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Massive Blackout Hits the East

Outage Felt From New York to Ottawa to Detroit; Terrorism Ruled Out

August 15, 2003|John J. Goldman and Walter Hamilton | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — An electrical malfunction plunged much of the northeastern United States and parts of Canada into a power blackout Thursday afternoon, sending anxious throngs into the streets in New York City, Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto and Ottawa and trapping thousands of people at airports, in elevators and on subways.

Nuclear power plants, caught without electricity needed to operate, shut down throughout the area. Prisons and hospitals switched to backup generators. Traffic signals blinked out. Stores closed because they had no lights or power for cash registers. Cellphone circuits jammed. People lined up at pay telephones, and many workers trudged home on foot.

As the blackout rolled across vast portions of the Northeast and southeastern Canada, officials estimated that it affected as many as 50 million people. Gov. George E. Pataki said half of the 19 million people in New York state were without power. Officials in Canada said as many as 10 million were affected there.

Canadian officials blamed the outage on lightning at an electrical plant near Niagara Falls, N.Y. But Brian Warner, an official at the New York Power Authority, denied that lightning had struck the facility and said the plant was operating. Other U.S. officials said they were investigating the possibility that the blackout was caused by a transmission problem from Canada.

"There is no evidence whatsoever of terrorism," New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told a news conference shortly after 6 p.m. EDT, two hours after the blackout struck. He said power in New York City "was starting to come back.... It will take a decent amount of time, hours, not minutes." By 10 p.m., up to 15% of the power in the city had been restored.

President Bush, during a stop in San Diego on a two-day visit to California, declared: "Slowly but surely, we're coping with this massive, national problem." He said he would order an investigation into why the blackout was so severe. Bush said he suspected that the nation's electrical grid needed to be modernized.

The blackout was the worst U.S. outage in seven years, almost to the day. On Aug. 11, 1996, high temperatures and overworked air conditioners caused an electrical failure that affected 4 million utility customers in nine Western states, stretching from Oregon into Mexico and as far east as Texas. That outage lasted up to 10 hours.

There were no early reports of hospitalizations in New York during Thursday's outage, Bloomberg said, despite the lack of air conditioning as Manhattan temperatures reached 88 degrees. Nor were there reports of significant fires or of "criminal activity of any size," the mayor said. "I expect everything to be back to business tomorrow."

Officials in other cities offered similar reports.

In Detroit, Glen Woods, a police spokesman, said: "The city is down, but we've seen no major problems whatsoever. People are just heading home." The worst thing officers encountered, Woods said, was an exceptionally long line at the border crossing to Windsor, Ontario.

Tunnels under the Detroit River connecting the two cities went dark for a while, Woods said, as did customs booths on both sides of the border.

The blackout started about 4:15 p.m., according to officials at the North American Reliability Council, an industry-supported organization that works to prevent power failures in the U.S. electrical grid.

"It's a grid, and if you've got a problem in one area, it can cascade like dominos into others," said a federal energy official in Washington. "The power grid east of the Mississippi is all one interconnection.... It can happen anywhere."

Among the first to react were air-traffic controllers, whose computer systems were switched to backup power. Nonetheless, hundreds of flights and thousands of travelers were delayed as major airports in the New York area and the Midwest shut down because they lacked electricity to run baggage conveyors, jetways and security screening machines.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration canceled all flights to Newark, La Guardia and John F. Kennedy airports for several hours, as well as flights to Cleveland. Other incoming flights were canceled at Toronto and Ottawa. By late Thursday, all six airports had resumed full operations.

In Detroit, only incoming Northwest Airlines flights were halted, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. In Chicago, American Airlines grounded its eastbound aircraft.

Planes were allowed to take off from affected airports if passengers and luggage had been screened, Brown said.

She said the airlines experienced no safety problems.

Chaos at Detroit International Airport showed how much air travel depends upon electricity. As night fell, only the control tower and runway lights -- both powered by generators -- were operating. Terminals, bathrooms, parking garages and security areas were dark.

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