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The limits of American power

Mark Mardell | 08:10 UK time, Monday, 8 February 2010

snowI don't mind shovelling out the drive, or not being able to leave the house. It is the bitter bone deep cold which gets to me. That's why, writing some 38 hours into a power cut, my tone is perhaps a little sour. I am not alone in my discomfort suffering the consequences of "snowmaggedon." But as white covers the landscape, it reveals the limits of American power.

America has for decades projected an image of modernity and technological superiority, disguising a dirty little secret. Behind the chrome, it's crumbling. At least, it doesn't feel very up to date. Many Americans don't travel widely and so believe their own propaganda.

But living here, Washington can feel like the second city of a not very prosperous emerging economy, rather than the capital of the Free World. The snow of course is not anyone's fault, but the power cuts, or outages, as Americans call them, most certainly are.

For some inconceivable reason in the USA, or at least this part of it, electric power is carried above ground on telegraph poles, not, as in most of the world, underground. Cost and distance might make this understandable in Kansas, but I scratch my head to think of a reason in the DC area. So in hurricane and snow, thunderstorms or heavy rain, in any of the inclement weather which regularly batters us, power lines are vulnerable to falling trees and wires coming adrift.

Of course power cuts happen else where. But in four years living in Belgium I didn't experience one, and the one that I remember in the UK was during the 1973 miners' strike. There probably were others but they can't have lasted more than a couple of hours.

I was toying with writing something along these lines a couple of weeks ago when we last had heavy snow. In the few months we've lived here we had already had two longish power cuts, a day and half a day, and I was hoping there wouldn't be another as I trudged down the unmoving escalator into the metro. The escalators seem to be broken more often than not. When you get down the immobile staircase the stations are uniformly dimly lit. The metro is very efficient but grim.

My own fault, I am sometimes told, for being un-American enough to use public transport. But the local roads are no better. It is hardly believable that the major highways leading from the prosperous suburbs into the capital of the largest economy in the world are pocked and scarred with potholes of every imaginable shape size and depth. Street lighting is low, and sporadic: you need a torch to go out after dark in the suburban streets.

This is perhaps about spending public money, but the overhead cables have me baffled. Surely in the long run it is cheaper for the companies to dig trenches than to pay gangs of workers to turn out in the middle of the night to fix multiple broken wires.

Snowmaggedon has by no means been all bad. Finger puppets by torchlight replaced electronic games for the children, and wrapped in blankets we got out the board games. We at first admired the pioneering spirit of our American neighbours as they dug out their driveways in the dark at the height of the blizzard. Then chortled with even greater admiration when we heard that it was so they could check into the nearest hotel and drink Bloody Marys through the frozen blackout.

No doubt some will criticise me for being ungracious about my new home and suggest I should go back to the UK if I don't like what I see. But my job is to report what I find. The feeling of living in a submerging economy has been a shock to the system. But 46 hours after the trial began, the power came back on and I am feeling more charitable, bathing in the warm glow of central heating and the ability to access the internet to file this.


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