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Let There Be Light

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

July 25 -- Families strolled carefree through crosswalks. Flashlights illuminated pitch-black dressing rooms, while shoppers sweltered in the summer heat. Some businesses even promised 15 percent discounts while the blackouts lasted.

Those were some of the scenes Monday afternoon on the Third Street Promenade, where nearly 50 businesses have been without power since an underground explosion destroyed two transformers Saturday evening in the heart of the Santa Monica’s commercial district.

The block and a half stretch on the west side of the popular walk street is expected to remain in the dark until Tuesday evening, when Southern California Edison is expected finish replacing the transformers, circuits and wiring that burst into flames during a power surge triggered by record-breaking temperatures.

"This is huge," said Katleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the Downtown. "This has put us out of business for nearly three days.

"We've come to a grinding halt," she said. "That's terrible…. And it’s not an act of God."

Rawson said Bayside officials have been urging Southern California Edison to upgrade its infrastructure Downtown, where business has been booming.

“The infrastructure is ancient and can’t accommodate the demand,” Rawson said. “It would be great if they could concentrate their efforts on Downtown.”

Edison officials said the company has been systematically upgrading its infrastructure in the Downtown area, replacing switches, transformers and cables.

“It’s not as though we haven’t done anything,” said Mark Olson, regional manager for Edison. “We’re systematically replacing those things that are more critical. It’s part of our mission to rebuild the entire system.

“What they want is for the power never to go out,” Olson said. “We don’t guarantee that it won’t go out, but we do the best we can to keep the power on, but we also try to keep the costs reasonable. We can’t replace everything everywhere.

“It’s hard to do work in Santa Monica with all the restrictions the City places,” Olson added.

It is difficult to estimate the economic impact the blackouts have will have on the affected businesses, which are concentrated along the Promenade for a block and a half north from Broadway and along Santa Monica Boulevard west from the Promenade to Second Street.

Most stores simply posted signs reading “power outage” or “we’ll see you when the lights come on,” and took the full financial hit.

Others, including United Colors of Benetton, stayed open without power, holding a sale for as long as the blackout lasts. Still, the popular chain store saw a dramatic drop in sales at the height of the summer shopping season.

“Our business is off by at least half,” said Yuko Matsuda, a store manager.

“It’s picked up some since we first lost power, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Matsuda, whose sales staff was helping customers into darkened changing rooms with hand-held flashlights.

Seth Rice, an attendant on the City’s information vending cart, said he has watched as foot traffic on the west side of the Promenade slowed to a trickle.

“There are usually way more people than there are today,” Rice said. “Over here on the (east side), there’s still a lot of folks, but there seems to be far fewer walking on the other side which is dark.”

The loss of power has caused other inconveniences.

“Security is one of our big concerns,” said Matsuda, who is having shoppers show a receipt at the door. Outside of one local shop, a security guard stood watch because the store’s alarm system was disconnected.

Around the corner on Santa Monica Boulevard between Second and Third streets, Edison work crews spooled hundreds of feet of conductor cable down an underground vault where one of the the explosions took place.

Olson said Edison would finish laying the conductor cables around midnight Monday, but would need until Tuesday afternoon to splice and connect them together.

“The entire insulation was melted… a significant reconducting and rebuilding is what we need to do,” Olson said.

This is not the first time that power outages in the summer have reportedly affected merchants around the Third Street Promenade, where old buildings aren’t equipped to handle the energy demands of new businesses, Olson said.

“It is important that people understand we do not have a problem with the amount of power, but in areas where distribution is a problem, we need upgrades,” he said.

While Edison has been proactively upgrading the infrastructure Downtown, the power giant needs help from local businesses to find problem areas, he said.

“We’re doing upgrades already, we’re not waiting for it to go bad, but sometimes its hard to predict,” he said. “If a consumer is using a significant amount of power in building, then they should coordinate with us.”

Jorge Casuso contributed to this report

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