as badly as everybody else.
Right after the lights went out, people were unable to make or receive cell phone calls, although everybody seemed to be able to get on Facebook and bitch about how they had no power. Some people blamed Mexico, others, the Tea Party; still others said it was all President Obama's fault. When I realized the extent of the outage, I decided to drive around to see what it was like.
I had gone about half a mile when a barefoot man in a golf shirt and baggy bermuda shorts ran in front of my car and motioned for me to turn around. A water main had ruptured, pumping out water onto a flooded street that had suddenly developed frightening twists and buckles. "That's my house," he said, indicating a wet front lawn. "This whole block could go at any minute and we can't get through to anybody who can come and fix it so we're trying to direct traffic around the street."
He broke off to flag down a van. As I walked back to my car, I heard the driver screaming something that sounded like, "What the fuck do you mean I can't fucking go through this fucking street? I have to go to work and I have fucking kids in this fucking car." Other drivers were leaning on their horns or gesticulating wildly at the bedraggled, dampened people in the street.
It was the same everywhere: impatient, hot, frustrated people yelling at each other, lining up at gas stations that had no gas to give, or speeding through intersections without working stoplights that were already littered with bits of broken glass and plastic. I punched on the radio and flipped through the stations for more information, but nobody knew anything and were instead speculating on the cause of the massive outage. "Terrorism." "Terrorism." "Nine eleven." "El terrorismo." Traffic was horrible. I got fed up and went back to my house, circumventing the flooded block, which had finally been cordoned off by police.
Things mellowed around dusk. Most people had gone home, but there were no televisions, no leaf-blowers or lawnmowers; not even many airplanes were overhead since flights out of San Diego were grounded. While desert communities sweltered in the unrelenting heat, it was cool enough in San Diego that some of my neighbors had decided to throw an impromptu party, but unlike other nights where their music and party-drama carried clearly to my bedroom window, there was no obnoxious noise, only low conversation and clinking bottles.
I sat outside with my dog for much of the night, content to listen to my neighbors murmur and laugh, and looked up at the stars, more stars than I had ever seen before from my backyard. The night was beautifully warm and clear and the moon was so bright that it nearly hurt my eyes to look at it. I was suddenly suffused with a sense of well-being. This is how it should be, I thought. Now that we are in our homes and we aren't stuck or frustrated, look how content we all are just to sit outside and hang out in the quiet and just watch the stars. Maybe I hadn't been fair earlier.
Suddenly, the power went back on, followed almost immediately by loud whoops and even louder explosions as some fuse lines blew. My neighbors cheered. "Happy New Year!" they yelled drunkenly, and turned on the music.
Brooke Binkowski a native San Diegan, a former Los Angeles radio reporter, and now a freelance reporter and full time International Studies student a UC San Diego