If you have the good luck (or bad sense) to buy a house with some years in its bones, you realize quickly that your renovation budget — money you thought you might spend beautifying the place — needs to be sunk into repairs you’ll never even see. I speak from experience. In my family’s first year in our home, we suffered a house fire, electrical in origin, that displaced us for nearly four months. On our return, the house did, as it happens, look better — extensive smoke damage necessitated extensive painting — but was it safer? Well, only sort of.
The trouble with insurance-funded repairs is that their purpose is simply to “make whole” the status quo of the structure before the fire. The place where the fire originated (in the wall behind the dryer) is put together properly now, but the electrical risks in the rest of the house weren’t mitigated. Which is why, in a few weeks, we will be visited by a different electrician, whom we will pay handsomely to dissect each of our outlets and light switches, lessening the odds that our house will fry itself a second time.
I mention this because I see a connection to the condition of our fair city’s power grid. I doubt I need to remind a single reader that an ice storm hit Memphis in early February. The power outages began almost immediately, on Thursday, February 3rd, when ice began to accumulate on power lines and tree limbs. Not long after, we began hearing reports of transformers blowing, houses catching fire, pipes bursting.
The city has cleaned up the worst of the damage from February’s storm. What will we do to make sure our community doesn’t have to keep reliving those cold, dark days?
For Memphians of a certain vintage, flashbacks to Ice Storm ’94 took hold. What if this were as bad as that? When all was said and done, it turned out that Ice Storm ’22 was actually worse, at least in terms of total power outages. The latest count, as of this writing, is that 241,260 customers of Memphis Light, Gas & Water lost power at some point during the storm, some for only a day or two, and others for a week or more.
Friends reported that their homes were as cold as 38 degrees — inside. Those fortunate enough to have sufficient disposable income, or tolerant friends and family, decamped to hotels or guest bedrooms. But in a city as poor as Memphis, not everyone has the funds for a hotel room (and even if they did, plenty of hotels were booked solid). Not everyone has folks in their lives ready to invite them in from the cold. Even if a refuge were found, would the pets be welcomed? Most people I know wouldn’t leave their cats and dogs in a refrigerator-cold house.
Catastrophic storms have grown more frequent, a trend that will almost certainly continue over the course of our lives. Memphis is vulnerable to strong winds (see: Hurricane Elvis) and to damaging ice storms. (It was a year ago in February that the city issued a boil-water order following another winter storm.) Then there’s the matter of the New Madrid fault line. I do not possess the emotional equilibrium at the moment to devote much thought to that.
The fact is that if we don’t make (expensive, time-consuming, disruptive) changes to our power grid, we are inviting future storms to leave our city cold and dark. And outages are more than inconvenient: For younger and older and sicker people, they can be devastating. We need more than the patch jobs that follow big storms. We need to accept that the combination of above-ground power lines, majestic trees, and regular major storms is not working for our community.
I’m far from the first person to call for burying power lines in Memphis; this isn’t a novel idea. The work is estimated to cost somewhere between three and seven billion dollars — a staggeringly wide range. Meanwhile, the annual operating budget of the City of Memphis is less than one billion. Still, we need better evaluations of what the work will cost, and then we need to determine where to begin.
When my family’s house was on fire, our first mission was to stop the burning. But now that the immediate damage has been remedied, our focus has shifted to making sure we don’t have to relive the experience. The city has cleaned up the worst of the damage from February’s storm. What will we do to make sure our community doesn’t have to keep reliving those cold, dark days?