Irene had already plowed up the East Coast, wreaking havoc and creating power outages in every state it passed over. According to the Department of Energy, 6.7 million customers had no power on that Sunday. On the following Thursday, nearly 1 million customers still had no lights. The primary reason that so many were without power were the overhead transmission lines and distribution lines that were taken down by the high winds and trees.
So what's the significance of the storm blowing through Shoreham, NY? In the early 1900s in Shoreham, Nikola Tesla performed electric power engineering research. Tesla had already developed polyphase alternating current (ac) system of generators, motors and transformers and held 40 basic U.S. patents on the system. George Westinghouse recognized the potential of Tesla's inventions and bought his patents and commercialized the technology. Tesla's ac technology proved to superior to the direct current (dc) system that Thomas Edison argued for and eventually won the battle, just as VHS defeated Beta in the VCR wars of the 1980s. 1893 marked a milestone for the industrial world, with the huge demonstration of the Westinghouse/Tesla polyphase ac system at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Tesla was the mastermind behind the ac power system that has transformed the world from the 1880s until today. His impact was so great that, in 1997, Tesla was named one of the 100 most important people in the last 1,000 years. So Irene essentially knocked out large parts of the ac power system that Tesla, who spent much of life in the New York City, had done so much to develop and invent. For more than a week, many customers would not be able to turn on their lights, refrigerators, air conditioners, and even the induction motors that Tesla had invented.
But the irony doesn't stop there. From 1901 to 1905, Tesla built the Tesla Laboratory and the Wardenclyffe Tower in Shoreham, using funds from the financial titan J.P Morgan. Besides serving as a communications broadcast center, the tower was also designed to deliver electric power without wires. The energy would be transmitted through the ionosphere and the ground to the whole planet. It would behave much like radio transmission. Essentially, Tesla wanted to saturate the surface of the globe with electricity for global use, without the use of wires.
But it never worked out, and the tower was torn down in 1917. But think how much the electric power world would have been different if the concept had proved successful. No electric lines costing billions of dollars to construct. No periodic costly tree trimming to undertake. The huge electric power disruptions, like those caused by Irene, might be greatly minimized. But, without that successful technology development in Shoreham, Irene charged through Long Island almost 100 years later, turning off the lights for days for so many people.
After such storms, there are always those who ask, "Why don't we just make all the electric power facilities underground?" Study after study has shown that economically, it just isn't feasible. While the expense is justified in certain cases -- for example, where it is decided that aesthetics are of driving importance -- the cost of burying existing electric facilities on a large scale is an amount that society is not willing to bear.
So then people ask, "Why can't the power be fixed any faster?" They look out the windows and see the storm is long gone. "It's been sunny now for three days, four days, a week, and the power still isn't on. Why? The power companies aren't prepared to deal with this! They're not doing their jobs! Certainly we should be able to restore power quicker with all the technology available to us!"
The answer is that utilities and distribution organizations have long focused on storm response and getting the lights back on quicker. There are already many things being done, and more that technology providers and utilities are working on.