Monday, January 07, 2013

"Scotty, I need more power!"

There's nothing like a power outage to underscore how much of my job (and my writing) is dependant on electricity. This morning, a little after 10, the lights in my office flickered, then went out. The room became still; KWAX had been playing softly, but it cut out.

As usual when the power goes out, my first question is, "When will it come back on?" This is invariably followed by James (author of "Connections") Burke's voice intoning, "Most modern people assume that the power will come back on--it never occurs to them that it might not."

I work in a brick former-men's dormitory building that was built in the 1920's. It has plenty of opportunities for daylight. Except for the basement. And the elevators. My boss and I went and started orderly shutdowns of machines that were still on and unplugged the ones that weren't. Occasionally, the lights would flicker as if the power wanted to come back on, but couldn't.

Unpowered buildings are still. Without electricity, the flourescent lights don't hum, the monitors' high-pitched whine cease, and all the computer fans stop. It's like having your ears pop while climbing a mountain -- the pressure of that unnoticed noise suddenly lets up. Suddenly, the green EXIT lights, running on emergency backup, seem loud.

We checked the elevators to listen for any sounds of someone trapped within; its buttons flicked on for a second, then died. We didn't hear anyone when we tapped on the doors. A bunch of us checked the basement. Sometimes researchers run experiments down there, and I can imagine it wouldn't be fun for a subject when the lights went out. We didn't find anyone, but we did find a power panel beeping lightly at us. If you ever want to feel like a Red Shirt, fan out from the rest of the search party in the abandoned basement of an unpowered building with a red panel beeping at you. The reading lens with built-in LED I was using as a flashlight threw just enough light to put the surrounding darkness into intimidating relief.

Back on the first floor, I went outside to see what was going on. I heard sirens in the distance. When I asked a passer-by what she knew, she said she thought there had been an explosion near the health center, and then pointed out that the sport center across the street from where we were standing was bright with electric lights. I peered the other way to the EMU and saw it was powered as well.

About this time, I realized I wasn't getting some of the status alerts the university puts out via cell phones.

The rest of the day was spent unplugging various pieces of equipment so that their power supplies wouldn't get fried if the power came back on in an uncontrolled way and then sending out e-mail (thank goodness there was a UO wireless in the nearby EMU) to the department about the status of the building.

Probably the most intimidating moment was leaning over a beeping UPS to silence it and wondering if it's flashing "overload" light meant it was going to explode and shower me with molten lead from its battery. Then there were some odd moments in very dark hallways made more dark by closed fire doors. And wondering if the steam tunnel valves really did fail open and if the water valve in the stairwell I was using would burst, shooting the wheel valve into me as I walked by. These "what if" moments usually have Tim Powers' voice attached to them.
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