26 July 2010

Observations from DC's freak storm

CNN | Severe storm leaves thousands without power in sweltering D.C. area

Washington (CNN) -- A severe thunderstorm packing high winds blew through the Washington area Sunday afternoon, downing trees and power lines, and leaving tens of thousands of residents without power.


Electricity provider Pepco reported that as of Sunday evening, about 280,000 residences across the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia were still in the dark -- and without air-conditioning -- on one of the hottest days of the year, with temperatures reaching 99 degrees at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
According to our governor this will be a "multi-day effort" to restore power. Water shortages are also happening since there's no power to the local treatment plant.

Some observations:

(0) CNN Editors: how is 280,000 reported as "tends of thousands"? Sure, it is in fact tens of thousands, but only in the way that it's also dozens or hundreds.

(1) This was a weird storm. Some blocks look have fallen trees and ripped up signs, and the block next to them is completely clear. Not so much as a leaf in the road.

(2) I really wish I had a camera this morning because I saw a great scene courtesy of the Department of Not My Problem. Some DPW workers were canvasing a neighborhood and roping caution tape across streets where there were downed tree limbs even partially obstructing the way. The limbs I saw at both sites weren't more than an inch or two thick and no longer than a man.* Apparently it's better to rope off an entire block than just drag five pounds of wood a few feet towards the curb.

* Some men are longer than others! Harrrrr! Couldn't resist. I'm soooooo mature.

(3) Special Lady Friend and I went to the grocery last night to secure some ice to preserve our fine meats and cheeses. It wasn't entirely a mad house but it was close. They were moving a ton of ice out the door. They had turned over most of the freezer isle to 20lb ice sacks and were trucking in more from out of the region. This feels like a good time to revisit the classic EconTalk episode on "price gouging" on ice and other supplies in the wake of a storm in North Carolina.

(4) If I could make one request of Gov. O'Malley in regards to this respose it would be to get the people trying to direct traffic out of the intersections. Things were flowing much, much easier when order emerged bottom-up from the drivers than they are at intersections with someone commanding traffic. Most of these people aren't very good at this. Delays are longer, based on my admittedly anecdotal experiences. Resources are not being used efficiently (e.g. directly northbound traffic to turn right, but not allowing southbound traffic to turn left or other northbound traffic to proceed straight). A lot of the traffic directors park their cars in traffic lanes, which caused more back ups and frustration for me than all the downed tree limbs they're working to clear out of traffic lanes. Add to this that it's dangerous work and a lot of these people are probably pulling expensive over time.

(4b) There's one intersection in particular, just down the way from my place, that is one of those traffic circles that are screwed up in a way that only Americans can screw up. Lights everywhere, weird merging, unspecified lanes, illegal right turns, paths that cut through the center of the circles. Just a complete mess. Based on observations this weekend and the last several power outages this summer, this intersection works an order of magnitude better with no power and no one directing traffic than it does in it's normal mode of operation.

(5) RCN already had an internet outage in my neighborhood six hours or so before the storm.  That's a whole other rant about their service and the quality of Apple's network diagnostic software.  (A sample:  the router RCN supplied me with had a helpful guide stuck to it.  If you have problems turn the router off and on again.  (Thank you, Roy.)  "If problems persist, go to rcn.com."  Seriously.  If you can't get an internet connection, go to our website.)  So even when power does get restored to our apartment I fear I'm going to be stuck in the dark, dark days of the mid-nineties.


  1. One of the delightful things I noticed when I moved to Dallas is that when traffic lights go out, people instinctively treat the intersection as if it were a four-way stop and the vast majority of people honor it. It's breathtaking, especially if you've ever lived in, say, south Florida, or seen video of traffic in India.

    Having said that, the drawback is that it drastically INCREASES time to get through the intersection.

  2. People did mostly the same thing here, though instead of one vehicle through the intersection at a time like you get at a four-way-stop, people were moving in small packs. That increases throughput and utilization pretty significantly.

    I didn't have a stop watch or anything remotely resembling a scientific observation, but I really feel like the intersections were no quicker with people directing traffic than they were as a free-for-all. They probably could be better if the people doing it were trained and experienced, but they weren't. I don't have data to back me up, but I'm going to stick to my guns on this: I'd rather these intersections be un-attended as long as the power is out.

  3. I agree--stipulating we're not talking about the places I mentioned in my first comment.

    Expecting people to go through a group at a time is dangerous, though: how big is the group? one at a time is very slow but the rule is easily and quickly discernable.

  4. Agreed that it's ambiguous and thus more dangerous, but it seems to work here. (From my limited observations, of course.)

    People seem to be following some sort of flocking behavior -- if you can stick closely to the guy who's crossing -- either behind or in a parallel lane -- then you go with him. Plus some altruism so the crossing traffic doesn't get starved.

  5. there are dozens of thousands of us...DOZENS OF THOUSANDS!!