Focus: Who put out the lights?

Auckland prides itself on modernity, so the worldwide sniggering at a month-long blackout was hard to take
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE EMBARRASSMENT is the worst thing. The reputation of plucky New Zealand, civilisation's furthest outcrop, has taken a dive into the dark. The lights went out on a Saturday, four weeks ago, when four of Mercury Energy's cables failed simultaneously. Like a scene in a disaster movie, there was a total blackout in the central business district.

Air conditioning units moaned and stopped pumping cool air. Computers crashed. Lifts stopped between floors, Traffic lights went out. Emergency generators fired (and sometimes failed). Those are problems you might expect in Jakarta or Santiago or Mombasa, but not in a city with pretentions to an international role.

The news that Auckland was news in New York was very hard to bear. The smirk hiding in the corner of the Australian newsreader's mouth was intolerable. Al McChesney, local investment banker, likened downtown Auckland to the main street in El Salvador: "When there was no one in the streets, and generators were parked up everywhere, it was like a war zone. People had a slightly stunned look, not knowing what to do, whether to go to work or not, whether to risk a ride on an elevator."

Days later, in an operating room at Auckland Hospital, David Sage was caught out at a time when Mercury Energy was guaranteeing supply. "It was an emergency neurosurgical case; the surgeons were about to make their incisions when the lights went out. During another blackout, a child under anaesthesia was being scanned for a suspected acute spinal condition. The power went down. We kept her under because she might have needed immediate surgery and took her over to another hospital where the power was still on. Patients were terrified."

DENOUNCING the guilty is an effective therapy. How could four cables supplying the densest commercial area in a modern, developed, Pacific Rim city fail at the same time? One theory is that it is Chile's fault. The El Nino weather pattern off that country has meant a hotter than usual summer in Auckland.

The other, less fanciful, theory is that the board, past and present, is to blame. Seemingly everyone associated with the management of the company, current or retired, said they knew cable failure was inevitable because big utility wires have a well documented life-cycle, and that was at an end.

But the one thing everyone agrees is that the hybrid structure of Mercury Energy - half community trust, half appointed directors - is a factor in the state of the electricity supply. Left-wing politicians say privatisation is to blame; that a privatised utility will run for profit rather than continuity of supply and will inevitably let its capital assets decay. The right argues that the company was not properly privatised: had it been a publicly listed utility its share price would have been the defining measure of success. That would ensure that continuity of supply was the priority.

After a savage little battle between the public and private factions on the board, John Collinge was brought back as chairman. In the past he achieved public attention as New Zealand High Commissioner in London, when he featured in colourful stories about being stalked by a former girlfriend and activities with his mistress on a dining room table.

With the crisis unfolding, fundamental human emotions came to the fore. The most obvious in most of New Zealand was a sort of vindictive satisfaction that roiling, wealthy, excessive Auckland had been brought low. The JAFAs were powerless. (JAFA is a technical term unrelated to a local confectionery of the same name, and stands for Just Another Fashionable Aucklander, or something like it.)

And this feeling was evident not just in remote, agricultural provinces. When restaurants on Auckland's North Shore picked up big spillover trade, one owner said: "Funny little city folk have had to come to terms with driving over the bridge. Business has never been better." As for the Blitz spirit, it has been one of the rather uplifting aspects of the affair. This talent for makeshift is an important strand in the New Zealand psyche; people often enjoy the opportunity to exercise themselves in its name.

"Business responded brilliantly," said Rod Oram, business editor on the New Zealand Herald. "Companies disaggregated and dispersed themselves. Over a weekend, conservative organisations turned themselves into telecommuting enterprises. Law firms were run from partners' dining room tables. One firm of stockbrokers transferred the whole equities department to Wellington. Another sent theirs to Sydney."

Thousand of phones were diverted around the city and out of the country - and the phone system coped. Technologically it was a triumph. The National Business Review left its suite of offices on the 26th floor of a downtown block and holed up first in its pre-press supplier's premises, and then in a suburban warren. Yet, as for many, the initial elation of turning defeat into victory did not last for ever for the chief sub-editor, Deborah Lahatte. "When we moved to this bunker I had to catch two buses to get to work, through a gridlocked traffic system, to get to a suburb where there isn't a sushi bar in walking distance," she said.

THE PEOPLE who were seriously hurt were those who run the businesses that couldn't disperse - restaurants, dry cleaners, food shops with big fridges. Whether they survive will depend on how much cash they have and how nice their bank managers are. No reliable estimates of casualties have been produced so far, but the number will certainly be more than Mayor Les Mills's figure of 20 to 30 small businesses.

When the dust has settled, Mercury will face a class action involving 600 businesses seeking, in their lawyers' preliminary estimate, "hundreds of millions of dollars" in damages on grounds of negligence and mental stress.

In the stress and confusion brought on by the power failure, there were some light moments, however. In a story worthy of Thomas the Tank Engine, a clapped-out old saltbucket of a ship found it could still be of use. The Union Rotoroa's days may be numbered, but because it runs on inefficient electric power, and because it generates at 50 rather than 60 cycles per second, the inventive controllers have been able to stick an extension lead into its works and draw 12 megawatts for the power-starved city.

Two days ago, Mercury proudly announced that after rigging a 5km line in from the industrial quarter of Auckland to the centre that the crisis was finally over.

The lights promptly went out for two hours.

Full power will definitely be back tomorrow, and that's a promise. But then, it is only a promise.