There is no street name on the two-lane road that winds up a rural hillside in the northeast San Fernando Valley. At the top is a tall, gray gate but no sign offering visitors a clue to the business that takes place beyond, in a windowless bunker.
Such secrecy has its wisdom: This is Los Angeles' energy control center, the heart of the Department of Water and Power's electrical network that brings power to 1.2 million customers. Protecting that lifeline from sabotage is essential.
But two months after the Northridge quake wrestled the city's 5,000-megawatt power system to a sudden, cold halt, workers behind the tall gates offered a brief glance inside the secret compound to recount their fretful struggle to restore the juice in the morning hours of Jan. 17.
The most daunting challenge was reviving a system completely void of energy--what is known in the power business as a "black start." For utility workers, it is the worst-case scenario, a challenge historically faced only by a small handful of cities nationwide.
"This was a catastrophe, a real catastrophe, a total catastrophe," Dan Connolly, a senior power dispatcher, said as he sat behind his computer console overlooking the command center. "But that's what we deal with here. This is what we do."
In the hours and days following the quake, the otherwise restrained activities in the control center gained a new sense of urgency. Power dispatchers worked around the clock for several days, some sleeping on the floors in bathrooms and offices. Meals were brought in by supervisors. Workers ate at their desks and some only got up for bathroom breaks.
To restore power, workers relied on some imaginative engineering to circumvent rips in the power distribution web--lines downed and receiving stations damaged by the shaking. In one case, a crane was used as a stand-in for a downed transmission tower.
In the end, power to nearly all 1.2 million customers was restored within 24 hours, despite nearly $118 million in damage to the system.
"It was truly dramatic," said Marcie Edwards, chief power dispatcher--the only woman in the nation charged with heading the electrical distribution system of a major utility.
Today, some of the 100 workers at the energy control center wear specially made T-shirts and hats that convey their pride in overcoming the crisis. The emblem on the shirts and hats depict a broken light bulb and the words "Black Start: Been there. Done that."
About 80% of the city's power comes from coal-fired plants in Arizona, Utah and Nevada and hydroelectric plants in the Pacific Northwest. The rest is generated at city-owned thermal and hydrogenerators throughout the Los Angeles Basin.
But the quake knocked out the gigantic network used to import power from plants outside the basin and triggered an automatic shut-off system that disconnected generators in the basin from the system to protect them from further damage. At 4:31 a.m., the city was completely in the dark.
For Edwards, the crisis was evident right from the start, when she called in from her home in Santa Clarita to the control center minutes after the quake hit.
"It's gone. It's all gone," the senior power dispatcher on the graveyard shift told Edwards, then the line went silent.
Edwards comes from a long chain of electrical workers, dating back more than 100 years when her grandfather joined the city's utility even before it was called the Department of Water and Power.
But none of her predecessors has ever had to deal with a black start.
"This was a career breaker, this black start," Edwards said. "I could be back scrubbing floors."
Connolly, who also heard the frantic message when he called the center, drove from his home in Valencia to Edwards' home a few miles away. They both headed to the control center.
When they arrived at the entrance to the control center, they met up with a crew of firefighters who were trying to evacuate a top floor of the compound. The quake had tripped a fire extinguishing system, flooding the floor with halon gas, making it impossible to breathe.
Despite the chaos and the collapse of several major freeway routes following the quake, about 25 dispatchers and other workers had also reached the center by 5 a.m. and were already tackling the black start.
Some workers had even driven in on dirt roads, which follow high-power lines over the mountains.
Once at the compound, workers headed to the nerve center of the building: a huge circular room on the bottom floor that resembles a military command headquarters--its steel walls covered with diagrams of the entire citywide electric distribution system. Black lines represent 230,000-volt power lines, red lines represent 138,000-volt lines and blue lines represent 500,000 volts. Zig-zag lines depict circuit breakers. Boxes show locations of receiving stations and generators.
The dispatchers studied the diagram to devise a way to move power around the most heavily damaged sections of the system.