When the lights went out

SN&R freelancer was on campus during last week’s blackout

Many Californians worked by candlelight during last week’s rolling blackouts.

Many Californians worked by candlelight during last week’s rolling blackouts.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It was academia as usual at 9:59 Thursday morning at American River College. At 10 a.m., everything halted.

A collective groan could be heard. Computers sighed as they shut down. Offices darkened. People banged their knees on their desks, scrambling for flashlights secured in bottom drawers. Staff caught in restrooms inched their way out, feeling along the walls of the darkened lounge to get to the hallway and natural light.

Thus began the first rolling blackout at ARC, one of thousands of institutions around the state to have its power deliberately cut on orders from the California Independent System Operator as it wrestles through California’s current energy crisis.

The unprecedented action had student journalists at ARC’s The Current newspaper hurriedly gathering notebooks, pens and cameras to cover the breaking news, while students poured out of buildings everywhere.

At the Beaver Bookstore, students stood quietly, frustrated at having waited in line, arms full of textbooks, checkbooks ready, only to have to drop all books on a dolly and file out into the brisk morning air. No places were saved, nor were any book choices.

“Everybody just kind of stood there. Some people got out of line right away,” said student Falon Lemley. “I just thought, ‘Oh great, I’ve stood here all this time and now I’m not going to get my books.’ ”

Students milled around the entrance to the bookstore, unsure what to do next. As they settled in to endure the wait, others said that their immediate concerns when the power went off were for their book bags, usually left by the bookstore entrance in cubbyholes.

“With the lights out, I was afraid someone could run off with my backpack and I wouldn’t be able to see them,” one student commented.

The Rose Marks Pavilion seemed a more popular student spot than usual given the temperature and the early morning hour. Some students ventured over to the corner coffee kiosk, where sales still were rung up as long as patrons had exact change.

Many on campus took the outage in stride, continuing with their business despite the darkness. Across campus at Raef Hall, bits and pieces of lectures drifted out.

The so-called war between the sexes reached a pinnacle in the 1970s when Billie Jean King called Bobby Riggs on his claim that women tennis players were inferior, one instructor told students sitting in a darkened lecture hall. Students listened, pens poised, squinting at notebooks, attempting to take legible notes. A few heads bobbed backwards.

Students in the front row shaded their eyes. All outside doors were propped open, letting in natural light, cigarette smoke and outside chatter. Emergency stair lights lit up the aisles, easing the students’ exit out of the hall as the lecture ended.

“It was all right,” said Mike Burns, a first-semester student at ARC. “There were some safety lights on.”

While it may have been a little distracting for students, most instructors say they couldn’t afford to cancel a class on the third day of the semester. They just plugged on, peering at sheaves of papers in their hands, pointing out the humor of lecturing in the dark, striving to keep the students’ interest.

No overheads were used, videos weren’t shown, information wasn’t copied and distributed. Instructors used brightly colored markers on whiteboards. Preparation for classes later in the day either was delayed or revamped. But people managed as best they could.

Across campus at the Boettcher Library, which was evacuated when the power went out, students assembled along the cold metal railings lining the entrance, chatting in small groups, wringing their hands and attempting to stay warm. The outage was a novelty for some, an irritation for others.

“It’s kind of left me in a bind. I have homework due at noon for my math class,” Kristin Page said. “The book I need is inside.”

Others talked about the bigger issue at hand—the energy crisis—which was a product of high wholesale power rates, stagnant supplies and a dysfunctional electricity market that hasn’t lived up to official promises.

“This is just to get everybody ready for rate hikes,” said Cheyenne Jaurequi, a first-semester student at ARC. “We’re really going to get it in our bills this month.”

Students Elizabeth Hodges and Bill Miller were in a chemistry lab when the power went off. Thankfully, they said students were completing paperwork rather than experiments. No work was lost. Nothing exploded.

Wails of protest were heard in the microcomputer lab, the Learning Resource Center, when all equipment shut down. Despite warnings posted on the walls to “save work often,” any student who loses work, even if it’s a few sentences, feels a sharp loss.

Students were ushered out, for safety reasons, and the doors latched.

“Damn it,” muttered one student, zipping up and lighting up as he paced in front of the locked doors of the lab.

College officials had been warned that rolling blackouts were possible, so they were prepared. For example, all elevators had signs posted near the doors, warning “Do not use elevators unless absolutely necessary. Power outages are expected.”

“We had good preparation yesterday,” said Henry Burnett, dean of learning resources. “We worked very closely with campus security.”

Around 11 a.m., an alarm sounded near the library, much like an elementary school bell signaling that recess is over. Inside, the building hummed like a hive as lights flickered on and systems were rebooted.

With the power restored, another sigh was heard across campus. No injuries, no stuck elevators, no thefts, no security issues. Planning ahead worked.

“The Midwest has their snow days,” Burnett commented. “We have power outage days.”