As Washington Loses Power, Legumes Take Over

Sept. 11 (Bloomberg) -- One of the reasons I admire Mormons is their commitment to long-term food storage.

(Other reasons include their devotion to family and their bicycle-based, carbon-neutral approach to proselytizing. One aspect of Mormonism I don’t particularly admire is its desire to convert my dead relatives, but more on that another time.)

Mormons are required by church doctrine to store in their homes at least three months of food and other basic supplies (a year’s worth of supplies is considered ideal). This policy is meant to help church members survive natural and man-made disasters, and also the tribulations associated with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, whose arrival may be presaged by civilizational collapse, or at least severe weather.

A Mormon readiness kit is something to behold. Not long ago, I visited a number of Mormon households in Colorado, and I’ve never seen more impressive collections of freeze-dried legumes and nitrogen-packed millet. I was also introduced to “Provident Pantry Freeze Dried Shredded Mozzarella Cheese,” which is sold by a survival-foods company in Utah (a center of the survival-food industry, of course) that “lets you make pizzas even during emergency times.” The pizza tastes just the way you would think End Times Mormon pizza might taste.

Well Stocked

A famous teacher of survival skills named Cody Lundin, who lives in the mountains above Prescott, Arizona, once told me that in the West, people often say “that if things go to hell, they’re just going to some Mormon’s house and steal” his supplies. He said, for the record, that this would be a) immoral and b) potentially fatal, because many Mormons keep guns as part of their survival kits.

It’s easy to mock the survivalist instinct. Usually, the worst doesn’t happen. We live in a stable if sclerotic democracy that has proved itself able to supply most of its citizens with clean water, relatively cheap food, working sewers and increasingly sophisticated dramatic series on basic cable.

As a resident of Washington, however, I am ready to attest that, at least in the capital, we no longer can count on a reliable supply of electricity, and this is turning some of us into Mormons, if only in our readiness to warehouse long-lasting legumes.

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that it is not entirely fair to say that Washington’s electricity supply is unreliable. Washingtonians can count on a reliable supply of electricity. Except when it rains.

It happened again this weekend. Saturday opened sunny and fair, but a storm blew through in the late afternoon. This storm did not take down many large trees, or even large branches. It was more of a twig-and-leaf storm. Yet, within the first minute of rain and wind, we lost power. So did tens of thousands of other customers of Pepco Holdings Inc., the local electricity monopoly.

My thoughts quickly turned to my family’s freezer. After we lost power for five days earlier this summer, during a more powerful (but still non-apocalyptic) storm, we were forced to toss a couple of hundred bucks worth of frozen food. I vowed, from then on, to keep the freezer half-empty, and I also vowed to buy a generator. I did not keep my vows.

The point is not that I would make a bad Mormon, but that it takes time to absorb certain lessons about the apparent immutability of bad power company customer service in a decade that seems to be marked by drastic fluctuations in weather patterns. By the way, I’m happy to excuse Pepco power failures during hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, typhoons, blizzards, tsunamis and zombie uprisings. But the rainstorm on Saturday did not fall into any of these categories.

Most Hated

I will say this for Pepco: It brings people together. Washingtonians are united in their loathing of their power company. Business Insider last year named Pepco the most-hated company in America, based on surveys conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. This is an awesome achievement, especially considering that Pepco is a local company, and that it was competing against airlines.

I live in a part of Washington dotted with embassies, and one diplomat I know said that living in Washington reminded him of life in Port-au-Prince, except that in Haiti he had a generator. Generators were a main source of conversation on the street this weekend. Many people are considering buying generators but are held back by cost and resentment: Buying a generator would mean admitting defeat at the hands of Pepco.

The other topic of conversation was freezers. I’m not the only one trying to curtail my frozen food storage. Most of my neighbors are doing the same. Some are, as I am, following the lead of the Mormons and storing enough dry goods for a week or two in the basement.

This being Washington, one of my neighbors happens to run the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy Information Administration. Adam Sieminski knows more about this basket of issues than anyone I know, so naturally, I wheeled on him. “Can’t you do something about this?” I asked. Adam said, correctly, that his job was to analyze trends in energy, not to fix Pepco transformers.

And analyze he did, pointing me to a recent paper by his agency that was sparked by an obvious question: Why don’t companies such as Pepco simply bury their power lines? The paper said a 2010 study requested by the District of Columbia’s Public Service Commission found that it would cost $5.8 billion to bury all overhead electrical equipment, which could add an estimated $226 to the average monthly electric bill over 10 years, or $107 a month over 30 years. For many reasons -- the cost obviously, but also lack of planning foresight, irrational hopefulness about the future of weather and an insufficient government commitment to truly shovel-ready projects among them –-- I’m not counting on this happening anytime soon.

In the meantime, we are left with three questions: How do we convince foreign diplomats posted to Washington that they live in the cockpit of Western power and innovation, and not in a decrepit developing-world backwater? How much vacuum-packed millet does a family of five need to survive in a world without electricity?

And finally, does Mitt Romney’s overly sanguine approach to climate change -- he recently mocked President Barack Obama for promising to stop the rise of the oceans –-- mean that his basement is stocked with life rafts and Mormon survival pizza?

(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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