SPECIAL REPORT: Power outage - lots of questions, few answers

| 8/18/2003

The cause of the nation's largest power outage isn't known yet - early reports of a lightening strike at New York's Niagara Power plant were later dismissed, for example, but the effects of the outage in human terms were astounding.

The blackout was the most extensive in U.S. and Canadian history. It shut down at least 10 major airports and nine nuclear power plants in at least seven states and Canada's Ontario province and forced hospitals, prisons and emergency service providers to switch to generator power.

Trucks, planes and cars came to a halt; commuters and travelers couldn't get to their destinations, many slept on sidewalks; thousands were stranded on elevators and subways with no air conditioning; communities were asked to boil drinking water - not easy if you have an electric stove; cell phones didn't work; ATM's didn't work; sporting events were cancelled; production at auto plants shut down; food storage and distribution facilities were at risk; and for many businesses, commerce stopped.

At the federal level, officials scrambled to answer the big question - were terrorists responsible? President George Bush later said in a taped interview they were not.

But initially, New York City deployed anti-terrorism teams and other jurisdictions activated contingency plans to boost security. The Pentagon launched two F-16 fighter jets to patrol skies between New York and Washington and put other military aircraft on alert at eastern U.S. bases, defense officials said.

The incident spurred immediate calls for congressional investigations.

The stalled energy bill will surely get new attention when Congress reconvenes in September. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the nation has a "third world power grid," and predicted utility officials will explain to Congress why they overloaded the system and why they resist modernization.

At an Aug. 15 press conference, Bush said: "The nation's delivery system is old and antiquated…This is a good opportunity for us to analyze what went wrong. We don't know the cause, but we will. It's going to take a while to get the power up and running. For now, we must conserve."

A day after the outage, many communities began to get restored power, but the effort was spotty. In New York City, for example, power was restored on one side of some streets, but not the other side.

Meanwhile, it appears Detroit must endure the outage through the weekend. Officials at Detroit-based DTE Energy said the challenge of restarting the power grid from a standstill means they would slowly reconnect from the least- to the most-populated areas of the region.

"This is an operation that will take several days to get the system back to normal,'' Detroit-based DTE Energy Chairman Tony Earley Jr. said, as reported by the Detroit Free Press.

Perhaps New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg summed it up best: "You realize just how dependent we are on electricity."

-- by Dick Larsen, senior editor