TOPICS > Politics

Blackout: Power Failure

August 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST


TERENCE SMITH: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed jubilant as he rang the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange this morning. Power was restored there about 6:00 A.M. It was one sign that things were it was one sign that things were returning to normal– slowly– in the city and elsewhere in Northeastern North America today after the biggest blackout in history. But at Times Square, the famous electronic billboards remained dark, and subway entrances were cordoned off, as officials said service may not resume today, forcing many city dwellers to get around on foot.

SPOKESMAN: Is this the way you usually commute?

WOMAN: No, I take a bus normally.

SPOKESMAN: Why not today?

WOMAN: There’s no buses and I have to get to work, so I can’t wait around, and there’s no cab service.

SPOKESMAN: So you have to walk?


TERENCE SMITH: Some commuters who couldn’t get home slept on the sidewalks last night. Some television studios went dark. CNN’s anchors, for example, were stationed in the street, transmitting via a satellite truck. There was no major looting, in sharp contrast to the city’s last major power failure in 1977 when the power went out for 25 hours. At a morning press conference, Mayor Bloomberg praised the city’s residents.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: In short, New Yorkers showed that the city that burned in the 1970s is now a very different place. This is a city that has the ability to overcome adversity, not succumb to it like we did back then.

TERENCE SMITH: The blackout hit New York City yesterday at 4:11 P.M. The neon lights of Broadway went out. Trains, planes and subways halted, and air conditioners cooling millions in the stifling summer heat shut down. Pedestrians swarmed New York’s streets and bridges. Hospitals operated on emergency generators. In all, the blackout affected tens of millions of people. Besides hitting much of New York state, it stretched east into Connecticut, south to the northwestern part of Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, west to Ohio and further west to Michigan, and north into Canada, where much of Ontario went dark. In Michigan, there was gridlock after two million people in an area stretching from Lansing to Detroit lost power and water. The auto industry was hit hard: 21 car manufacturing plants shut down. Water service had been restored in some areas but Detroit officials warned against drinking the water.

VICTOR MERCADO: The capacity of the plants right at this moment is not up to par. There are, even though there is full water, it is below the normal pressure that we give. So therefore it is in the best interest of everyone to boil the water for at least five minutes. Bring it to a boil, boil it for five minutes and then let it cool down again.

TERENCE SMITH: Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, asked everyone to be patient.

KWAME KILPATRICK: We know that this is a several-day process before we get back to normal. I don’t know how long it will take before power comes back up, quote, unquote, “power coming back up,” but we do have several days to improve some of the operational systems that were neglected over this period of time.

TERENCE SMITH: Cleveland experienced its worst water crisis ever. All of the city’s major pumping stations shut down overnight, affecting some 1.5 million people in the metropolitan area. Power was restored to much of Cleveland today, but water service was not. Ontario, with about ten million people, was the only province in Canada affected by the blackout. In Toronto, thousands of people spilled onto the streets from darkened office buildings and subway stations.

WOMAN: I was about to go on the subway in the tunnel.

REPORTER: Then what happened?

WOMAN: All of a sudden I saw this big blackout and everybody started running.

WOMAN: Please bear with us, and please bear with me. I’m having a bad day. I’m going eastbound to Main Street Station.

TERENCE SMITH: Power trickled back on today in parts of Canada, too, but a state of emergency continues in effect. For more, we’re joined by the lieutenant governor of Ohio, Jennette Bradley– she’s in Columbus; and Dennis Duggan, a columnist for “New York Newsday.” Welcome to you both. Governor Bradley, what is the latest now on both the water and the power situation in Ohio?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: Well, I’m very pleased to report that power has been restored to Ohio and water has been restored to the city of Cleveland. We are experiencing some planned blackout, rolling blackouts, but we’ve made significant progress. Yesterday around this time we had approximately 1.5 million citizens without water, power. Today we have less than 15,000 citizens without power.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you consider yourself back to normal, or is that overstating the case?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: Well not quite back to normal but obviously in much better situation than we were yesterday we can thank our calm citizens and all of our emergency response personnel for working through this crisis as well as energy company working through the night to restore power.

TERENCE SMITH: There were gasoline shortages in Michigan. Was that a problem in Ohio?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: No, it was not there. There were some difficulties but that was not our priority. The water shortage in Cleveland and providing support personnel for that.

TERENCE SMITH: And the mood of the people in Ohio, how did they manage?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: Well, they were very calm. I’m really glad that Ohioans responded the way I thought they would. They were very calm, they were very patient and helpful. Especially in the Cleveland area they are responding well to the power outage. There are some rolling blackouts and two-hour delays that’s going around in that particular area, but I think it’s management and– manageable and the people are going back to normal.

TERENCE SMITH: Dennis Duggan, we’ve seen the pictures out of New York but give us a little flavor of what it was like there this last twenty-six, twenty-seven hours.

DENNIS DUGGAN: This is the third blackout since 1965, and I’ve covered each of those blackouts. We had a fairly benign one in 1965 when I worked at the herald tribune. We had a very rough one in 1977 when I worked at News Day, and this one was more benign, I think, than anything else. It was really kind of interesting to see New Yorkers coming together as sweetly as they did. I hate to use the word sweetness in reference to New Yorkers, but basically the stoops along the West Village where I live were crowded with people. They were bringing out wine jugs and potato chips and dip and having a good time. I walked down to the Hudson River. People were sprawled over those new beautiful peers, enjoying themselves. All in all there, were no water shortages. We had constant assurance from the mayor of that somebody was in charge and things went pretty well.

TERENCE SMITH: You had a cocktail party for a while. But what about as it became dark, were people more apprehensive?

DENNIS DUGGAN: Absolutely. That apprehension, of course, began at city hall, and the at police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s office. He planned for terrorism, fearing that terrorists may take advantage of the dark even though they had not precipitated this event. That never happened. As the evening wore on, spirits began to get higher and higher. People stood outside of bars all along West Street and seemed to be having a great time. Nobody was cheating anybody. Nobody was charging $5 for a bottle of water, and people seemed to be generally taking care of themselves.

TERENCE SMITH: What about today? As the hours went on and of course it got hot again, did patience begin to wear thin?

DENNIS DUGGAN: Yes, my patience began to wear thin. It’s funny, when you pull the plug, the electronic plug, all this low tech stuff becomes very important in your life. Skateboards, bicycles, radio transistors. It changes everything in your mind. It’s confusing and it makes you kind of feel like you’re not being tended to. But eventually the lights came on at 4:00, so we generally went for 24 hours of trouble, which is about what happened in the last one.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Bradley, did you have any problem with looting or crime, particularly during the night time hours?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: I checked with the mayors of all of our affected cities in Ohio, and they said that the people were responding in a very good manner, no incidents that they needed to report. We did provide state highway patrol troopers to the city of Cleveland so that they could have relief from their law enforcement duties, but they are no longer needed. We still have our national guard deployed there for water distribution,, but we have not had any reports of looting or any increase in crime.

TERENCE SMITH: This instruction to people to boil the water that they, that is resuming, that is flowing now, how long is that suppose to last?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: It is my understanding they need to boil the water through Sunday.

TERENCE SMITH: And after that, do you think Ohio will be more or less back to normal?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: I’m hoping so. We’re looking at the rolling blackouts should end approximately 8:00 P.M. tonight. And we will still have our National Guard available for water if it should be needed. But we’re moving each day back to normal.

TERENCE SMITH: And then I suppose you begin asking the hard questions.

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: Well, we are. We are working with our public utilities commission. They have been documenting what went wrong nationally as well as what’s going right in Ohio. We think we have been able to respond very well, but we don’t have answers to the very hard questions that everyone has, and we will be participating in any federal investigation of this particular crisis.

TERENCE SMITH: Dennis Duggan, do you think the reaction in New York this time was different as a result of 9/11?

DENNIS DUGGAN: No question about it. I heard that time and again. People were trying to link the two together saying see, 9/11 is next month, is going to be two years, trying to suggest maybe that terrorists were behind this. But basically, I think the temperament of New Yorkers was forged in 9/11, so that they vent, as traumatic as it was to many people, to the elderly, to people trapped in subways, was all in all softened by the fact that we had been through the fire once before.

TERENCE SMITH: And Mayor Bloomberg, we saw a good deal of him on television over the last 24 hours. As a political columnist, how would you assess his performance?

DENNIS DUGGAN: Well, I give him high marks, Terry, because he’s a fellow who doesn’t like confrontations. He doesn’t like to confront politicians, Mother Nature or the kind of accident that we just went through. But it’s the kind of voice that you like to hear. It’s reassuring. He is calm, almost laconic and laid back. At a time like this, you sort of like that.

TERENCE SMITH: Yesterday evening he seemed to be suggesting that it was all going to be fine and power would be back on in a few hours. I wonder what were people saying about him as it got to be midnight and later.

DENNIS DUGGAN: I myself woke up about 4:00, I ran back to the porch and I turned everything on. And of course nothing happened. And I said I’ll get you for this Mayor Bloomberg.

TERENCE SMITH: Governor Bradley, that raises point, which is, as people turn the power back on and get the systems going, is that a moment of concern for overload?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: Well, yes. That’s a concern now. We are telling all people to conserve their energy and to be patient because we don’t want to overload the system. So everyone is very much aware of that.

TERENCE SMITH: And is that what the rolling blackouts or brownouts are about?

LT. GOV. JENNETTE BRADLEY: Yes, the utility company informed us that was necessary because they did not have the capacity for all of the utilities to be back online, so the planned rollouts have been in effect since 11:30 this morning. But they have been targeted so as not to have a major impact, water treatment plants, et cetera, et cetera. So by 9:00 tonight maybe they’ll have two more plants in operation and the rolling blackout will end.

TERENCE SMITH: Dennis Duggan, how long before New York, in your view, gets back to normal?

DENNIS DUGGAN: I think New Yorkers will get back in very quickly. This is a weekend coming up. People will be going to the beaches. It’s a good time for them to kind of reflect what happened this last day. Now we discover that we are a superpower with a third world electric grid. That’s a bit of a shocker. But I think all in all, you know we’re glad that it’s over. We are going to get on with our lives. We like to work and we like to mingling with other people socially without having to contend with darkness and lack of communication.

TERENCE SMITH: And transportation, Dennis Duggan, are planes flying? Are the subways up and running?

DENNIS DUGGAN: No, the subways are not up and running. It takes generally six to nine hours to get the subway up and running because they have to check out the integrity of the system — make sure everything is safe, the signals are safe, all the rest of it. Dennis Duggan, Governor Bradley, thank you both very much.