Hard News by Russell Brown

Baghdad on the Waitemata

Without a word of a lie, the last thing I was doing before the power went was looking at the Wellington webcams and cackling. Poor buggers. Look at that weather! Then the lights sputtered twice and everything went dark and quiet.

I found the transistor radio and called Wallace at bFM to say that we could still hear him (he had no idea), and then had to call him back straight away to report that the signal was now just white noise. My darling took the kids to school (where she had a meeting) and I drove down to the auto garage, where we agreed that today perhaps wasn't the day for our 10,000km service. A plainclothes police car belted down Great North Road, lights flashing behind its grille. Another police car was pulled up at the Pt Chev shops, lights going, along with an ambulance in a similar state of display. Things seemed to have become quite interesting, quite quickly.

Back home, I deduced that the whole FM radio band was out. Something wrong at the Sky Tower, presumably. I found Radio Live on the AM, but Michael Laws was saying nothing to me about my life. Called David Slack: he had power, but no DSL (turns out Telecom's network vulnerability meant even people in Christchurch were having problems). Got an overload message when I tried to call Wallace again on my mobile. It was a bit nippy indoors. And bloody quiet.

I went back out and dropped my darling into town, via a route with as few traffic lights as possible. As we drove through Cox's Bay, a dozen or more desperate punters from Jervois Road were huddling under the canopy of a mobile coffee that had suddenly appeared.

Traffic wasn't too bad. Where there were traffic lights out, people were being patient and cautious. Meanwhile, in town, alarmed-looking Chinese girls were having their little toy umbrellas blown out and people were huddling outside offices. All the cafes were shut. The downtown wind tunnel was honking.

I came back up Hobson Street, where the only intersection being controlled by a pointsman was the one the police station is on. Further up, I could see that a roadworking guy had stepped in, in his flouro orange jacket, and was directing traffic through the nasty (even when the lights are on) intersection of the northwestern motorway and Nelson Street.

On the northernwestern back out to the Chev, I saw my only episode of "lunatic" driving for the day - some fucknuckle in a RAV 4 doing about 120km/h in the wind and rain, and repeatedly dicing with the grass verge. I arrived home to discover I had a couple of refugees. Andy and Daz had been editing their skate documentary at Daz's city pad, which now had no lights, lifts or running water. They were wondering about heading further West in search of coffee, but things didn't sound too good out that way either. I was grateful I'd got my first espresso in with only minutes to spare. How thin the veneer of civilisation.

Absent coffee, we decided that a restorative measure of Talisker would be appropriate, chopped wood, lit the fire and settled down to listen to Katherine Ryan until the news, a little miffed that she was talking to some classical musician and not crossing live to the Developing Situation In Auckland.

We sat around sharing our feelings, the way guys do in a crisis, until the phone rang. It was the older boy. They'd hit their two-hour maximum without electric water reticulation and school was out at Western Springs. By the time I got round there, surprised but not unhappy kids were pouring up the street. bFM was back on the car radio, still with Wallace, broadcasting from Rick Huntington's place in Grey Lynn (how much of a radio geek do you have to be to have backup transmission power?), running a battery-powered Discman and mic into Rick's OB unit, and ordering in drinks. Rick's the man behind greylynnweather.net, which was having an interesting day too.

We came home and the boy and Daz discussed the latest X-Men movie before the phone rang again: the other boy. He didn't have to come home, but he was a bit nervous and he doesn't do singing assembly anyway, so I fetched him home too. I made some phone calls for my Listener column, which was already overdue, if only I could write the thing, let alone send it.

We thought about hauling the barbecue round into the carport and doing some snarlers, but there were only four in the freezer and the butcher was shut. But we had gas on the stove (good lord, we had backup gas - we'd have run out of food months before we ran out of heat). So I thawed out some bolognaise sauce and made a steaming mountain of spag boll for lunch. We thought it would be prudent to drink some of the beer in the fridge before it got warm.

We chopped some more wood, and the boys - who had managed to play chess without fighting - got us organised to play the headlines card game Man Bites Dog. Which is what we were doing when the lights came back on, five hours after they failed.

So everyone went back to what they were doing. I finally got hold of an APN guy, in Australia, who could speak to me. I went around to Woolworths, which was thronging with people who weren't used to being loose at that time of day, and were buying biscuits and drinks. On the way back, the friendly bloke at the Westmere Glengarrys said he'd had a rush in the morning, as people gave up on work and swung by to pick up a few beverages to wash down the barbecue food, but had been quiet since.

The buses were running and we duly settled down and had a curry. But the radio news was still telling me to turn off electrical appliances at the wall, in case a second round of high winds brought down more lines and caused surges. Like everyone was going to switch off their Sky decoders.

I understand a little more about the way the outage happened now, and it was freakish. A anti-lightning earth wire - rated for 170kmh gusts - snapped and fell into the Otahuhu substation, taking out not one but six or eight lines, which were dangerous to repair. It's not at all a trivial problem to fix. Replicating the Otahuhu substation would take years and cost very serious money.

But I'm still at a loss as to how - with all the talk about the fragility of Auckland's power supply, and that business in 1998 - only two police stations (Auckland and Avondale) had backup power. How Telecom DSL could be down all day in places which didn't even lose power. How so many Auckland residential buildings could be essentially uninhabitable because their electric water pumps stopped.

It's not really a patch on what happened at the same time in snowbound South Canterbury, let alone "Baghdad on the Waitemata", as the facetious headline above suggests. But there were around 700,000 people affected; people with small businesses and medical appointments and exams and kids being sent home from school. My day was actually quite funny, if surprisingly busy (the Herald published reader reports which made better reading than all those civic and business leaders blathering about "third world" cities).

Power blackouts aren't exactly unknown elsewhere in the world, even in great cities. And at least there weren't any riots. But a hell of a lot of things don't appear to have performed as advertised yesterday, and it would be nice to feel that some lessons have been learned. Meanwhile … how much do generators cost anyway?