Experts Ask How Blackout Spread Quickly - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

08/15/03 - New York, NY

Experts Ask How Blackout Spread Quickly


A massive power blackout retreated stubbornly Friday as power officials struggled to understand why the historic outage spread in minutes through the northeastern United States and southern Canada. Lights flicked on and air conditioners restarted for some, but millions of others baked in stuffy rooms.

Cleveland weathered its worst water crisis in history as the blackout shut all four major pumping stations. The pumps, which serve more than one million residents in the city and 20 suburbs, began operating Friday morning, but the National Guard tanked in 7,600 gallons of drinking water to help until taps flowed again.

In New York City, power was restored Friday morning to parts of all five boroughs and some suburbs, but millions faced a morning rush hour without subway service or many traffic lights and no timetable for full restoration of power.

"Today will also present challenges," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters. He asked essential city workers to come in but told nonessential counterparts to stay home and urged citizens to use judgment about working Friday.

"There are worse things than taking a summer Friday off from work," he said.

In Michigan, some customers may have to endure a weekend without electricity. Everywhere officials urged residents, businesses and travelers to cope with the inconvenience.

"This is truly one of the instances where we're all in this together," Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan said during a statewide address Thursday night. "So be calm, be supportive of your neighbor." State workers in Michigan's capitol, Lansing, were told to report to work Friday but in harder-hit Detroit to the east, they were ordered to stay home.

While terrorism was swiftly ruled out by President Bush and other officials, there was scant indication of what had caused the outage, which began on the cusp of Thursday's afternoon rush hour in Eastern cities.

There are indications it probably "started somewhere in the Midwest, perhaps Ohio," Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, said Friday on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America." Gent, whose nonprofit council was formed after the 1965 Northeast blackout to promote the reliability of the bulk electric systems, did not say what those indications were, but expressed confidence that terrorism was not involved.

The New York Independent System Operator, which runs the state's wholesale electricity market and monitors power usage, said it had detected a sudden loss of power generation at 4:11 p.m.

Kenneth Klapp, an ISO spokesman, said the problem was detected from information on power usage and transmission prior to, during and after the blackout. The ISO had not determined the exact location of the problem by early Friday.

More generally, industry and government experts blamed a system composed of interconnected grids that has not been upgraded to meet power demands.

The disruptions were as diverse as they were widespread.

A small explosion at the Marathon Oil refinery ten miles south of Detroit was blamed on the outage, which cut power to a pump, allowing a buildup of gasses that ultimately exploded in a smokestack. No one was hurt but police fearing additional explosions or possible release of toxic gas evacuated hundreds of residents from a one-mile radius around the refinery.

In New York City, thousands of stranded commuters were forced to sleep in bus and train terminals and even in the streets. Hundreds of out-of-towners at the Marriott Marquis slept on sidewalks because the hotel did not have a generator to power its electronic room keys.

In Cleveland, the loss of power wasn't the only problem. About 1.5 million residents faced a crisis because there was no electricity to pump water from Lake Erie. At least three Eastern suburbs were out of water and officials said Western suburbs could go dry.

About 540,000 customers in Ohio were without power, mostly in the Cleveland area.

In New Jersey, where more than one million homes and businesses lost power at the peak of the outage, all but 50,000 had been restored by 5:30 a.m. Friday and full service was expected a few hours later. Northern New Jersey commuter railroads and buses announced limited to full service Friday.

In Connecticut, where nearly 310,000 customers served by two power companies lost power, all but about 53,000 had service restored by early Friday.

But in New York, where early estimates had 80 percent of the state without power, the percentage only dropped to some 60 percent near midnight.

Despite the outages in Manhattan, New York's financial markets had no intention of shutting down.

The American Stock Exchange, New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq reported minimal interruption after the close of trading. All had backup power generators and said they planned to open Friday.

However, businesses from Manhattan through the Midwest were anxious about technical glitches and more power outages a day after the biggest blackout in U.S. history.

In San Diego, the president said, "slowly but surely we're coping with this massive, national problem," and added that he would order a review of "why the cascade was so significant."

Bush said he suspected that the nation's electrical grid would need to be modernized.

New York Gov. George Pataki praised his constituents for pulling together to help each other. While New Yorkers poured out of immobile subway cars, emerged from stuck elevators, began long walks home or rested in local establishments, one unidentified man saw beauty.

"You can actually see the stars in New York City," he said.

Anne Block, a law student in Lansing, Mich., said she used what little light was coming through a window to finish an exam at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

"We were taking an exam and boom, the lights went out. But I was determined to finish. I kept writing. I wanted an 'A.' There was no way I was going to stop writing my exam," she said.

Electric industry and government officials said the nation's power grid has needed major upgrades for years, but industry experts said there were three major obstacles in the way: the expense, environmental opposition, and people who didn't want power facilities near their back yards.

Both federal and state agencies, as well as congressional committees, are expected to investigate the blackout and try to determine why measures put in place to isolate grids and keep power disruptions from spreading failed to do so.

Law enforcement agencies were ready for any security problem.

In New York, police helicopters, boats and heavily armed teams of special counterterror officers moved into place at city landmarks and other sensitive locations, police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. Officials swiftly realized the power outage was not an act of terror, and they used so-called Atlas teams of officers to make sure no one took advantage of the blackout to commit terrorism, he said.

Officials in Detroit urged people to stay home during the night; nearby communities declared curfews to keep problems to a minimum.

Police in Mansfield, Ohio, spread into the streets to keep traffic flowing. "A lot of officers are out there trying to make sure nobody gets hurt, to try to cut down on the accidents," said jail officer Randi Allen.

The blackouts easily surpassed those in the West on Aug. 10, 1996, in terms of people affected. Then, heat, sagging power lines and unusually high demand for electricity caused an outage for four million customers in nine states.

An outage in New York City in 1977 left nine million people without electricity for up to 25 hours. In 1965, about 25 million people across New York state and most of New England lost electricity for a day.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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