Monday, February 7, 2011

The Gem Show

by Ben Small

Tucson's Gem and Mineral Show, the largest in the world opened last week for a two week run. Every hotel in Tucson is packed, and visitors stream in from all over the world.

A festive occasion for sure. And one my wife feeds on. Every year, she invites friends, forms shopping groups, and for about two weeks, I hardly see her.

I don't do shopping, especially herd shopping, where brave shoppers need pads, feints and quick feet just to stand in place.

A perfect time for a friend of mine to visit, huh? And true to form, I got a call from one of my oldest pals. He was driving with his son to Los Angeles, and would be dropped off at my house the next day, Opening Day at the various Gem Show locations.

So we had a full house starting last Wednesday: Two men and three gem-crazed women. What could go wrong?

Gas. Natural gas, the stuff we use for cooking, heat and hot water. And temperatures plummeting to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Brrr.

So, of course, the gas went out. No warning whatsoever, just no gas on Thursday morning. No heat, hot water, stove or laundry.

Television and newspaper news teams couldn't discover the source of the problem. SWGas wasn't talking, except to say over fourteen thousand Tucson residents had no gas. And SWGas had no idea when gas would be restored.

So, to set the plate, we had five people at our house, three gem-crazy women, two men with no interest in gems whatsoever. No ability to cook, no heat, no hot water, and all hotels full. Small luggage bags, few clothes packed, no ability to dry them if washed in cold water.

I called Wal-Mart, Ace, Loew's and Home Depot. Thought maybe some space heaters would prevent us having to huddle nude in a pile under a tower of covers.

No space heaters for two hundred miles.

We made numerous calls to SWGas, as did most people, I'm told. But SWGas wasn't talking and their website crashed. They released a statement: They're just a distributor; they don't control the supply of natural gas, just its distribution.

So who controls the supply? Good question. SWGas' supplier, El Paso Natural Gas, is claiming   force majure, a legal term usually associated with Acts of God, ; i.e. unavoidable and unpredictable.

Then a later SWGas statement: Excess demand for electricity in Texas caused blackouts there, and outdated regulations forced other Texas capacity to shut down, including some plants which supply natural gas to Arizona.

Evidently, our lack of a national energy policy, combined with high demand in Texas, caused SWGas to have to shut off supply to some customers.

How did SWGas decide whom to cut off? They won't say, specifically. It took them four days to give any advice to gas-less customers on when or where gas might be restored. Seems SWGas had only one hundred eighty service technicians, and restoration requires a home visit to turn gas lines back on and ensure pilot lights ignite safely. Ten to fifteen minutes per visit, spread across one hundred eighty service techs, with over fourteen thousand customers experiencing outages.

Do the math. Might take a week or more for gas to flow everywhere.

My friend Al and I didn't need alarm clocks. The screams from the women taking cold showers never failed to awaken us. And needless to say, cold showers charged up the women for a day of gem shopping.

I'm surprised the women didn't haul their take in wheelbarrows.

Then it was our turn to shower. A good thing the women were gone. I don't know about my friend, Al, but I wasn't singing in the shower...

Previously, I'd thought dentist office anticipation traumatic enough to cause my hair to fall out. Well, anticipation of that cold shower each morning... I'm bald now.

Gas finally returned to us yesterday, and still there are thousands of people shivering, even though temps have eased upward a bit.
This is the map SWGas posted yesterday, after they finally re-ignited their website and began to flow some info to their customers. Still, nobody can explain why some areas continued to get gas, others did not, nor their priorities for replenishment. SWGas says they worked some density algorithms, which might make some sense, I suppose, if they revealed their formula, but looking at their map and knowing the layout of Tucson, one can only shake one's head. The map doesn't correspond with area population densities.

So who chooses who gets gas and who does not? I'd like to meet that man or woman. So would Al, my wife and the two other women. But he or she might want to wear Kevlar for the meeting.

Doubtless, Tucson's problems weren't as severe as weather emergencies experienced elsewhere in the country, but still, two Tucson residents froze to death, and more may follow, since gas still hasn't filled all lines.

Why no backup plan, no backup supply? Why didn't the regulations provide for emergencies? Due to environmental group pressures, I'm told, the regs provided for some coal and oil operated plants to be shut down during peak demand periods. Texas was cold; it hit peak demand. Then rolling blackouts in Texas, including some of Texas' natural gas plants which supply Tucson.

No doubt there will be investigations and lawsuits. Already local lawyers are sniffing the air for the smell of fresh meat. And no doubt, at some future date, we'll get some minor billing concessions, while plaintiffs' lawyers rake in high fees. SWGas Investigations  TV Report  CBS Report

But will any of this prevent the next sudden gas shutoff?

Dream on.

The one thing I've learned from this is to be prepared for emergencies. As soon as I finish typing, I'm going out to buy water -- gallons of the stuff -- and I'll order a few hundred Meals Ready to Eat ("MREs" in military parlance). And as soon as stocks are replenished, some space Arizona, of all places.

No, the water and MREs won't help us with our next gas outage, but this experience has taught us that our supply systems are brittle, and the mechanisms to ensure continuous supply of those things we most need for survival aren't in place.

Meanwhile, we'll be busy replacing a burst toilet and some related pipes.

Just goes to show you. Having an abundant supply of natural gas means little if its distribution system and the regulatory environment governing it are defective.

I'm off now to take another scalding-hot shower. Pity those who aren't yet able to do that.

Yet, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show rolls on, and the women are still shopping.

Maybe I'll grab some Scotch on the way to the shower.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I know how you feel, Ben, but just be glad you don't live here. It was 25 degrees below zero this morning at 7 a.m. We have an all-electric home and when the electricity goes off--as it's done on occasion--we huddle before the fireplace with flashlights.

Jaden Terrell said...

Ben , I don't know about the gas, but the gem show sounds gorgeous. I'm like that crow from The Secret of NIMH; I love "sparklies."

Jean, your place sounds beautiful, but I don't think I could take the cold. It's been too cold for me here, and we haven't gone below zero!