Storm Outages Have D.C. Talking About a Different Kind of Power

The severe storms that hit Washington, D.C. last Friday night, knocking out power for thousands in the midst of a triple-digit heat wave, are the talk of the town.

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A tree lies on the Capitol Hill grounds in Washington in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after a powerful storm swept across the Washington region.

"Got power?"

That is the first question asked and bandied about in our beleaguered town of Washington these days. It's the question between perfect strangers and friends that happen to run into each other over the produce or while out beating the heat with a light bite of sushi, just to get out of the house. 

In the past few days, we collectively witnessed a streak of history happening to us. Several records were broken in a summer Grand Slam, but one amazing shift has been little noted. For once, Washington power is not defined by politics: wins and deals in Congress, White House access or strategy, who's who in the Green Room, and so on. Also for once, power-sharing is the in thing. 

[Photo Gallery: Summer Storm Leaving the East Coast in the Dark]

For a change, it's about plain, old—precious!—Pepco power, whether or not you have it or not. If you have light to read by at  night and whether you can chill with functioning air conditioning or seek refuge from the scorching heat by other means—such as moving in with friends or family to stay awhile in closer quarters. 

The nation's capital has been honestly humbled since Friday at midnight, when trembling trees and their violently falling limbs caused live wires, outages, and havoc on the streets of Washington and close neighbors like Bethesda and Alexandria. A police officer shouted at me to watch the live wire on Newark Street in Northwest as I ambled along the fallen branches and debris. Wilting in the oppressive Southern weather, I was snapped  into an awareness of how much had changed suddenly with the intense storm and sun. 

The summer squall struck at midnight Friday, on the hottest June day on record—104 degrees Fahrenheit. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is a good man in a crisis, but Pepco holds the real power in its hands to make or break a lot of lives this week. The company timeline is like a seven-day sentence, a long stretch to live without electricity, light, and air conditioning. Aren't they virtually constitutional rights?  

[See a slide show of 10 reasons Americans aren't talking about climate change.]

Speaking of which, healthcare reform was upheld by the Supreme Court just as the heat wave hit the city. That's great for President Barack Obama, a historic first and all. But the usual suspects in political Washington are too stressed—or powerless—to rouse themselves much right now. The president himself is probably out cold with an iced compress on his forehead. 

And who could blame him? He kept his cool, so to speak, through a fiery path to healthcare.   

You find out who your friends are fast when you are among the half a million—or more—without power. At first, for some, the state glows with a certain candle-lit charm that wears off fast. 

[See a slide show of the 10 states that use the most energy per capita.]

Enduring such hardships in our delicately balanced city ballet seems as demanding as life out on the prairie must have been. Those without an Internet connection deserve special pity, because they might as well be blind—or dead, right?   

By the time Washingtonians get all our power-driven devices, conveniences, and constitutional rights fired up again, we will have learned to live more simply. We may revive the art of conversation. We may rise with the sun and go to sleep when it sets. We could read books under trees, an apple in hand, and let time float by. Sounds sweet to me.  

But once power is fully restored to the city, we can concentrate on what really matters: power as it plays out in politics. Of course. Is there any other kind?  

  • Read Susan Milligan: DC Metro Hikes Up Fares Without Improving Service
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