Protecting Obama When the Lights Go Out

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Hugh Gentry / Reuters

President-elect Barack Obama meets with U.S. Marines on Christmas Day at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kailua

What happens when the President-elect is vacationing in your state and suddenly a major electrical outage occurs? Apart from the embarrassment, there's the immediate issue of security. On Friday night in Honolulu, Mother Nature took all of Barack Obama's power as the future First Family was one of 293,000 customers left in the dark by an electric storm that knocked out practically the entire island of Oahu. The $11 million rental property where Obama is staying lost power at 8:08 p.m., prompting a security scramble by Honolulu police, the Secret Service and the U.S. military.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann ordered the Honolulu police department to beef up patrols in the area around Obama's beachfront compound while the Hawaiian Electric Co. sent a portable generator to the home to ensure that Obama's family and staff were powered up. "We understand he's O.K. in his compound," said Hannemann, speaking Friday night. "Where he is staying has to be one of the most secure spots on the island." Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle said an undisclosed branch of the military provided communications equipment to Obama's security detail while the state's civil defense worked to ensure the generator was operating by 11:30 p.m. "We stayed until we were certain that he was all taken care of," said Lingle.

By noon Saturday, more than two-thirds of Oahu had power restored, 18 hours after the blackout started. The outage shuttered shopping malls and businesses and forced the Honolulu airport to cancel flights. Traffic signals went dark, leaving motorists crawling through streets with no lights. The Honolulu police department called in all available officers for duty, blanketing the island with a force of more than 1,300 men and women. Long lines formed at the few grocery stores with backup generators as residents shopped for candles, bottled water and ways to pass the time. "Power was restored to the residence during the 6 o'clock hour this morning," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt on Saturday. "The Obama family is grateful for the offers of assistance from local officials." (See pictures of Obama's family tree.)

Obama's welfare during the blackout, which lasted through the night and well into Saturday morning, was of major concern for many Oahu residents. Callers inquired about his safety during an emergency radio show on the one station that was able to broadcast on AM frequencies, and local radio personalities watched his compound from afar, searching for signs of light. "Right now, he's safer than he was before the lights went out," said Larry Price, a KSSK radio host, speaking to a caller asking about the President-elect. Some residents even worried that the blackout was part of a conspiracy to attack the President-elect while he vacationed on this island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

During a conference call with the local media on Saturday, Governor Lingle dispelled any talk of an elaborate plot to undermine the incoming Administration. The state and city had contact with Obama's team, and they expressed confidence and calm, she said. "There was never any talk like that from the civil defense headquarters," said Lingle, responding to a reporter's question. "It was thought to be something to do with a lightning strike."

It was a dark ending to a bright day for the Obama family, who spent Friday out and about on Oahu during their most public day since arriving home for the holidays on Dec. 20. At midday, Obama decided to take family and friends out for a dose of shave ice, a local refreshment, and a visit to Sea Life Park, a popular aquarium located on a rocky point near a lighthouse on Oahu's Windward side. Tourists who were inside showed pool reporters photographs they took of Obama and his group. Obama was wearing a casual cream-colored shirt tucked into olive shorts and sandals. The Obamas and friends were seen attending the dolphin show, tourists said, which featured dolphins and their trainers in a large tank overlooking the ocean. About five hours after they got home, the lights went out.

Saturday was more of the same, once the lights were back on. Obama, accompanied by his wife Michelle and Chicago friends Valerie Jarrett, Eric Whitaker and Martin Nesbitt, went to the Semper Fit Center for a morning workout. When Obama emerged at about 8:45 a.m., his Chicago White Sox cap worn backward, he briefly flashed the "shaka," a Hawaiian gesture that means everything from "hey there" to "hang loose."

Semper Fit is a gym at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, and Obama has made an effort to mingle with the Marines stationed there. Every morning but Christmas Day Obama has worked out at the facility, pausing afterward to greet the service members and their friends and family who gather near his motorcade to take pictures and shake his hand. On Christmas Eve, Obama greeted the crowd outside the gym with a hearty "Mele Kalikimaka!," Hawaiian for "Merry Christmas."

Before sitting down to a Christmas dinner of turkey and ham, Obama spent about an hour with more than 100 Marines in Andersen Hall at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Dressed in a blue shirt and dark slacks, Obama walked among the Marines at a dining facility on the base starting at about 4 p.m. Service members stood to greet Obama, smiled, posed for photographs, and some were able to coax a few autographs out of their incoming Commander in Chief. "I am especially pleased that President-elect Obama has gone out of his way during his family vacation to spend time with our men and women in uniform and to let them know how important they are to our nation," said Governor Lingle.

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