THE BLOG

How to Eliminate Downed Power Lines

02/10/2014 03:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

A white storm slammed into the U.S. East Coast. Roads and rail transportation were shut down for days. Power cables toppled, leaving large swaths of residents and businesses figuratively and literally in the dark, without communication or power.

Yes, that describes our recent series of snowstorms, in which I was in the middle -- but luckily escaped the major effects of -- where I live in northern Manhattan.

But what I'm really describing is the Great White Hurricane, the Blizzard of 1888.

What's shocking about the parallels between our recent blizzard series and the Great White Hurricane is what New York City did 125 years ago that perhaps the rest of the country, or at least those in weather damage susceptible areas, ought to do as well.

When the Blizzard of 1888 hit, it had been just 12 years since the invention of the telephone, and less than six years since Thomas Edison (whose birthday we celebrate this week) invented the first power station, the Pearl Street Station in downtown Manhattan in September 1882. We were still eight years away from the opening of the Nikola Tesla-designed power station at Niagara Falls, which would eventually supply AC power to the entire northeastern U.S.

In just a short period of time, all across the 1888 skyline of New York City, a web was woven overhead, and that's not an exaggeration -- a net of telephone, telegraph and power cables hung from a forest of poles. Check out this photo and this etching from the 1888 to see what I mean.

Look at photos of New York City today (or, if you live in Manhattan, just look up) and what don't you see?

Cables.

Where have all the cables gone?

Once Edison's electric power distribution proved to be a great success, city fathers didn't listen to the Wizard of Menlo Park who lobbied to bury his electrical cables and chose the far more economic and less labor-intensive method of stringing city streets like a sitar.

And then, the Blizzard of 1888 toppled this forest of poles and web of cables and destroyed the newly constructed lighting and telephone networks, forever changing the city's power outage map. In the blizzard's aftermath, New York City (at the time consisting only of Manhattan) finally saw the electrified light and buried its phone and power cables underground.

Outside of Manhattan for the next next 125 years, in blizzard/nor'easter/hurricane/tornado-torn territories across the country, "downed power lines" has become a sadly over-used phrase. Two years ago, I penned a similar "bury the cables" plea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which resulted in even more widespread power and communications outages than the current spate of snow storms.

Considering the endless stream of power outage headlines year-after-year, buried power/phone lines should be a major part of the national infrastructure upgrade program that Vice President Biden is championing.

Not a rosy burial picture

Okay, I admit I might be over-simplifying things a bit. Burying power and phone cables nationwide obviously isn't a simple "just do it" proposal.

Is burying cables a local, state or national issue -- who would have authority? I can hear the jurisdictional and partisan "national priority"/"government overreach" kerfuffles now.

How long will streets be torn up, inconveniencing businesses and residents? Oh, no -- not in my neighborhood you don't!

And, most importantly, who's gonna pay for all of this? Us, of course, likely through taxes -- but only if they're offset, say the GOP -- and/or through a utility company surcharge that will be very popular (he said sarcastically).

Measured against myriad Mother Nature-manufactured power outages, however, these authority, inconvenience and cost factors seem to merit at least some conversation, if not a hue and cry from those who have been and will continue to be threatened by loss of electricity from exposed and vulnerable power lines.

Let's talk

Some conversations are already taking place. "Bury the cable" cost/benefit analyses were explored in the aftermath of the Derecho-caused power outage in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore-Northern Virginia vicinity, reported here and in this column.

A similar "bury the cables" discussion is currently being conducted in Toronto. When the logistical and cost issues are exposed to the light of public comment, though, tree-pruning seems to be the less costly -- but butt ugly and band-aid-on-the-problem -- solution.

Several potential "bury the cables" bonuses have not been proffered in these discussions, however.

Drunk drivers would have one less roadside obstruction to wrap their swerving vehicles around. Kids would have to find a more appropriate location to toss discarded pairs of footwear. Our clothes and cars would no longer be spotted by poop from resting (but not necessarily angry) birds on a wire.

And jobs. Lots and lots and lots of jobs. A nationwide "bury the cables" campaign could create construction, manufacturing, engineering, logistical, secretarial, human resource and support private sector jobs in WWII Arsenal of Democracy-like quantities.

Until someone perfects Tesla's dream of broadcast power, burying cables is the best way to keep the lights on regardless of what weather hell is breaking loose outside. New York City figured this out a century and a quarter ago. Maybe it's time for the rest of the country to consider catching up.