A year on the brink
BY WAYNE GREENE Editorial Writer
Sunday, December 07, 2008
12/07/12 at 1:09 PM
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One year later, we don't seem to have come very far.
On Dec. 10, 2007, an ice storm unlike any before struck Tulsa.
If you were here a year ago I don't need to remind you of the days of darkness: no heat, no light, not many options.
At any moment it seemed, any one of a dozen disasters could strike — the neighbor's tree could come crashing through the roof, the pipes could burst, we could all die of carbon monoxide poisoning — and there wasn't a thing we could do about it. In the middle of a modern city, there was the hopeless feeling of being cut off from the world we thought we knew.
Or, to be more precise, we grew increasingly aware of the fact that our previous lives — the life of the comfortable electric-light city — were what was cut off from reality.
We all got a taste of bitter potentials of life when we were disconnected from the modern conveniences that we use to create a false sense of security in an insecure world.
We live on the brink of disaster with something as tenuous as an electrical wire — an outdoor electrical wire virtually unprotected from the hardships of weather and circumstance — tethering us to our comfortable lives.
The storm caused some $780 million in damage and resulted in 29 deaths, according to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
What have we done in the past year to improve our security? Not very much, and the hopes of doing more in the coming year depends on our ability not to forget what that week in the cold darkness of the real world was like.
Here's a simple, sensible plan for improving our chances in the next ice storm:
1. Make sure that any electrical lines going into new housing developments are buried;
2. Significantly increase the money dedicated to burying lateral distribution lines — electrical wires that bring power into neighborhoods — in established areas;
3. Distribute the cost to all electrical customers.
It was a sensible plan when the Oklahoma Corporation Commission started talking about it months ago.
Unfortunately, that conversation came in a year when two of the three commissioners were on the campaign trail and shy to talk about alternatives that might end up raising utility bills. So far, very little has been accomplished except for polling and some very slow staff work.
Commissioner-elect Dana Murphy, an advocate for a smart, aggressive line-burial program, says where the state goes from here becomes a question of priorities.
After the ice storm, everyone was intimately aware of how tenuous our link to the power grid could become.
It was a high priority.
Since then we've seen our electric bills go up to pay for the cost of the storm, and we've seen our electric bills go up because of the higher price of fuel used to generate power.
Meanwhile, gasoline prices have gone up, property taxes have gone up and grocery bills have gone up. Just about everything has gone up except our stocks and our paychecks.
Suddenly, our bank account has a high priority, and burying electrical lines can be very expensive.
A year later, the shivering memories of the ice storm are not quite so scary.
"Sometimes it takes a disaster to make us look at things," Murphy said.
Rationally, she said, the state needs to look at the costs of line burial and the benefits and make short-, medium- and long-term plans to get the state in the best possible situation for dealing with the challenges of ice and wind.
Burying key power lines won't solve all the problems associated with weather. Neither will it be cheap or fast.
But it is the best thing we can do to strengthen our electrical grid against a repetition of last winter's disaster.
In the time that has passed since the ice storm, the economy and our memories of last December have gone cold.
The $780 million question is whether the people of Oklahoma remember well enough exactly how close things came to the brink.
Wayne Greene 581-8308
A utility crew works on a snapped power line in Tulsa on Dec. 11, 2007. Stephen Holman/Tulsa World file
Electrical contractors operate a directional bore rig to bury electrical lines neat 41st Street and Zunis Avenue in June. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World file