When the lights go out – literally.
I lived through a couple of major blackouts when I was growing up in New York City, major events that affected large chunks of the Eastern seaboard. But that was, what?, two times in about 40 years.
Living in various village houses in the New Territories in Hong Kong for seven years had me hating thunderstorms. Lightning would flash somewhere in the vicinity, usually at night, and the main circuit breaker would pop in the house I was living in. I’d have to grab some shorts and flip flops, go outside in the pouring rain and flip a switch in a junction box on the side of the house. I lived in three different houses in those seven years and this happened in all of them; something about the way they did the wiring up there.
The Philippines is a different story. Power outages are common in certain parts of the country. A daily event in some provinces. In the run-up to the recent elections, the major power company (Meralco) made news by guaranteeing there would be no “brownouts” on election day (they were not successful). Electric bills are relatively expensive here (there seems to be a huge reliance on imported coal) and service levels aren’t world class.
This kind of wiring is a pretty common sight in the Philippines:
(GMA Network photo)
I decided to look up the history of Meralco.
The name is short for Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company. The company started under the Spanish in the 1890s as La Electricista. When the Americans grabbed the Philippines from Spain, a Detroit businessman took over the company and got the franchise for operating electric trams in Manila. Believe it or not, there were 52 miles of tram tracks in Manila until the system was destroyed in World War II. In 1962 the company was acquired by Eugenio Lopez Sr., also known as “the father of Philippines television.”
Marcos nationalized the company in 1972. When Lopez refused to hand over control, Marcos had one of Lopez’s sons arrested, charged with plotting Marcos’s assassination, in order to force the father to turn over the company to the government. When Marcos was run out of the country in 1986, the new government returned control of the company to Lopez.
Today Meralco is 49.6% owned by a consortium of PLDT and a Hong Kong investment company and 27% owned by San Miguel.
When we moved into our house, the electric lines were run to the house from a pole about three streets away via a series of temporary wooden and aluminum poles. Our electric meter was on that pole three blocks over. My wife spent weeks running back and forth between Meralco, our village homeowners association and the village development company in order to get permanent poles erected so that we could get a light on our street and service from PLDT. That took about six months in total. You would think that these things would just naturally happen but noooooooo …..
Tonight a big thunderstorm moved into Manila. Just after 8 PM, our electricity went out. We looked out the windows and saw that houses to the east still had lights. But the streetlight in front of our house was out – and everything was dark looking due north. Luck of the draw, I suppose.
We went looking through the drawers of the house for candles and flashlights. We found half a dozen candles and a few flashlights, but most of the flashlights had dead batteries. I’d bought one of those emergency light things and my wife had put it in the closet under the stairs rather than having it plugged in and ready.
I called Meralco and was pleasantly surprised to get connected to an actual person in under 5 minutes. She gave us a reference number and told us to expect that it would take them from 2 to 4 hours to check things out.
I checked on Facebook and saw that some other areas in our village were also reporting outages. We had the candles and I grabbed my iPad to put on some music and get some reading done. So it wasn’t the darkness that I minded so much, it was the heat. No air con, no fans, windows and doors open but not much breeze despite the storm. I wondered how long it would take to really get things fixed. What if a power line had gone down? That could be hours, or even days.
We thought about sitting in the car and running the air con. Or, once we’re in the car, why not drive to some restaurant or bar where we could wait things out? But Friday night, heavy rain, I could imagine what the traffic would be like outside of our village. So we stayed put.
Around 9:45 my wife spotted a Meralco truck and just before 10:15 the power was back on. Meralco actually came through, and in a reasonable amount of time.
The one thing I realized was that we weren’t really suitably prepared for this kind of thing. I’m not running out to buy a generator – too expensive. But tomorrow we’ll be buying more batteries and candles. I’ll plug in that emergency light somewhere in the house.
You can’t take things for granted here. That’s just how it is. Be prepared. Lesson learned.