Millions weather blackout without chaos

Monday, August 25, 2003

As the news spread across the North American continent that the lights were out in New York, Cleveland, Detroit and parts of Canada, an assumption was made.

It would be chaos. Pure chaos. Especially in New York City.

That idea wasn't totally without basis. Southeast Missourians hear about looting and rioting in bigger cities and are thankful we don't deal with that sort of madness here. We are happy to live in a place where neighbors help neighbors get through the tough times.

It turns out that New York is that kind of place too.

The blackout hit there at 4 p.m. EDT on Aug. 14, sending millions out of darkened homes and offices into the streets. It turns out the eight-state, two-nation blackout that left 50 million people without power started just south of Cleveland, where three transmission lines apparently failed. With all those states on the same power grid and the heat causing residents to use more electricity than usual, a chain reaction began.

It was the largest blackout in U.S. history.

Its victims, cut off from the outside world, didn't know what was going on. All they knew is that there wasn't going to be any air conditioning. The trains wouldn't run. Their cell phones wouldn't work -- the towers run on electricity.

They were stuck.

But instead of stealing and fighting, the New Yorkers took it well. People slept on the streets, the only place open and bearable in the heat, and woke up without being hurt or robbed. The only death in that city was of a 40-year-old man who had a heart attack during an overnight fire.

The biggest problem seemed to be in Canada's capital of Ottawa, where 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.

New Yorkers have been through a lot together these past two years. With the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks looming, they are reminded of how bad things can be. Perhaps a one-and-a-half-day blackout is nothing in comparison.

Missourians can be happy to know their neighborliness likely won't get such a test. Officials with AmerenUE, the state's largest power provider, say the state is in a good location: close to where the power is generated. The East must import power from far away, which means it's much more susceptible to breakdowns in the system.

In addition, Missouri is surrounded by power plants, whereas the East Coast can only have them on one side.

It's something to think about on these 90-plus-degree days when we run our air conditioners, dishwashers, ceiling fans, washing machines, hot water heaters, ovens and televisions without considering what makes that possible.

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