Blackout, When it Finally Rains in San Francisco

In San Francisco, we’re prepared for the worst.

The Big One might hit any time. Buildings and infrastructure might collapse in its wake, though they’ve gotten a lot more earthquake resistant, hopefully, since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. We even have a new section of the Bay Bridge that is supposed to fare a lot better during the Big One than the old cantilever section did in 1989, parts of which collapsed – along with a lot of other structures, including the elevated, hideously monstrous Embarcadero Freeway that separated the city from its gorgeous waterfront (what was left of it was torn down after the quake, thank God).

We’re told to have enough food and potable water for at least five days. We keep a battery-powered radio on hand so we can hear emergency broadcasts. People in earthquake-prone zones get used to the idea of waking up in the middle of the night as chaos is breaking out around them.

In Wichita Falls, TX, in 1979, a tornado wiped out about a third of the town, starting two blocks down the street from where I lived. I saw it: it was a limitless dark gray wall with parts of houses flying around in it. In Tornado Alley, tornado sirens are a common sound. Other regions get hurricanes, floods, too much snow, killer heat waves, or terrible cold waves. But people face the wrath of nature stoically.

So in San Francisco, and in most of California, we’re prepared even for droughts that can last for years. And it did last for three years. So we prayed for rain.

But we’re not prepared for rain.

Finally, it has been raining this rainy season, and what arrived overnight would have qualified as a real rainstorm even in Texas and Oklahoma. When it rains there, all heck tends to break loose. Not here. Most of the time, if we get any precipitation at all, we get what people in other places consider a drizzle or a gentle rain that can go on for a few days. And that’s pretty much what our drainage systems are designed for.

But this one would be different. They started warning people yesterday. Schools are closed. Warnings on our battery-powered radio about overflowing rivers and urban creeks, and about flash floods on streets.

Then, in high-tech San Francisco where buildings have gotten “smart meters” years ago, the one thing that was not supposed to happen happened … shortly before 8 AM, the power goes out.

Due to the thick cloud cover, it’s fairly dark outside, but there are no lights anywhere as far as I can see, and I can see pretty far. The only exception is the Holiday Inn down the street, which is on emergency power. Traffic lights are out. Broadband internet is out. Our modem and network are out.

9:00 AM: I call my wife. Her office, which is on the Peninsula, has power. She tells me that power is out in much of San Francisco, not just in our neighborhood. And it’s out in numerous other places in the Bay Area. A blackout.

PG&E crews are working hard, trying to restore power – or so the updates said. Some roads, even major ones, are flooded and impassible. Parking near touristy Pier 39 is closed due to high waves apparently cascading over the area….

I try to work. My two laptops have fully charged batteries but no access to the internet. I burn through the first laptop, doing what I can. But I can’t upload the Contagion article to my server. I finished it just about the time the power went. I can’t upload anything else to the server.

11 AM: I go outside. Gentle rain. All businesses are closed. Fisherman’s Wharf is dead. Pretty good waves rolling up the beach at Aquatics Park. North Beach is dead. Very few cars on the street. I have my laptop with me, hoping to find a café that’s open. But they’re closed. They’re out of power too. No power, no espresso machine, no Wi-Fi.

This reminds us: nature still rules.

Despite all the tech razzmatazz and the cool software and the endlessly hyped Internet of Things, life goes on even without the internet and power. OK, not for the now dead fridge and Nest thermostat that can’t upload to their creators the data they collect from the privacy of your home. For the rest, life goes on.

But work doesn’t.

1:35 PM: Still no power. I’m writing this during the final moments of my laptop battery. When it shuts down on me, I’m heading to the dark fridge to pull out an IPA or perhaps an amber, depending on my mood, and I’ll do what I never do during the day: chill out and enjoy a good beer.

1:38 PM: Battery is down to its last electron. Bubble says it’s going shut down. Next step, I decided: IPA.

2:00 PM: Power came back a few minutes ago, halfway through my IPA, halleluiah. Booted up everything. But there is still no internet. Comcast’s internet access server must still be out.

2:40 PM: “We’re still experiencing technical difficulties with multiple channels in your area,” the Comcast recording said. “Our technicians are trying to restore the service as quickly as possible.”

I go back outside. Nothing left to do inside. No internet, no work. It’s still raining gently. Rain feels good. A storm sewer drain is covered with debris, and water shooting down the hill cascades over it and heads to the next drain where water is already pooling. My feet are wet. Rain is a privilege. Thank God, it’s raining. We need it.

3:29 PM: Internet is back! Thank God. We need it too.

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  11 comments for “Blackout, When it Finally Rains in San Francisco

  1. Vespa P200E says:

    I left SFO yesterday for a 1-day So Cal biz trip. Missed the rain today and wife tells me it was quite windy in the East Bay last night. It was 70 deg outside today in Carlsbad where we enjoyed lunch on a nice Italian restaurant on PCH enjoying the sun under an umbrella on a perfect winter day in So Cal…

  2. James P. says:


    It sounds like things were getting desperate there! I was expecting to read next, by about 4pm, that the neighbors were starting to cannibalize each other! After all, what can one expect when the internet is down for so long.

    I’m glad it all turned out well.


  3. David says:

    I,’m a mechanic for a highway dept in Connecticut and not to be a hardass but maybe since you couldn’t do anything anyway (except downing a couple) you could have helped yourself and the people down hill from you by clearing at least that basin. I know “thats what my taxes pay for! “

    • Mike says:

      “A storm sewer drain is covered with debris, and water shooting down the hill cascades over it and heads to the next drain where water is already pooling.”

      I have to agree with David on this one. Did you clear that drain?? I live in the Seattle area and clearing drains is something many of us know to do in order to prevent backed up/flooded streets. Take a minute and kick the debris into the street to let the water flow down the drain. Note, don’t kick it into the drain, that will possibly clog it up. Honestly, if everyone kept the drains clear of debris there would be much less street flooding.

      • Wolf Richter says:

        As I said, I was walking around. I was 3/4 mile away from my place, so: go buy a rake somewhere (I don’t have one) and an EPA-approved container for these hazardous materials (feces, oil, etc.), go back to drain, remove debris and deposit in special EPA-approved container, take container (on foot) to nearest approved facility to dispose of hazardous materials properly…. Or maybe carry it home and put in my bio-hazard trash?

        You can’t just use your feet to kick the pile of wet debris away, and if you could, all it would do is float down to the next drain… Ha, and what about the people who actually live there?

        And what about the pothole I see as I walk to the doctor? Do I fill that too while I’m at it?

        None of these are emergencies. Just routine stuff in distant neighborhoods.

        These are routine things that employees and contractors of the city of SF get paid a lot taxpayer money to do on a routine basis. Sure, clearing the drain in front of your house, if it starts flooding and is an emergency. You can always just shove it down the street toward your neighbor’s drain.

        • David says:

          Really Wolf? Are you going to go with that? How about this, “yeah, I didn’t think of that, as it’s not something I usually do but in the future it would be the right thing to do. Thanks for pointing it out”.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          David, you’re being silly.

  4. Peter says:


    congratulations on your robust site – read it every day.

    Was in the mountains of Southern Vermont from Monday through Thursday at our second home there – a renovated 1865 farmhouse in the forest just outside of an unincorporated hamlet. Heavy wet snow fell on Tuesday. This is what happened:



    Lost power on Tuesday night. Heated with wood. Had to carry buckets of water out of the sump pump hole to prevent the cellar from flooding. Carried 20 x 5 gallon pails up the stairs. Exhausting.

    Had a pile of wet snow and ice on the rear deck 7 feet high. Took 4 hours of work over 8 hours to remove. Pine boughs crashed onto my wood shed. Had to cut up and remove with power pole trimmer. Cut and removed boughs from ditch on our road so road would not flood in front of my house. Picked up and removed pine limbs 3 and 4 inches thick on my trails. Shoveled out my drain in my barn parking lot so that the run-off from my neighbor would not gully my driveway (4 feet of ice and snow there). Carried firewood for 3 days. Shoveled the stove out twice. Shoveled a path for the fuel oil man – ice and snow build-up 3 feet deep. Had to rake 12 inches of ice and snow off of the roof for the addition. Fuel oil service tech showed up for annual cleaning. Said the lining on the cast iron door of my boiler was shot. Fuel supply line from my oil tank to the boiler shot. Only 17 years old. Gave him the combination to the lock box. He will return (within the next 5 years) to replace both. Had 3 mice in traps and the mouse drowner. Re-baited. Gave carcasses to Blue Jays. Refilled bird feeders twice. Drank wine and ate aspirin.

    Who has time or energy to ski. Never left the house from Monday night until Thursday afternoon. My 25-year old phone worked because it got power from the telephone wire.

    • Aseem says:


      Nothing like 4 days of hard, physical work to clear the cobwebs out of your mind, and re-affirm to yourself how self-sufficient and independent you really are. Nature has a way of reminding us who’s really in charge. Monday thru Thursday was pretty crappy at work (financial services).

      I salute you.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Awesome, Peter!

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