Editor’s Page: In the Dark

Guide dogs, blackouts and blind spots.

Photo: Linny Morris

This month’s “Making a Difference” column has me thinking about guide dogs. Whenever I’ve seen blind people with their guide dogs, I’ve always assumed that the human was dependent on the animal—certainly, the guide dogs look in charge, out front, alert, confident. Obviously, blind people have guide dogs for a reason, to see what they can’t, to avoid potentially lethal obstacles. What surprised me is how much the dog needs the person, so much so that the blind person is referred to as the dog’s “handler.” After all, it’s not the dog that wants to catch a bus and go to Safeway. The dog is just a tool, extending the human’s senses so he or she can safely go about his or her business. Now, when I see a blind person and a guide dog, I see a team.

We all have blind spots and weaknesses, times when we have to lean on a guide—and there’s nothing like a daylong blackout to remind us of that. We were all reduced to calling each other to see if there was power on anywhere, huddled around radios listening to KSSK, the one station still on the air. When the lights came back, we turned to the daily papers to see what had happened, how we were affected, what was being done.

But the papers had some strange blind spots of their own. For example, whenever they tried to tell us how many people were affected, they only gave us one figure, 293,000, which is the number of HECO customers. For example, from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin: “One generator remained on until 8:30 p.m., when it shut off, leaving the island—293,000 customers—in the dark.”

That’s a strange way to put it. Nearly 900,000 people live on “the island,” and the night was just as dark for the folks who don’t get a HECO bill. The stores were just as closed, the streetlights just as dead, the traffic signals just as dangerously inoperative. When a blackout darkens every home and high rise, closes every business, shuts down the airport, paralyzes the city’s water supply and strands some 65,000 tourists who just happened to be here for the party, the number of afflicted is closer to 1 million people.

Sometimes, people accuse the media of sensationalism, but here, the papers seemed to be going out of their way to minimize the extent of the problem. Why? Wouldn’t it have been more accurate to report “1 Million Plunged into Primeval Darkness?”

The other significant blind spot in the coverage: The military in Hawaii. You wouldn’t know it from the papers, but blackout-stricken Oahu is home to the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), the headquarters of a military force that covers half the globe, at Camp Smith. We have major bases, such as Pearl Harbor, Schofield and Hickam, with thousands of active-duty and civilian personnel living and working at each, an industry rivaling the scale of tourism, which did get covered.

Were the bases dark, too? If so, why? How far up the chain of command did the blackout go? Was USPACOM Adm. Timothy J. Keating sitting in a dark room at Camp Smith, saying, “I thought you bought candles?” Was Hickam’s air base any more functional than Honolulu International Airport? Were radars operating or not? Was Hawaii safe? Was this command in touch with all its forces, aircraft and ships around the Pacific at all times? What did our visiting, incoming commander-in-chief think of the fact that the capital city of Hawaii and, quite possibly, all its defense forces, could be rendered helpless by a few lightning strikes?

Here’s what we got: On the Monday following the Friday-night blackout, the Advertiser reported—as a breaking story on its Web site, no less—“Obama starts day with another workout” at Marine Corp Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay.

Whew. That’s a relief. I guess everything was fine. At least, as far as our trusted guides will let us see.