I feel a pressing need to share with you some things I have learned about the industry in which I am employed.
I am very blessed to have grown up on a working farm in a close-knit rural community in the south. I come from a long line of vegetable gardeners, lunchroom ladies and short-order cooks, and the main order of business has always been to get food on the table and all that this entails. I still live on the same 100-acre property that I grew up on. We grow chickens, pigs, cattle, hay and vegetables. We have abundant wildlife, wooded mountain acreage, a fruit orchard and wild blackberries. The property has three ponds, a natural spring, and a well.
My husband is a jack of all trades and always seems to know how to make anything useful and efficient with a little welding and mechanic work. We are financially stable enough to have food stocks, medicine and seeds stored away. I have like-minded able-bodied friends and family. I feel somewhat secure that I can feed my family as long as I still have control over my own land. If I don’t, then my family and I are already dead anyway. Bugging out has never been an option that I could live with. I know I am in a much better place and position than most. I never had a huge realization (like some of the writers that I enjoy reading on this blog) that I needed to be prepared, it was just always there, a normal way of life.
I work part-time at a small local utility. I mainly answer the office phone, file paperwork, and take payments. The utility provides water to less than 2,500 customers. It is an easy job with excellent benefits and I am very thankful to have it.
I am, however, often dismayed at the instability of the utility structures in the area that I live in. I am not knowledgeable enough about the electric and natural gas and propane industries enough to discuss much about them, but I will say that the entire industry of utilities is interwoven. The water utility that I work for is extremely reliant on electricity to pump water where we need it to go and to keep wastewater from going where we don’t want it to go. When the power goes out, we go scrambling to find a generator big enough to run the pump station. The office is dead in the water – no phones, no computers, no internet. That means that we can’t effectively communicate with our customers about the status of our system or their individual service connections – both of which are important in an emergency.
Water and Power
I realize that commonsense will tell you all this. But the point I want to emphasize to the general public is that you cannot depend on public utilities at all for being able to quickly operate at normal level during any type of disaster scenario. We often have tornadoes in this area. And because tornadoes are so hit and miss, the chances of everyone being out of power at the same time are pretty low. But we have had some close calls. In one example, the entire area was out of power for two weeks because the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) equipment one hundred miles away was damaged in a tornado and the parts to repair it had to be ordered from another part of the world. How would that turn out now, with Covid-19 having such an effect on international manufacturing and shipping?
Why don’t utilities have adequate generators on hand? And plenty of extra parts and materials stored on site? And extra trained laborers always available to work whenever disaster strikes? An alternate source of water, gas, or power supply in case their primary supplier can’t functionally supply their demand?
These are all good questions. And, as you probably already know, the answer is money. Most utilities are not there to make a profit, only to provide a service to the public. Some utilities are private, some are public corporations owned by members, and some are government entities governed by a city or county. But they almost never actually make a profit. Utilities rely on grants and loans and raising rates on the customers when it becomes necessary to upgrade the system, and sometimes just to make the balance sheet work. Larger utilities probably have better disaster plans in place, but I am only familiar with smaller systems in my area.
I would like to list some of the concerns that I, as an insider, have about how small utilities run, that may or may not have ever crossed the mind of the average person. I realize that these issues may not be a problem everywhere. And please understand that trying to discuss any of these issues with the person who answers the phones at your local utility provider is impossible. They will say anything to reassure you and get off the phone, and would be putting their job in jeopardy to agree with anything that would cause a community panic. I am struggling to get my point across in this article and remain anonymous, and therefore stay employed.
- Lack of readily-available parts and supplies – Besides financial issues, most utilities do not have the storage space to have enough of everything that they would need to rebuild a system and get it back up and running in a catastrophic disaster. We are audited every year and have to account for every foot of pipe. If the final inventory figures seem different from last year, it looks suspicious. So, most utilities order what they need when they need it and keep only often used parts on hand. There is a constant cycle of making quick pinpoint repairs to get the system back online and service restored to impatient customers. Meanwhile, the frustrated workers know that the infrastructure of the system is old and outdated and needs to be completely replaced, but have no authority to make the financial decision to do so. And the financial decision-makers don’t like complainers.
- State and Federal oversight – This is mostly a matter of filling in the blanks of an environmental management program template, and ‘sign on this line’ that you will be the one responsible when something goes really bad. The government agencies seem to be organized more as protection for the environment than the consumer. There was a concerted effort to ramp up the documentation of emergency planning, locational security, and online security of utilities after 9/11, but that has dwindled in the years since. The certification testing for operators is also overseen by these state programs, and is very broad and vague. What they have to learn to pass the test has very little to do with a person’s actual day to day duties and responsibilities. I personally know people that passed the test by memorizing the review questions, but could not work unsupervised or be trusted to make any spot decisions. Likewise, I know people that can be trusted to solve problems and fix any situations that may arise, but just can’t manage to pass the test because it has nothing to do with what they have been trained to do. And the example of the first worker will be the one to get promoted, because they are certified by the state.
- Chain of Command Issues – Most utilities have a general manager, a shop manager, sometimes an in-house engineer, an office manager, and crew bosses for different tasks. There is usually a board that is appointed by the county or the city with several members. And in small-town situations, as you would imagine, an appointment to the board (and employment at the utility) is based on how well known and well connected that you are. So you have a board full of successful local businessmen, who have little spare time and sometimes little knowledge of the utility, trying to balance the budget and keep things running.
- Employment Issues – Job requirements are often not education-based, because of the nature of the work. It can be very physically demanding, with long hours, and in harsh conditions. This pretty much creates a sort of good ol’ boy network. I admit that I am a fan of the red-blooded American good ol’ boy, but sometimes too many of them in one place is a problem. It can often translate into too many chiefs and not enough braves. This makes for chaos in a disaster when everyone being on the same page is imperative. I know several people who are in leadership positions in a utility that are in way over their heads and will panic in an emergency. Also, there is a strong possibility that in a true long-term disaster scenario, quite a few of these trained good ol’ boys may (understandably) duck out, and choose to secure the safety of their own homes, farms and families, leaving crews short-handed.
I could go on, but I am finding it hard to not be specific enough that I won’t run out of town on a rail. I just want people to have their eyes open about the many things that can interrupt the supply of power, gas, and water that most of us are unaccustomed to ever being without. And I guess the main thing I want to reiterate is – plan your preps around independence from any public utility.
I have been researching hydroponics and aquaponics but am afraid to take the plunge when I know the pumps need electricity. I would love to have an incubator, but again – electricity. Not to mention that I have freezers that I can keep running with generators in the short term, but would be useless in a long-term grid-down situation. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to keep my canned foods and dry goods viable very long in the weather we have without air conditioning. I’m preaching to myself, as well as the readers.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)