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The Nation | BLACKOUT: THE RECOVERY

Midwest 'Electricity Highway' Might Be Source of Blackout

Segments of the grid in Ohio had problems shortly before the outage. Power is being restored, but several problems remain.

August 16, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Richard T. Cooper and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As power returned but nerve-jangling problems lingered, investigators focused Friday on the possibility that overloaded transmission lines on an "electricity highway" around Lake Erie had triggered Thursday's crippling power failure in the Northeast and Midwest.

Industry and federal officials said they had all but ruled out terrorist attack, computer hackers, lightning or the effects of 90-degree heat as causes of the outage that left as many as 50 million people without power.

Instead, investigators are struggling to understand why the transmission grid overloaded Thursday afternoon -- probably somewhere in the Midwest. Automated protective devices almost instantly shut down generating plants and distribution networks across a 9,300-square-mile area.

In one early sign of how the trouble might have started, utilities officials said that an hour before the main crash, a segment of the system in Ohio experienced problems and took itself off the grid. A half-hour later, a second segment in Ohio followed suit.

What happened next is not fully known, but it seemed clear that events inside the highly automated and computer-driven power system cascaded so quickly there was no time for operators to react.

"This whole event was essentially a nine-second event," said Michehl Gent, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council, or NERC, a private, standards-setting organization that oversees the transmission system.

As for why it happened, he said, "the final verdict could be months away."

Though electrical service had been restored to New York City and most blacked-out areas of the East Coast, the upper Midwest and southern Canada by Friday evening, problems continued to test the tempers and cooperative spirit of millions of people.

New York's subway system was slowly resuming service. Airline schedules were in shambles, with thousands of passengers still stranded. Officials in Detroit and Cleveland urged residents to boil drinking water because of possible contamination.

And officials warned that further rolling blackouts may occur before the still-fragile system returns to normal -- probably by early next week.

Politically, reaction to the crisis ranged from pride to finger-pointing.

Officials praised the lack of panic and disorder, as well as the effectiveness of emergency-response systems put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg lauded the orderly behavior of New Yorkers and the efficiency of firefighters and police officers. Friday evening, Consolidated Edison announced that power had been restored to 100% of the city.

"All 23 Broadway shows will be open," Bloomberg said, and the Mets played the Colorado Rockies at Shea Stadium.

Bloomberg said the city's water supply was safe and adequate, but he warned New Yorkers to stay away from the city's beaches, which were contaminated with unprocessed sewage during the outage.

In Washington, officials at the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Treasury and other agencies noted that federal systems kicked in quickly to provide communications, National Guard troops and other resources if needed by local authorities. However, such assistance mostly turned out to be unnecessary.

Treasury spokesman Rob Nichols noted that "the nation's financial infrastructure responded remarkably well. The bond markets were not disrupted. There were no major disruptions to the banking system. There was no loss of data."

At the same time, Friday brought new demands for investigations and reform. And politicians in the United States and Canada rushed to blame one another for failing to deal beforehand with the widely recognized weaknesses of the power system.

"This is 2003, and there is absolutely no reason for this to occur," Gerald D. Jennings, the mayor of Albany, N.Y., said in an interview on CNN. More cooperation is needed between state governments, Jennings said. "It's time they got into a room and decided" how to set priorities and address the problems.

Officials in the Canadian prime minister's office suggested that a fire at the Niagara-Mohawk power plant in Upstate New York might have been to blame. And Ontario's provincial premier, Earnie Eves, embraced the idea that the trouble started somewhere in the "upper Midwest."

In Congress, Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for failure to complete action on pending energy legislation that contains provisions dealing with the power grid.

President Bush, traveling in Southern California, described the blackout as "a wake-up call" for reform of an "antiquated" system. And the White House announced formation of a U.S.-Canada task force to probe the cause of the outage. It will be jointly chaired by U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal.

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