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Massive Power Outage Hits 7 Western States

August 11, 1996|RICH CONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the second time this summer, a huge power failure hopscotched across much of California and six other western states Saturday, leaving millions trapped in airports, elevators and traffic snarls, and without water, phone service and air conditioners as temperatures soared.

There were no immediate reports of death or serious injuries, but the wildly random 3:45 p.m. blackout stretched from Oregon to the Mexican border and caused widespread chaos as police and fire departments in areas of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and Idaho were flooded with calls.

Much of the power was restored within an hour, but the blackout continued in some areas until after nightfall.

The cause of the failure appeared to be an interruption in a major power feed from the Northwest, triggering a chain reaction of outages that sped through power companies serving cities across the West. Officials said it was one of the largest outages on record and promised a vigorous investigation.

Los Angeles police went on a citywide tactical alert and day shifts were held over Saturday night. Units of the city fire department also were patrolling the city and units responded to dozens of reports of stuck elevators. Blaring fire alarms and broken water lines added to the havoc, said fire department spokesman Bob Collis.

"Traffic is a nightmare. They're just backed up everywhere. It's gridlock," said Bruce Metdors of the San Francisco Police Department Operations Bureau. All the officers on duty there were held over to the next shift. Traffic was backed up on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge.

It was the second major power failure in the West since early July. On July 2, a widespread outage affected California and 15 other western states.

Saturday's outage hit as wide swaths of the West endured near-record high temperatures. Curtis Brock of WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts to The Times, said the mercury topped 100 in eastern Oregon and the San Joaquin Valley, reaching 113 in Red Bluff. Boise, Idaho hit 104. "That's definitely unusual," he said.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spokeswoman Debra Sass said 40% of the 3.6 million people served by the DWP lost power, but that two hours later "the city of Los Angeles had virtually all its power restored."

The DWP warned that "there may be isolated areas" still affected, however, and that power could be lost occasionally as the system is restored.

"What caused it was a separation of the main transmission systems that feed the Southern California area," Sass said, as part of a huge power grid of the Western System Coordinating Council Network, which serves 59 million people in 14 western states and two Canadian provinces.

At John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, takeoffs of all flights to San Francisco and north of that city were canceled for a time, but other takeoffs and landings continued as the airport switched over to backup power, said airport spokeswoman Kathleen Campini Chambers. Elevators, escalators and baggage carousels were not functioning, causing major inconvenience for travelers. But the airport security computers and security checkpoints were operating.

"Obviously, we have made provisions for emergencies such as this," Chambers said. "Staff is working hard to make sure the airport continues to run in a successful manner during this emergency."

Local hospitals reported that patient care was not affected because of emergency generators, but there have been inconveniences.

"We're managing the best we can," said Matt Northern, a nursing supervisor at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana.

"It killed the air conditioner, it killed the lights and the computers," said Jack Murphy, manager of Dodsworth Bar & Grill on Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena. "We had to shut down, we couldn't do anything. We couldn't serve drinks because the soda guns didn't work."

The power came on there after an hour, although the traffic signals were still blinking on Colorado and Fair Oaks boulevards.

The power blackout caused delays on the Long Beach to Los Angeles Blue Line, leaving a crowd of about 2,000 riders waiting at the 7th Street station in downtown Los Angeles, said an MTA spokeswoman. Train operators were forced to run the trains manually, but no major problems were reported.

Traffic signals and stoplights were knocked out as delegates arrived for the Republican National Convention in San Diego, causing some tie-ups. But lights blazed uninterrupted inside the convention hall.

In restaurants and movie theaters near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, patrons were forced to exit buildings when the power went out.

Kerry Styles of Irvine was watching the movie "Trainspotters" and said, "The movie was getting good and all of a sudden the screen went black and the emergency lights went on. We didn't know what happened. We thought the film had broken."

A few minutes later, management informed the audience that the power was out and they were to leave the theater.

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