SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – Steve Tustison faced a parenting headache that called for serious improvisation: Stuck in traffic during a massive blackout with his three sons, he was penniless, light was fading and the boys were hungry.
The 47-year-old father finally convinced the owner of a nearby liquor store to have pity on them and hand over a tin of Spam and a box of Ritz crackers so they could eat dinner. He supplemented it with canned olives and pickles stowed on his sailboat.
There were no catastrophes caused by the widespread outage that knocked out power in a region with a population of nearly 6 million spanning both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. But for individuals and institutions alike it was a defining moment that separated the Boy Scouts of the world from the rest of us.
Tustison said he fell into the latter category.
"I think we weren't prepared at all, not really, and it made me start thinking, you know I need contingencies — stores and supplies just in case," said Tustison, after sleeping with his family on his sailboat instead of inside their dark, scorching-hot home. "You never know what's going to happen with the power plant here and the unrest, the inevitability of something bad happening — because it's gonna."
He wasn't the only one that learned a valuable lesson. Government agencies on Friday were examining the good and bad of what happened when the lights went out on such a large geographical area — which recalled a more severe blackout that darkened a large swath of the Northeast and Midwest in 2003 and affected more than 50 million people.
Two reactors at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, near where Tustison lives, went offline after losing electricity, but officials said there was no danger to the public or workers.
The outage also grounded outgoing planes at San Diego's International Airport, where about 70 flights were cancelled and between 50 to 100 people stayed overnight. Most everything was up and running Friday as power was restored to all of San Diego County.
"These are the kinds of incidents that we drill on all the time," airport spokeswoman Diana Lucero said. "You can never be fully prepared, but we felt that we were prepared as much as possible under the circumstances."
Police departments on both sides of the border were able to maintain their emergency call centers backed up by generators, which also kept hospitals going. Authorities in San Diego went door-to-door to ensure people on life support were doing OK. Officers fanned out to guide traffic without working stoplights and there were no major accidents reported, nor looting or other unrest.
In Tijuana, people formed long lines outside convenience stores, trying to buy ice or take advantage of half-price beer. Cars lined up at the few gas stations that used generators to stay open.
Beaches in San Diego were closed Friday because the outage caused more than 2 million gallons of sewage to spill into the water. Some residents were asked to boil their tap water. And restaurants were dumping thousands of dollars in food that they feared may have spoiled.
Darren Gorski, who buys supplies for San Diego's The Fish Market, spent the night checking on the temperature of the seafood stored in five insulated refrigerators. It remained at a cool 37 degrees, saving the company an estimated $50,000, he said.
But he threw out 40 cases of dairy products such as milk, half-and-half, cream and pasteurized eggs, costing thousands of dollars. The restaurant serves more than 1,000 people daily.
"It's a small thing compared to the liability," he said. "Hopefully everybody else does that too. We're here to protect our own industry. We don't want anybody getting sick."
Southwest Airline spokeswoman Cheryl Black said the airline's employees spent the first hour after the outage scrambling to try to communicate, after being left with no working radios or cellphones.
"All of the sudden we didn't have any technology," Black said Friday after spending the morning working on getting the airline's computer system back online.
They managed to get it up and running before the first flights took off at 8 a.m., she said.
Andy Jones, 63, said she held a flashlight in her mouth while packing in the early morning dark for her vacation in Mexico. She also brushed her teeth with bottled water before heading to the airport.
"You're going to be ready for Mexico, that's for sure," joked her friend, Donna Anderson, a 58-year-old retired school teacher traveling with her.
While going cold turkey on technology made life difficult for many, others like Tustison relished the chance of spending a candlelit evening quieted by the downed iPhones and laptops.
After averting the dinner crisis, Tustison and his three sons, 15, 12 and 9, sat on their sailboat in a darkened harbor and listened to the news on an antique, battery-powered transistor radio while playing chess and checkers.
"It was so peaceful and quiet," he said. "It was amazing. I've lived here my whole life and I've never seen anything like that, never. That's about as common as hail around here."
He enjoyed seeing his sons who normally would spend their evening playing video games sit in the stillness.
"I wish it could be like that all the time," he said.
Watson reported from San Diego.
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