Saipan — What’s the best part of living on a tropical island? Having an air-con, of course.
Once upon a time, in 1978 to be exact, the island’s primary source of electricity was a 35-year-old power barge called “Impedance.” Commissioned in 1943, it was on “loan” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at no cost to the NMI. The 300-foot Impedance, alas, suffered from “frequent and prolonged outages due to poor maintenance and deterioration.” It was also scheduled to leave Saipan in March 1979 for dry-docking and overhauling.
On Dec. 4, 1978, Marianas Variety reported that without the power barge “Saipan may be placed on power rationing…unless portable generators are brought to the island…because the present standby generators cannot produce enough electricity to meet current demands.” Lawmakers complained that the administration “has not kept the Legislature informed about what is being done to avoid another power crisis on Saipan.”
Public Works-Saipan Utility Agency officials told Variety that “during the barge shut-off period, electrical power will be provided by the diesel power plant which has limited capacity.” Impedance provided 13 megawatts of power while the then-diesel power plant on island generated 8.4 MW. The Commonwealth Utilities Corp. still didn’t exist, and neither did its Lower Base power plant. (Today, Saipan’s generating capacity is 70 MW.)
The Saipan Utility Agency, through Variety, appealed “to all consumers to…conserve power by not operating their air-conditioners, water heaters, dryers and [to] minimize the use of lights.” If the appeal “does not produce the necessary decrease in power demand, the Saipan Utility Agency may have to implement a control program and disconnect power service to uncooperative consumers in the interest of the general public.”
On Nov. 13, 1979, Variety announced that “electricity output for Saipan will be severely curtailed…while emergency repairs are being made to the power barge Impedance.” Gov. Carlos S. Camacho told the public not to operate air-conditioners, water heaters and clothes dryers and to minimize the use of lights during the peak demand hours: 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 6 to 9 p.m. Public Works said “if voluntary compliance does not take place, utility workers will climb up poles and disconnect the power.”
Variety reported that most of the air-conditioners at island businesses, hotels and government offices had been ordered shut off while the leaks in the World War II-era power barge were patched. Public Works sent out two-man crews to check electrical usage in hotels, businesses and government offices. “[I]n two cases where air-conditioning was used indiscriminately, [Public Works] cut off power at the utility poles.”
During the 25-day repair period, “Shops, dining rooms and cocktail bars became hot and uncomfortable, leading to quickly eaten meals and a drop in some business. Offices located in buildings designed for full use of air-conditioning became ovens. One wag at a Capital Hill office put a sign on the door that read, ‘20 Degrees Cooler Outside.’”
The NMI at the time had a local population of 18,000 and over 1,000 guest workers. The economy was small, and the wages were low. The U.S. Trust Territory administration had handed over a huge government to the newly sworn in Commonwealth leaders. Government was already the main employer of voters even as two-thirds of the local population were getting direct food assistance from the feds.
Some 70 percent of the CNMI budget also came from the feds. The island was basically a dirt road surrounded by tangan-tangan and brush. There were road accidents, often fatal, each week. Littering and the high crime/juvenile delinquency rate were major concerns. There were still no garment factories, but the military’s former dumpsite in Puerto Rico was already filled to capacity. Public schools were overcrowded. There was a lack of qualified teachers. The hospitals were woefully subpar. A lot of houses were made of tin and wood. Public services were hopelessly inadequate. There were overfishing and dynamite fishing. And in San Vicente, the faithful were summoned to attend Mass by the clanging of two old oxygen tanks.
“The past,” a novelist once wrote, “is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety, the NMI’s oldest newspaper.