A day of darkness across Orange County

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A day of darkness across O.C.

Motorists are without traffic lights, companies lose business, and schools and retirement homes scramble.

March 20, 2001

By JEFF COLLINS and JIM RADCLIFFE The Orange County Register

It was almost last call for patrons Monday at the Corner Office Interactive Sports Bar & Restaurant in Costa Mesa as bartender Rashell Uhlig serves drinks by candlelight to a private party Photo: Paul E. Rodriguez / The Register

Whole neighborhoods supped in the dark Monday night as rolling blackouts rolled past sunset. Bar patrons ordered drinks by candlelight or crossed the street to a rival tavern when the lights went out at their usual watering holes.

Earlier, businesses lost customers as phones went dead, buses ran 20 minutes behind schedule because of traffic signals on the fritz and computerized libraries reverted to the Dewey Decimal System to locate books.

In neighborhoods from Yorba Linda to Capistrano Beach, automatic garage doors suddenly were stuck open or shut, and household chores ground to a halt as appliances fell silent.

Orange County averted major injuries and loss of life the first time that rolling blackouts struck here. But it didn't escape headaches as blackouts hopscotched across the county from about noon to 7:20 p.m., as if evil gremlins had taken over the power grid.

Portable generators were rushed to three different sewer-lift stations in Huntington Harbour after the blackouts cut power to sewage pumps. Without the generators, raw sewage would have backed up and leaked into the ocean, said Bill Workman, assistant city administrator.

At various intersections, cautious motorists, tipped off by darkened traffic signals, crept forward. Other drivers played Russian roulette, choosing to whiz through.

In Lake Forest, Tom Lewis popped out of his print shop, his arms raised, looking frustrated.

"My presses just crashed. Everything's just sitting there,'' he lamented, noting that dried ink would have to be cleaned off of the presses before they could be fired up again.

Despite having an emergency generator, Pacific Ambulance's computer system was down Monday, and dispatchers kept track of ambulances by posting slips of paper on a bulletin board.

"It was a little touch- and-go,'' said Brian Cates, Pacific's chief executive officer. "We were in the dark for a few minutes as to where our ambulances were.''

Sherwin-Williams in Lake Forest lost its mixers - shutting down the biggest part of the paint-supply business. A customer walked in.

"Unless it's pure white, it's not happening," store manager Jacob Patton told him.

Phones, computers and fax machines also died in mid-afternoon at Express Pipe and Supply, causing the Irvine plumbing wholesaler to lose an estimated $5,000 worth of business.

"Customers want plumbing parts right away. If you're not available, they just call another plumbing house," said branch manager Mark Fitton.

"You just look foolish when someone calls, and all they get is ringing," added Mark Rush of York Such and Associates, a Capistrano Beach food broker. "It sounds like nobody's home."

One person's headache was another's holiday.

A lecture about Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola quickly was replaced by a game of dodge ball at El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine when Patti Savage's windowless classroom went black.

"I only had one little girl scream," the third-grade teacher said.

Bob Ashmore of Huntington Beach was remodeling a neighbor's kitchen when the rolling blackouts shut down the electricity to his power tools. Ashmore, who stopped working for the day, went home, two houses over, only to find he couldn't get inside.

"I couldn't get into the house because the garage door runs on power,'' said Ashmore, who enters his home through the garage. "I'll have to fix that.''

In Yorba Linda, a garden fountain on Blueberry Street stopped spouting water - as did resident Janet Southard's washing machine.

"I'm cleaning today, and now I can't do my laundry,'' she said.

About 60 customers watching the Lakers game fled the Corner Office Interactive Sports Bar & Restaurant in Costa Mesa and ran across the street to TGI Friday's, which still had power.

"I lost a lot of business," said Corner Office owner Frank McNaughton.

A private business party of about 100, many of them from out of state, stuck it out after candles were spread, and the party moved outside.

"They ended up kind of enjoying it," he said. "It heightened the whole California experience."

At the Nohl Ranch Inn Retirement Community in Anaheim Hills, the outage ruined a planned Jerry Lewis movie night and left some frail residents unable to find their way around darkened rooms.

Marie Schwab, 92, who is nearly blind, couldn't see well enough to leave the bathroom when the lights went out.

Employees who were checking on residents eventually helped her into bed.

"I sat with her until the lights came back on," said her daughter, Joan Mitchell, who visits nightly.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 20, 2001

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