Rota Power Cuts and an Old Incident Revisited – Auckland Power Outage, 1998

May 6, 2022

This week, Charlie discusses his experience with power cuts in Johannesburg, and previous famous power cuts, such as in Auckland.

I am currently in Johannesburg, South Africa, delivering an MSc module to a client from Glasgow University; the module is on “Work-Based Resilience, Continuity and Crisis Management”. After a day of lecturing, I took a little stroll near the guest house that I am staying at to just get a little fresh air and some exercise. As I’m walking along each street, the only thing I could hear was the “purr” of numerous small generators. One of the rota power cuts was taking place, which meant if houses wanted any power, they had to use a generator or wait until 7pm for the power to come back on again.

South Africa has frequent rota power cuts as they don’t have enough power; this means that residents have to ration it by giving different areas power at different times. On returning back to my room, I discovered that I also had no power, as the previous guest had blown up the block’s generator by putting on the air conditioning when told not to. This then resulted in an overload and damaged the generator. Luckily, I have a torch on my phone and was able to use it to find my computer and other electronics. From there, I made my way into the dining room in the guest house where it had generator power. With scheduled cuts throughout the night, one being from 1am – 3am, I made sure that my first task was to plug in all of my electronics so that everything could be fully charged.

I was brought up on the Isle of Coll, where for the first couple of years in the early 70s, we didn’t have mains power and each winter it was fairly normal to have a power cut or two. This has made me reasonably relaxed about power cuts, but only if they don’t last too long!

People in rural areas are perhaps more used to power cuts, but it’s strange when a power cut occurs in the suburbs of a city. The thought of a power cut in a city reminds me of the outage in Auckland in 1998, which made a big impression on the emergency planning community. This was because it was completely different to what risks we had originally planned for. It also showed the vulnerability of the city to a power cut, when most people presumed that power in a city would only ever be cut for a short period of time. The incident resonated with many organisations who had just started planning for Y2K, as it showed what could go wrong in the millennium.

The Auckland power outage took place in the central district from 19th February to 27th March, 1998. It impacted 60,000 people who worked in the central area, as well as 6,000 people who lived in apartments without power.

The power cut was caused by a failure of the four cables coming into the area; some of them were over 40 years old and poorly maintained. Two cables failed and the load on the other two caused them to fail after a few days, leading to a complete power cut in the area. This took 5 weeks to repair.

Those who worked in offices had to leave the area and find alternative cities in New Zealand to work from, whereas others were sent as far as Australia to find places to work. The hardest hit were the small shops, restaurants, and businesses within the area; they had lost all their stock as there was no refrigeration or freezers. As well as that, residents and customers didn’t want to come back into the area.

Many small shops and restaurants went bankrupt and the situation in the centre was made worse by it being a hot El Nino Summer. Cable failure was made more likely by the high use of air conditioners and movement in the ground associated with hot dry ground. Conditions in the affected area were made more difficult due to the lack of cooling, which made it more likely for people to move out of the area.

The incident became known worldwide, hence why we were all aware of it. Not everyone was sympathetic and the city became the butt of jokes, such as: “Question: What did Auckland have before candles? Answer: Electricity”. The worldwide knowledge of the incident had a major impact on the tourist trade, with a great number of booked rooms being cancelled.

The situation in South Africa and the Auckland incident, reminded me of the importance of power and that it is not always rural areas which can be affected. One thing I did notice when driving back from the class, was that all the traffic lights were out and many didn’t have police to direct traffic. Contrary to what you see in the movies, the loss of traffic lights didn’t cause cars to crash into each other or huge traffic jams. Maybe the movies are wrong, or it’s just that South Africans have gotten used to driving with the traffic lights out.

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