My Experience with the L.A. Blackout of 9/12/05

As most people have probably heard, a major blackout hit much of the Los Angeles metropolitan area this afternoon. Here is an AP article about the incident.

I needed to run home at lunch hour today to pick something up that I had left at home. I live in Van Nuys and work in North Hollywood and it normally takes me 20-40 minutes, depending on traffic. The black-out hit shortly before I got home. I was stopped at a stoplight and all of a sudden the light went out. For a few moments, nobody really knew what to do, basically being unsure whether the light was out on all sides. Eventually, people cautiously went through the intersection.

Figuring that the problem was probably pretty isolated, I went ahead and just ran into home to pick up what I needed and headed back to work, assuming I would quickly drive out of the affected area. It ended up taking me over 90 minutes to get back to work. Every stoplight was out except for about the last 3 or 4 before I got to the office. I think I only encountered two that had anyone directing traffic (they were right next to schools, so there were crossing guards). Most people did seem to know what to do at a dark stoplight, but there were enough that figured they could go any time they wanted to that it got pretty scary at times.

The most interesting part of the whole thing was listening to KNX radio while driving. The first report of the outage was just a quick note that there were some reported power outages in the middle of other reports. Then the station went off the air completely for several minutes, followed by a reporter tentatively stating the call letters and saying he wasn’t sure if they were on the air. He briefly started reporting on what was going on, but stopped mid-sentence and said “Oh, we aren’t on the air”. I could then just hear him shuffling papers and talking quietly with co-workers for a minute or so until someone finally told him he actually was on the air after all.

The rest of the resort was actually really interesting, basically seat-of-the-pants journalism and was actually pretty fascinating to listen to. They had no wire services, no Internet and even the phones went out after a couple minutes. The information that they were providing mostly trickled in via cell phones (we got to hear most of the reporters’ ring tones…) and through simple observation of what they could see out the windows. They eventually got quite a bit of their information by reaching people in unaffected areas via cell phone and then asking them to fill them in on what they were seeing on TV coverage. They also got a hold of some of their field reporters (and even one that was on his way home) via cell phone and were able to relay observations. They didn’t have any way to put the people calling their cell phones on the air, so most of it was the reporters repeating what the callers were saying.

While I can’t say that I at all enjoyed having to drive that long (for one thing, I was getting a splitting headache, which this evening I now realize appears to be the flu…), but I actually am kind of glad that I got to listen to this radio coverage. It isn’t that often that we hear that kind of raw reporting anymore.

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