Thursday, November 01, 2012

Yucky toilets, stinky bodies, pissed off bus riders and other New York tales of horror from the Con Edison disaster

No, I’m not calling it the Hurricane Sandy disaster. Hurricane Sandy came and went. What we have now is a Con Edison disaster caused by an explosion of unknown cause in Con Edison equipment. (Watch the full video.)

Con Edison, New York’s electrical utility, gets the villain’s hat, thanks to a lack of redundancy in Manhattan’s electrical distribution system, and a doltishly-wired local grid that evidently doesn’t allow the utility to distribute current around the downed substation transformer that has knocked out nearly all of Manhattan from 39th Street south to the financial district.

An eerie irony

Case in point: My apartment building has no electricity, as a consequence of which my fellow 300-or-so occupants and I have no running water (electric pumps raise the water to rooftop reservoirs in Manhattan), no land line telephones, no Internet, no television, no elevator to our high rise digs (my apartment is on the 10th floor) and not even a functioning toilet. Yet at night, my apartment is ironically bathed in an eerie glow from the art-deco zig-zagging neon lights atop the Chrysler building, six blocks to the north.

With a more intelligently designed – or redesigned – electrical grid, the wasted late night art deco razz-a-ma-tazz in a desolated city could be routed as spare power and sent south long enough to pump water up to the reservoirs on our roofs, so that we could flush our toilets once, and fill up our water pitchers. But no such luck. Why should Con Ed care? They're in this business strictly to make a profit, not to help their customers.

What does all this mean on a personal level? Well, I’m going to tell you what it’s like living with the Con Edison mess. Warning: some of this stuff is beyond disgusting.

Keep reading, but hold your nose

After two-plus days of unflushable toilets, my bathroom reeks like the outhouse from hell. I’ve saved bowel movements for my office, north of 39th Street, where the toilets are working. Even so, the nauseating odor of standing urine is slowly creeping through my apartment despite my best efforts to keep the toilet covered and the bathroom door shut when the toilet’s not in use.

Showers are impossible. Yesterday morning, for the second time, I took about a cupful of my precious stored drinking water, put it in a Pyrex bowl, and heated the water on my stovetop after lighting a burner with a match.

Then I carried the bowl to the bathtub in my stinking bathroom, dipped a washcloth in the warm water, soaped it, and scrubbed myself down.

Even so, after two days I could smell myself. It was time to beg a favor. I called friends who have power on the Upper West Side. “Look,” I said, “I need a shower and a shampoo. And I have over two pounds of sirloin and a prime rib that are defrosting in my dead freezer. I’ll swap, steak for a shower.”

“Come on over and help us eat it,” they told me. “We’ll prepare some fluffy towels for you.” So last night I had my first hot shower in over two days, followed by a great steak dinner. Even so, it was a horrid evening.

With the power nightmare
comes a transportation nightmare

It was no picnic getting from midtown east side to the Upper West. The trip to my friends’ apartment usually takes about 45 minutes by public transportation. But last night, at 6:30 p.m.,  there was still no subway service. People who have to work here had driven into the city and were now trying to drive out again. (The mayor made no attempt I know of to discourage this.) That surge of extraordinary commuter automobile traffic, combined with an overabundance of busses, meant to substitute for nonexistent subway service, turned my Third Avenue route into a hyper-gridlocked nightmare. Available taxis? Don’t make me laugh. Besides, they would have been just another element of the gridlock.

It took me 45 minutes to ride from 38th Street to 46th Street. Realizing I’d never get where I was going if I went by bus alone, I got off the bus and walked briskly almost a mile up Third Avenue, past the gridlock to the East 60s, with my plastic grocery bag of bleeding defrosted steak. Then I re-boarded a bus when one arrived to East 96th Street, and then took the East 96th Street crosstown bus to West End Avenue. Total time for a trip of approximately three and a half miles? Two hours and fifty minutes.

The hot shower was worth it. The steak was great. (My friends have a gas barbecue on their terrace.) At midnight, when I headed home, the gridlock had passed and I was able to take a taxi to my apartment (twenty-two bucks including tip.) The taxi and the $16-a-pound steak may have made this the most expensive shower of my life. But hey, when you’re aware of your own stink, you gotta do what you gotta do.

With the pocket flashlight that I now guard as closely as I guard my wallet, I walked up ten flights of darkened stairs to my apartment, opened the door, and tried to ignore the reek of urine. It  had grown even worse by this morning when I woke up.

Con Ed congratulates itself

At the office, I was finally able to check the news. I discovered that Con Edison is patting itself on the back because it got power restored to a tiny corner of lower Manhattan, and it thinks it can have the rest of the bottom half of the island powered up by Friday. Well, if not by Friday, then probably Saturday, they then say. Maybe. I’ll believe it when I can flush my toilet.

And some passing thoughts

There are women in their eighties in my building, trapped on high floors and unable to navigate, seven, fifteen, even twenty-one stories of staircases. One person or another knocks on their doors to make sure they have food and water to drink. But I keep worrying about the ones I don’t know about and others don’t know about. In a building with over 230 apartments, it’s impossible to know everybody. The shy ones, the infirm ones, could be slowly starving to death inside their own reeking apartments.

Fortunately, the weather has been more-or-less cooperative, remaining in the 50s. With a sudden cold snap, some of those old women might freeze to death even if they don’t starve.

If the Con Edison power outage goes on much longer, people will die as a consequence. Not to mention businesses. From 39th Street south there’s not an open supermarket, deli, pizzeria, restaurant, shoe repair shop, drug store (what if people need their life-saving prescriptions refilled?) or other business. Some of the small merchants are assuredly taking a powerful hit, and some, perhaps many small businesses will fail as a consequence. (Give yourself another pat on the back, Con Ed.)

“Mayor Mike” Bloomberg is been remarkably unvocal during this disaster, at least from what I can tell from my Internet reading. Politician that he is, he’s too smart to get publicly involved with this reeking and rage-breeding mess. Ditto Kevin Burke, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Con Edison.

What if it had been a terrorist?

But Burke, Bloomberg and their pals need to take responsibiity for this mess. And to realize how serious it is, think of it this way:

 If a foreign terrorist had blown up the transformer that evidently caused this half-of-Manhattan outage, bringing a great city to a stop, ruining thousands of businesses, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of lives, destroying a few, and causing, I’m guessing here, $2 billion worth of business losses, U.S. Navy Seals might be in the process of blowing his head off as you read this.

What consequences will Burke face? His board will probably give him a bonus on top of is already outsized compensation package, which came to $11 million in 2011, part of which he earned by locking out experienced union Con Ed hands who might have known how to prevent the explosion.

Update: A few minutes before 4 pm today I received an anonymous robo-call. I assume it was from Con Edison, but they never said who they were. The terse message told me that "power in your area" "should be" back by 11:30 p.m. Saturday. That's not the four days they were promising on their website. It's 30 minutes short of six days if they deliver. Meanwhile, the weather's growing colder.

And on more thing….

The next time Willard Romney tells you private enterprise can do things better than government, remind him that the government Tennessee Valley Authority electrified millions of acres and hundreds of thousands of homes, factories and farms back in the Roosevelt era. Then remind  him to about New  York’s disaster and tell him to take a Con Edison smokestack and stick it where the sun don’t shine


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