July 24th, 2006

Regime Change Begins at Home

Neither Unprecedented Nor Natural

As life slowly creeps back towards normality here in Baghdad on the Mississippi, you're going to start hearing the same lie more and more often, over and over again: "This was an unprecedented natural disaster." To quote Doctor Tran, "That was two lies!" First of all, this disaster was in no ways unprecedented, at least not the weather part of it. I know that some of you disagree with me, and I don't have the National Weather Service raw data handy to run searches or calculations on. But I know that the reason that Ameren/UE's public spokespeople aren't making that particular claim is that they know it would take a meterologist less than an hour to prove them wrong. (Instead, they let the claim be made for them by proxies like tame politicians and by employees speaking off the record.)

The fact of the matter is, as I've discussed before in many other contexts, there is nothing unusual about times when the wind blows towards St. Louis from the same northerly or southerly direction for periods of 5 to 10 days in a row. It happens at least twice per season. And so, at least twice per summer, we have weeks where prolonged south winds raise the day time temperatures to 95°F or more, sometimes well above 100°, with dewpoints above 70°F and therefore heat indices as high as 110°F or even 120°F. And because those hot spells always end with a major cold front moving down from the vicinity of the Arctic Circle, they always end with powerful storms. Always. More than half of the time, the result is one or more tornadoes, usually more. This is, after all, Tornado Alley. Yes, the first storm in this series did approach from an unusual direction. (Although even that was less of a surprise than you're being told. The National Weather Service tracked that storm all the way down from Chicago, which makes the fact that the severe weather alarm sirens didn't sound until after the worst of the storm had passed incomprehensible and hard to defend.) And yes, it is unusual that the winds were straight-line down-drafts instead of tornadic vortices. (But not unheard of. I was in an almost identical but slightly worse storm in Columbia, Missouri about ten years ago.) Neither of these details make the storm worse or better than any other; the fact remains that each storm hit ground with peak winds of around 90 mi/hr in about the same number of places that an average tornadic storm front touches ground, and over roughly the same area per hit.

It did this this year, and over 500,000 addresses lost electrical power for up to 10 days. It did this last year, and about 250,000 addresses lost electrical power for up to 7 days. It did this the year before that, and a bit over 100,000 addresses lost electrical power for (if memory serves) about 5 days. If you go back through history, you find out that virtually every time a series of tornadoes or of straight-line wind gusts that strong has moved through St. Louis as part of an end-of-heat-wave storm, the individual neighborhoods that were hit lost power, usually for 12 to 36 hours. The weather didn't change. The public utility company responsible for the electricity did. And that's what I mean when I say that the more important of the two lies is calling this a natural disaster. What is happening to us right now is man-made.

One of the things that came out during a radio call-in show on KMOX on Friday was an anonymous call from a former Ameren/UE employee, who had heard these lies already a couple of times, and thought that if we were going to debate Ameren's response to the disaster, there was something we needed to know: that as soon as Ameren bought Union Electric, the prior electrical utility, they immediately laid off (fired) 25% of the linemen and 25% of the tree-trimming crews. (That latter may baffle some of you, but it is the responsibility of the electrical utility to trim branches and if need be remove trees that are threatening power lines. The alternative, after all, is to require homeowners or their low-bid contractors to take their own chainsaws up there and work next to 69,000 volt electrical transmission lines.) When Ameren's spokeswoman was questioned about this, she sputtered that this was unfair ... but she didn't dispute it. She said it was unfair to criticize the company for that decision because, as Ameren's response to this disaster shows, Ameren is a much bigger company than UE was, so when disasters like this strike they can call on linemen from up to nine states. Yes, they can, when disaster strikes ... but who does the routine maintenance between disasters? 25% fewer people, that's who. No serious maintenance has been done on the city's electrical grid since Ameren bought it. Much of this came out after last year's "unprecedented natural disaster." Ameren was forced by the (normally tame) Public Utilities Commission to increase their tree-trimming budget. This they grudgingly did ... but not even to the pre-Ameren levels, let alone high enough to catch up on years of deferred maintenance. Nor did they do anything about replacing thousands of aging transformers or fuse blocks, or cracked and crumbling utility poles, or sagging wires.

You don't believe me? There was a first-hand account in the Sunday Post-Dispatch from a student in the high-rise dorms at St. Louis University who happened to be looking out her window when the storm hit. She describes seeing bright blue sparks flaring up from the tops of hundreds of electrical poles at once. That's not what it looks like when trees drop lines. And, indeed, the worst outages didn't happen in the areas hardest hit by the winds, and extended into many areas (like my neighborhood) where no tree branches or trees fell anywhere near the power lines. No, even I'm enough of an electrician to tell you what happened, even before the inquiry starts. When the first couple of areas dropped, there were brief but sudden and intense shifts in the load on the electrical grid. If the electrical grid had been being maintained, fuses would have blown or circuit breakers would have tripped to isolate the suddenly shorted or cut power lines. Instead, because of years of deferred maintenance, the aging grid failed to contain the resulting power surges, and they blew over half the fuses and circuit breakers in the network, most of them (because of their age and ill maintenance) catastrophically. Bet me. And if you still think I'm wrong, then why didn't the phone network and the cable network that use those same wires suffer the same catastrophic failures? Why did the natural gas service tick along like clockwork, and why were the isolated water-plant failures all related to Ameren's power outages, not storm damage of their own? I'll tell you why not. It's because they weren't owned by Ameren(ron). And lest you still doubt that it was deferred maintenance that did it, ask anybody from the affected zones, because one thing we all noticed was that in fringe areas, the newest buildings and developments weren't as likely to be affected.

Every year since Ameren took over Union Electric, they've done two things. Every year, they've asked the Public Services Commission for a rate increase. And every year, they've given their CEO and the rest of the top management team a big bonus. That bonus has very consistently tracked along with the money they looted from the maintenance budget plus the money they got in rate increases. We, the rate payers, were paying them money that they were supposed to be using to maintain the electrical grid that they'd bought, one that depended heavily on public-owned rights of way and whose construction was in no small part funded by taxpayer-backed bond issues. Instead, they ran off with the money, paying it out to the CEO, to his friends in senior management, and a pittance to buy off the shareholders and to make campaign contributions to politicians responsible for the PSC so they'd let the looting continue. And why wouldn't they? It doesn't cost them extra when the grid goes down. All the millions of dollars sucked out of the local economy from temporarily-closed businesses and spoiled food costs them not one red cent, or will they be asked to pay back the city governments for their police overtime nor the various charities for their shelters nor the National Guard for their troops nor FEMA for its (inevitably, late) donation of tens of thousands of MREs. On the contrary, by putting off all maintenance until after a disaster declaration will let them (doubtlessly) petition the government for free money, for "emergency disaster relief" so that they can charge taxpayers all over the country for maintenance that their we, their local customers, have already paid them to do and they didn't do it.

We're being robbed blind. It's Enron without the stock swindle, all over again. Which, as greg_palast noted a couple of days ago, is not coincidental. Here as in California, every move towards the industry's beloved goal of "deregulation" has been yet another license to steal. I have a pretty good idea what Jay Nixon will do about it if he's elected governor; I'm thinking that at the very least it'll involve appointing some new Public Service Commissioners who are a little more skeptical towards Ameren. So I sincerely hope that somebody asks our current Republican governor, Matt "Baby" Blunt, what he intends to do about it. I predict with tremendous confidence that he'll take Ameren's side, because his breed of Republican is all about looting the public for the benefit of wealthy CEOs and their friends.