Power on, problems persist

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Bouncing back from the largest blackout in U.S. history, cities from the Midwest to Manhattan restored power Friday to millions of people -- only to confront a second series of woes created in the aftermath of the enormous outage.

Electricity flowed in Cleveland on day two of the blackout, but water moved at a trickle. Times Square was once again the luminous center of Manhattan, but none of the subways were yet running. The lights clicked on in more than 1 million homes in Michigan, but gas remained in scarce supply around Detroit.

Some customers in the Cleveland area, upstate New York and New York City received the unkindest cut of all: Their power was restored and then turned off due to rolling blackouts needed to conserve electricity.

Officials in Michigan warned that the whir of air conditioners and the glow of televisions might not return until the end of the weekend as the cause of the massive outage remained a mystery. Canada and the United States formed a joint task force Friday to investigate what caused the blackout and how to prevent it from happening again.

The blackout washed across a huge slice of North America, knocking out service in parts of eight states and Canada in just nine seconds.

Wake-up call

President Bush, during a tour of a California national park, said part of the problem was "an antiquated system" to distribute electricity nationally.

"It's a wake-up call," Bush said. "The grid needs to be modernized, the delivery systems need to be modernized."

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he received a call from Bush offering congratulations on the city's handling of the crisis. Crime in the city was actually down overnight compared to an average evening, he said.

But the subway system remained paralyzed, while the two major commuter rail lines limped through Friday with sporadic service. The city's subways, which carry 5 million daily riders, won't return until at least today, Bloomberg said.

Late Friday, Consolidated Edison announced that all power had been restored to New York City. By then, though, some New Yorkers had already endured an outage longer than the 25-hour blackout of 1977.

The restoration of power was merely a tease for an unlucky swath of New York state and city, where the electricity crackled and then quickly ceased. Upstate utilities -- shortly after restoring power -- were ordered to initiate rolling blackouts as a conservation measure, with as many as 50,000 customers affected.

The call for conservation echoed across each state affected by the blackout. "Every light bulb matters today," said Long Island Power Authority chairman Richard Kessel. "If you don't turn them off, they will go off."

Despite plunging several of the nation's largest cities into darkness, the outage resulted in few reports of vandalism or increased violence. But there were at least two U.S. fatalities. A 40-year-old New York man suffered a heart attack during an overnight fire, and a 42-year-old woman in Connecticut died in a blaze sparked by a candle. Her husband and 10-year-old son were badly burned.

In Canada's capital of Ottawa, police reported 23 cases of looting, along with two deaths possibly linked to the blackout -- a pedestrian hit by a car and a fire victim. There were also reports of minor looting in Brooklyn and Detroit.

Officials in Michigan also blamed the power failure for a small explosion at a refinery about 10 miles south of Detroit. No injuries were reported, but hundreds of residents within a mile of the refinery were evacuated.

Unknown cause

As for the cause of the outage, which happened almost instantaneously around the Northeast at 4:11 p.m. EDT Thursday, officials remained in the dark.

Investigators focused on a massive electrical grid that encircles Lake Erie, moving power from New York to the Detroit area, Canada and back to New York state. There had been problems with the transmission loop in the past, officials said.

The exact source and cause of the blackout led to bickering over the blame. Initial reports cited a lightning strike near Niagara Falls, followed by fingerpointing at Ohio, where officials pointed back at Canada and upstate New York. On Friday, one expert speculated the problem began in Michigan.

"We have to know why this happened, how it happened," New York Gov. George Pataki said.

Cleveland workers were advised to stay home until noon on a day when temperatures climbed into the mid-80s. A few ignored the advice, strolling through near-empty streets.

"I have no water and no lights so I might as well come to work," said attorney Lori Zocolo, arriving at her downtown office at 5:30 a.m. in a T-shirt and shorts. Her biggest complaint: No water meant she couldn't brush her teeth.

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