Auckland unplugged

Life in a city without electricity

By Cameron Williamson

Published March 12, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Down on Viaduct Basin, where the green sea of the Waitemata Harbour sloshes around the piles of Auckland's reclaimed foreshore, a busker is improvising on a Hendrix melody for no one in particular and everyone who's listening.

"This is the real Auckland unplugged," he laughs, and eases his well-worn six string into another half-familiar set.

It's refreshing to find someone taking Auckland's crisis so lightly, an antidote to the grim faces of people whose lifeblood depends on the small businesses around town, who are hurting, some breaking down in tears on live network news.

Because "unplugged" in Auckland no longer refers to the sweet strains of the acoustic alchemists, but to the collapse of the city's electricity supply, which plunged the Central Business District of New Zealand's sprawling metropolis into darkness a fortnight ago.

Now the music of Auckland is the thrum of a thousand generators perched on sidewalks and in doorways, hastily welded exhaust pipes belching diesel fumes into air already sluggish with the humidity of a subtropical summer. It's not the only thing that's changed. Around the world, people are bemused. Reports from as close as Australia have the whole city blacked out. In Indonesia people wonder if the entire country is in darkness. The reputation of a nation of innovative engineers who've harnessed the might of their wild waterways to power a techno-savvy 21st century economy is at stake.

Auckland is taking a hammering. And as the overseas inquirers ask, "How can this happen?" we ask ourselves the same question.

Auckland's crisis began two weekends ago with the failure of Mercury Energy's fourth and final power cable feeding the city. The lights went out around town, apartment building and hotel lifts stopped between floors, electronic security doors locked shut, traffic lights stared blankly at bewildered motorists.

Kiwis are not generally slow to take up the offer of an enforced long weekend, but when the lawyers and stockbrokers and accountants arrived Monday in tower-block foyers only to be told, "Your building is closed," reality began to bite.

Emergency meetings dispersed office workers to the suburbs, to branch offices, to Wellington, even to Sydney, until the normal electricity supply could be resumed.

Mercury, the country's biggest supply company, has no answers to the big questions -- why did cables fail? Why, when the capital, Wellington, has eight cables serving its CBD and the southern center of Christchurch has 10, does Auckland have only four? Why has property development been allowed to proceed headlong and outrun the city's ability to supply its essential services?

In the early days of the crisis, Auckland's mayor, Les Mills, affected a frown of deep concern and told city workers: Stay out of town, everything that can be done is being done. But he wasn't talking to his staff. On crisis Day 5, council minions were out ticketing generators for being parked on the sidewalk without permits.

For many city folk used to their underground car parks and skyscraper suites, the emergency quickly became a deep-end experiment in remote officing as laptops, faxes, modems and cell phones started connecting with each other from any hot point outside the dark zone.

In the newspapers, early headlines like "Darkness on the Edge of Town" were replaced by "Light at the End of the Tunnel" as city fathers said, "It won't be more than a week."

Then one week passed and the cables were still out, and the headlines began to read, "Into an Autumn of Gloom." Articles reported that normal power was unlikely before Easter.

Within days, Queen Street, the main drag that anchors this city of a million people, resembled a Third World capital.

Shopfronts were shuttered, litter started to gather in drifts in the windward gutters. Graffiti bombers emerged like rats from the sewers, comfortable in the knowledge that no power meant no security cameras to inhibit their tagging.

Police announced increased patrols to counter looting, pedestrians didn't linger and as dusk settled in the city, all that was needed to complete the picture of a 20th century ghost town was the tumbleweed.

And so it went. Apartment dwellers who were able climbed stairwells in darkness, camping dozens of floors above dark streets. Others were temporarily offered empty flats in the suburbs. Only the hardiest of news agents and corner stores stayed open.

The tourists who mean so much to this little country's economy poured off cruise ships and airplanes expecting to find a sophisticated seaside capital; they might as well have been in some backwater banana republic.

Tourism Auckland has been directing the tourists away from the CBD and pointing them toward the spectacular attractions beyond the city fringe -- where many of the museums, parks, beaches and restaurants are doing more business than ever. But most still need to return every evening to their power-starved inner-city hotels, which are relying on hired generators to stay open and to function at anything approaching normality.

Now, however, at the end of the second week of the crisis, the city is bouncing back. With a vast influx of industrial generators trucked, railed and flown in from all over the country, small businesses have reopened and are catering to customers as best they can.

Blackout Sale signs are everywhere, some featuring novel pitches: Hairdressers offer haircuts by candlelight. Jewelry shops post banners boasting the brightness of their diamonds. The cappuccino imbibers, although depleted in number, grin and sip above the din of generators in cafes that once again offer a Warm Welcome with their Hot Coffee.

Camping stores do well; flashlights and gas stoves leap off the shelves.
And down on Fort Street, the central city's red light district, the hookers are complaining only about the lack of customers. As masseuse Charlotte says, "We can do most of our work in the dark."

On the uncontrolled streets, it would not have been unreasonable to expect anarchy from Auckland's drivers, whose reputation for road rage and rudeness runs a hot second to New York cabbies. Miraculously, road manners seem to have returned in some collective agreement to keep the city moving. Hard as it is to believe for those who do daily battle behind the wheel, one driver was reported to have actually waved a courier van through an intersection, and (although this is unconfirmed) the van driver was heard to yell, "Thanks, mate!"

While the early stages of a crisis like this bring out the fighting spirit of a young country of pioneers and rekindles the postwar rationing spirit that is second nature to a generation, others cannot cope.

Inner city resident Laylah Reynolds moved to New Zealand from California 15 years ago and lives on the ninth floor of an uptown apartment block. Things are not good for Laylah. Her 15-year-old daughter, Athena, is a chronic asthmatic and cannot risk the hike up the stairs. It would at best leave her breathless; at worst it could kill her. Athena has had to move out to the suburbs to stay with relatives.

Says Laylah, "People say life goes on despite the power crisis, but it doesn't. Life here has stopped."

Laylah is without lighting. Air conditioning, hot water and refrigeration are no use as electricity arrives only in sporadic doses. She's desperately seeking somewhere to stay, and is appealing for help. "I have lost my daughter and my dignity," she says. "I don't feel I can go on living like this."

Lunch bars and gift shops and news agents who rely on the passing trade of city workers to keep them afloat are pleading with bank managers to extend their credit, applying to the government for emergency loans and hiring lawyers, on credit, to get them out of this crippling dilemma.

A heavyweight Australian legal firm has arrived to back two Auckland solicitors in bringing a multimillion-dollar class action suit against Mercury Energy, which may offer small businesses some hope.

For some, though, all hope is gone, and with it their business.

Auckland will cope with, and survive, this short-term crisis. While the villains of the piece, Mercury, sweat around the clock to repair cables and erect an overhead line along the southern rail corridor, a coastal container vessel, the Union Rotorua, has been brought alongside to plug its generation capacity into the main grid and provide about 10 percent of the city's electricity requirement.

The anger seething below the surface is palpable. Heads will undoubtedly roll in the middle and upper management of the trustee-run energy company, on its board and maybe into the ranks of the government. The minister of energy, Max Bradford, is not immune and the buck may eventually stop on his desk.

Corporate New Zealand, ever mindful of the need to attract overseas investment, is fuming at what this display of incompetence is doing to the perception of this Pacific Rim business capital as it hurtles toward the new millennium.

Organizers of the biggest events Auckland has ever hosted -- the world leaders' summit in 1999 and the America's Cup in 2000 -- are sweating over the security of the electricity supply and demanding answers.

Explanations for the crisis are deeply rooted -- perhaps as deep as three administrations ago, when New Zealand committed itself to privatizing state-owned assets such as power supply companies. Critics say that the headlong pursuit of bottom-line profits, which have been abundant in privatized industries, has been at the expense of maintenance, sustainability and security of supply.

Mayor Mills, a former Olympian already embroiled in controversy over an unpopular multibillion-dollar transport center and his recent public opposition to the city's gay and lesbian Hero Parade, is facing a new barrage of questions about the rotting infrastructure of his city.

Time is running out to deal with clogged motorways, a lack of efficient public transport, a century-old stormwater system that allows raw sewage to flow into the sparkling harbor and an unreliable water supply.
Aucklanders want answers, and if the noise of the generators ever quiets, a rising tide of voices may well be heard, calling for revenge.

Cameron Williamson

Cameron Williamson is a newspaper journalist and photographer in Auckland whose work has appeared in the Observer, the London Evening Standard, the New Zealand Herald and Adventure magazine. He is currently involved in the torchlight pursuit of good coffee and cheesecake on the dark streets of his hometown.

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