An Atmospheric River and a Power Outage

February 5, 2024 Precipitation in inches across California. Screenshot courtesy of The Weather Channel App.

It’s funny, Kyria – who lives relatively close to me, but much closer to the coast – also wrote about the weather yesterday. I had mentioned in an earlier post that I thought our January weather had been pretty nice (except for a few rainy and cold days) and she had the opposite impression. It didn’t rain as much as she thought, but it looks like the Bay Area definitely had more cloudy and rainy days than we had here in the Central Valley. I will admit that overcast, gray skies have probably swayed her perception, as did a few days of blue skies and sunshine for me.

But as you might have heard on the news, California experienced an Atmospheric River last weekend. An atmospheric river is a narrow band of concentrated water vapor that is transported in the atmosphere and appears like a river in the sky. They form over warm water, typically tropical oceans, and are guided toward the coast by low-level jet streams. They are very common along the West Coast, where the Pacific serves as the reservoir of moisture for the storm, and the coastal ranges and the Sierra Nevada act as barriers. When atmospheric rivers run up against mountains and are forced to ascend, the moisture they carry cools and condenses, and produces intense rainfall or snowfall, often accompanied by strong winds.

And then we had a power outage for 6.5 hours.

I realize this is nothing. It’s a short amount of time. It’s survivable. But 6.5 hours is long enough to make you realize how much you rely on electricity and cell service every day. 

Our home hasn’t been prone to power outages. We’re not served by PG&E (they only provide our gas), which you’ve probably heard about in the news frequently in connection with power outages and fires in Northern California. We get our electricity from Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and they have a very reliable network. I don’t recall any substantial power outages in all the years that I have lived in Sacramento. But of course, it’s not infallible. The longest outage I recall was about 5 hours and it was a pre-scheduled maintenance outage. Of course, it’s easy to handle that because you know exactly when it happens and, more importantly, know how long it will last. The outage was during the day, too, so it was light then.

It’s a different story when the outage is unexpected (due to a storm) and there is no way of knowing when power will be restored. We’re not prepared like other people. We have a few basic supplies, but we don’t have a generator or anything like that. 

The outage happened – you can guess it – when I was on my Peloton bike. The screen went black and that was the end of my workout. What I didn’t realize was that with the power (and wifi), my cellular service crashed too. It wasn’t completely gone, we could make phone calls, but data use was almost non-existent. I couldn’t open any apps to access “outage updates”, the weather channel, or the news. So there was also a forced social media break. Maybe not the worst thing in the world, but also not the best when you’re anxious to connect and let people know what’s going on.

Engie asked on Sunday’s post what I did with my time during the power outage. Well, originally I had hoped to hop back on the bike again in a little while, but in the meantime, I retired to the couch to do some “forced” reading. I mean, what else was there to do?  I read for two hours and then I decided to take a late-afternoon nap. The power hadn’t come back on and it started getting dark outside. Luckily, we have a Coleman Camping lantern and battery-operated candles. We sat in the semi-dark for some time and … waited. It was a little odd. 

By 7:30 pm, we started to get hungry and decided to make dinner. We were able to cook dinner because we have a gas stove that could be ignited manually. We possibly ate the best turkey chili I ever made. And then we sat and waited some more.

The power finally came back on around 10:00 pm. I felt relieved. I already had created scenarios in my head of how the next few days would go if the power didn’t come back on. 6.5 hours is of course laughable. I absolutely realize that, but it’s definitely long enough to make you appreciate the comforts of modern life. 

Power outages were a novelty to me when I moved to the US. I’ve never experienced a power outage in Germany (most power lines are underground) and it’s baffling to me that power lines and poles here look so amateurishly constructed. I am honestly surprised the power grid is as reliable as it is (most times) judging by the infrastructure. (Again, I live in an old, established neighborhood with old houses and old infrastructure. New suburban neighborhoods might look different. I hope they do). This is what our power line situation looks like in our backyard. Normal.

Have you experienced power outages? How long did they last? Were you prepared? What did you do when it happened? 

24 Comments

  1. When I was pregnant with my second child we had a 4-day long power outage and it was AWFUL. I had no idea how dependent I am on things like our AC (summer) and refrigeration. During the same time my parents lost power for TWO WEEKS! Thankfully they live by a lake so could “bathe” in there, and they have a generator for their food didn’t spoil.

    I hate power outages and they always stress me out. It’s one thing if it’s planned – I grew up doing 3-4 week-long stints completely off-grid with no running water or electricity. But when you haven’t planned for it, it’s very unsettling.

    1. Oh wow, multiple days or weeks without power. That is unsettling. 6.5 hours were more than enough, it’s definitely not something I want to experience on a regular basis.

  2. Oh, wow. Since we moved into our house, we’ve lost electricity for hours at least once a year. It’s basically when I clean out my fridge since anything that’s in there after four hours without electricity is suspicious and needs to be tossed. We lost electricity last year the day after we went to the grocery store and it was SO MUCH WASTED MONEY. A lot of people in our neighborhood have taken to getting small generators to avoid that. I don’t know, though, it’s going to take a lot of food to offset the cost of even the smallest of generators.

    Anyway, I always think of power outages as vacations from life. I’m glad you were able to read and take a nap!

    1. I was very concerned about the food in our fridge, so we didn’t open it at all until dinner time (and then we got things out as quickly as possible). Generators are expensive, so I understand why you haven’t invested into one.

  3. When I was in high school, there was an ice storm that took out our power for a few days (3 or 4? who remembers?). All that we could do was to cook on the gas stove, take hot baths thanks to our gas water heater, and then bundle up the rest of the time. It was memorable.

    1. No power for a few days? In the middle of winter – at least you had gas heating, oh my!

  4. I live in a rural area, and we have quite a few power outages each year. We have a generator, which helps so much when they happen. We can’t run everything on it, but having the basics is so nice. But I can’t imagine an Atmospheric River! I’d never heard of that before, and it sounds a bit terrifying!

    1. I guess in your case it’s really good to have a backup generator!

  5. I’m glad that your phones still worked for making calls, I didn’t know that. We still have an old fashioned land line, which still works when the power and internet is out, in case of emergency. It’s expensive and AT&T is looking to stop supporting it. I guess that will save us about $60 a month. San Francisco had a lot more rain than we did in this last storm, and I’m not that far away.

    Boy, Southern California sure got hit hard, didn’t they? Ugh, what a mess.

    We have the same stupid wires you have. I don’t know the last time we had a power outage, other than a planned one due to neighborhood construction. Actually, we’ve had a few now and again, but usually less than an hour. We don’t have a generator either.

    1. Oh yeah, we haven’t had a land line for years… because it was expensive to keep it and nobody would call on it. I am glad the cell service wasn’t completely out.

      I guess one can deal with a power outage for an hour or two here and there. but yeah, the grid needs an overhaul. Are you with PG&E for power?

  6. I HATE losing power, and I also come up with long term plans that usually involve f=going to a hotel somewhere still on a grid…

    1. That is a very smart plan.

  7. I have a friend in Halifax and it seems like her power goes out for days at a time on the regular – like, at least once a year, or so it seems to me. So I always felt bad complaining about any power outage, like you, we rarely get one. But wow, is it ever disorienting and does it ever make you understand just how dependent we are on electricity and on cell service. 6.5 hours is still a long time! I would be very stressed.

    1. Oh my, no power for days at a time? Does your friend have a generator? I guess in her case it would make sense to invest in one…. but yeah, I am definitely not complaining. We don’t have to deal with it often.

  8. The longest time I lost power was a week, during one of the hurricanes. Thankfully, my mom never lost power at her place so I just stayed there while I waited for my power to be restored. Since then, I’ve never lost power for longer than 30ish minutes. We’ve had some bad storms here lately where everyone is losing power left and right, and my apartment stays lit. I feel like I’m due for a bad power outage soon. *knocks on wood*

    1. Lucky you that you were able to stay with your mom when your power was out. But a week is a long time and what do people do who don’t have another place to stay?

  9. Our power was out yesterday. It was a scheduled outage though, they were replacing the power pole on the corner. The power was out when we got home from the gym so we had to shower with the door open to try to get some light in the bathroom, but I’d forgotten to open the curtains before we went out so there wasn’t much light. I also made sure I was having overnight oats, not fresh cooked oats for my breakfast as we can’t cook at all when we don’t have electricity.
    I did some cleaning, my computer was charged up so I did some offline work and a little bit of online when the mobile data wasn’t ridiculously slow. They had said it could be out all day but we walked down to a local cafe for lunch and when we got back the power was back on. The first thing I did was set the washing going.

    A few years ago when we had really hot weather over summer they did rolling blackouts across the state because there wasn’t enough power for all the airconditioning when it was really hot. It would usually start mid-afternoon on 40+C degree days and areas would be blacked out for about 2 hours at a time, but you didn’t get any warning. I think they did that so they didn’t lose the whole power grid.

    1. It sound like you were “prepared” for the scheduled outage. It’s definitely easier to handle when you know it’s coming.

      Last summer, when it was really hot, all residents were asked to preserve energy and not run the AC 24/7 to prevent the grid from crashing. Apparently people followed the warnings as we never lost power, but they also threatened rolling blackouts during that time.

  10. We have only had one power outage that I can recall. We weren’t sure how long the power would be out so we left and went up to my MIL’s for the day (it was a weekend) since she wasn’t impacted. The power ended up being off for probably 6ish hours? I was glad we had the option of going there. Phil lost power years ago before we met due to a terrible summer storm that was almost like a tornado. He lost power for days! But again in that case, his mom wasn’t impacted so he went to stay with her.

    1. How lucky you were able to go to your MILs house during the outage. It’s definitely better than waiting it out at home.

  11. 6.5 hours would feel long with no power!! We occasionally lose power during storms here, but not super often. When it does happen, it’s usually relatively short. We had an instance last summer where there was NOT a storm, but there was some weird outage at the power plant place here (I later learned a squirrel got into it and somehow caused wires to short out?? Wondering what happened to the squirrel… I fear he didn’t have a good outcome. lol.) But it was during a random work from home day and I remember having to text my team and say we had a freak power outage and I wasn’t able to log on (I had no internet). (Actually, I do have an unlimited personal hotspot on my phone, but I didn’t offer up that information (hehe) AND my phone battery was low…). I was excited by a little “unplanned break” from work and was envisioning curling up with my book for an hour midday, but unluckily for me, they got it up and running pretty quickly again. Boo. haha

    1. Haha, I probably wouldn’t have volunteered the information that you have a personal hotspot on your phone either. Was your internet working on your phone though?

  12. 6.5 hours doesn’t sound too long but I bet you start realizing where power is needed rather quickly.
    The husband and I talk about it every once in a while. He is very experienced in living without power having lived in the Dominican Republic for many years. So we always have a stack of candles and he tells me to immediately fill the bathtub with water because the toilet won’t work anymore and once the system is out of water you are out of luck. Things I never thought off.
    I did read “Blackout” by Marc Ellsberg a couple of years back and that really made me aware on how much we rely on power and what effects it would have. It is a scary concept.
    That said I hope power will stay on for the foreseeable future now.

  13. Augh – I could have SWORN I left a comment on this, San. I’m so sorry. Power outages are awful, unplanned ones are worse, and when it’s getting dark is the absolute worst! I’d rather wake up in the dark than watch it get dark around me, knowing it’ll just get colder without the heat.
    We have buried lines – so different from the old neighborhood where I grew up – and I am always grateful for them when we have tornadoes or straight-line winds. Which occurs more frequently than one might think! Here’s hoping the most recent “rivers” haven’t led to more power outages. Take care, my friend.

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