New York's Grand Central subway station where in recent years some $75 million have been spent on improving lighting and electricity cabling. On Thursday, 14 August 2003, all lights went out and trains were left stranded between stations.

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This is an archived article published in August 2003
Initial investigations point to faulty
lines in Ohio as cause of blackouts

By news agencies

US and Canadian electricity experts are working to understand why the electricity blackouts of 14 August 2003 spread throughout the North-East and Midwest and into Canada, and were not contained. Michehl Gent, CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Council said that he was fairly certain that the problem started in Ohio.

Mr Gent stressed that the transmission system was designed to isolate problems such as those probably involving three electricity lines in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. “We are now trying to determine why the situation was not brought under control,” Mr Gent said at a news conference.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced the Department of Energy (DOE) had also dispatched teams of investigators to the North-East and Upper Midwest to begin on-site investigations into the cause of the power blackouts.

The Energy Secretary also said Canada and the US had agreed to establish a joint task force charged with identifying the causes of the blackouts which affected the both countries.

"Reliable electric power is the lifeblood of the economy for both the United States and Canada," Secretary Abraham said. "It’s more than just a personal convenience – it’s essential to the health and safety of the two countries’ citizens. We owe our citizens an explanation of this incident and an assurance that steps will be taken to address its cause."

Some 50 million people hit by
America’s worst power failure

New York/London/Toronto, 16 August 2003: More than 24 hours after 50 million people in the US and Canada were hit by North America’s worst electricity blackouts, power had not been restored to all the affected areas. The problem started on Thursday 14 August 2002 in mid-afternoon, when in large parts of north-eastern USA and in some areas of Ontario, Canada, lights went out, air conditioning ceased working, lifts stopped between floors and underground trains were left standing in pitch black tunnels.

The effects of the blackouts were particularly felt in cities like New York, Cleveland (Ohio), Detroit (Michigan) and Erie (Pennsylvania) as well as in many Canadian cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Niagara Falls. In the Canadian mining town of Sudbury some 100 miners were trapped underground until power could be restored.

Originally it was thought the problem was due to the breakdown of a power station in New York State or Ontario, Canada. But on Friday 15 August 2003, it emerged that the original problem may have begun in Cleveland, Ohio, and then spread within minutes to Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and to Ontario across the Canadian border. Investigators focused on a massive electrical grid that encircles Lake Erie, moving power from New York to the Detroit area, Canada and back to New York State. There had been problems with the transmission loop in the past, officials said.

The exact source and cause of the blackout led to bickering over the blame. Initial reports cited a lightning strike near Niagara Falls, followed by fingers pointing at Ohio, where officials pointed back at Canada and upstate New York. On Friday, one expert speculated the problem began in Michigan.

Particularly hard hit by the blackouts was New York City. When office buildings were evacuated shortly after four o’clock in the afternoon, the events of 11 September 2001 were on people’s mind. Many were convinced that terrorists had struck again. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hurried to TV cameras to tell his fellow citizens that there was no indication that an act of terrorism was to blame for a series of events nobody thought possible.

Whatever happened where, and while Canadians and Americans were blaming each other for the cause of the power blackouts, one thing is certain - America’s ageing electricity grid just could not cope. Energy experts point to electricity deregulation which made it unattractive for power generators to invest in new infrastructure. US President George W Bush, on a fund-raising trip in San Diego, California, at the time of the blackouts, called them a wake-up call. “I will order a review of why the cascade was so significant,” he said.

In New York, by midday, Friday, electric power was restored to some parts of the city’s five boroughs but New Yorkers had to commute to work without subway trains. In addition, many traffic lights only worked intermittently. By the time the evening rush hour started there was still no indication when subway trains would be running again.

On Thursday night, thousands of stranded commuters slept in bus and train stations rather than venture on long walks home. In one hotel guests had to sleep outside on the pavement because there was no electricity to operate its electronic room keys.

During the night from Thursday to Friday New York suffered 60 serious fires, mostly caused by people lighting candles in the dark.

Mayor Bloomberg asked essential workers to travel to work but urged non-essential workers to stay at home. “There are worse things than taking a summer Friday off from work,” he said. While many New Yorkers may have enjoyed a holiday Friday, the city’s two major stock exchanges, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Nasdaq, opened for trading as usual.

Michigan, with the cities of Detroit and Lansing, was also hard hit by blackouts. Some people in Detroit were warned to prepare for a weekend without power and advised not to go to work on Friday. The city’s 15 major car plants closed down until Monday 18 August 2003.

In Cleveland, Ohio, people faced a day without water because there was no electricity to pump it from Lake Erie.

While there were no reports of looting in US cities, some shops in Toronto were broken into after the onset of the blackouts. The city declared a state of emergency and directed that only its essential workers report for work on Friday. The City also asked businesses to permit non-essential personnel to remain at home. Toronto Zoo remained closed on Friday, while the Canadian National Exhibition delayed its opening until Saturday 16 August 2003.

US President, George W Bush. The President acknowledged that America's electricity delivery system needed to be modernised.

Statement by President Bush made on Thursday 14 August 2003:
Today our country, a major portion of our country, was affected by rolling blackout. Over 10 million people in Canada were affected, as well. And I have been working with federal officials to make sure the response to this situation was quick and thorough, and I believe it has been.

We're focused on two major things right now. One is to work with state and local authorities to manage the consequences of this rolling blackout. In my judgment, the governors and mayors of the affected states and cities have responded very well. We've offered all the help they need to help people cope with this blackout. And to this moment, they have said they've got the resources necessary to handle it. The emergency preparedness teams at the local level and the state level are responding very well.

I also want to thank the people in the affected cities and states for their calm response to this emergency. It has been remarkable to watch on television how resolved the people are about dealing with this situation, and I'm grateful for that. And I know their neighbors are grateful, as well, for the proper and calm response.

The other thing, of course, we're working on is to get electricity up and running as quickly as possible. And federal officials are working with state and local officials to get the electricity grid up and running. Our goal, of course, is to do this as quickly as possible. Obviously, the sooner we can get electricity up, the more normal people's lives will become.

One thing I think I can say for certain is that this was not a terrorist act. I've heard reports about a lightning strike in Niagara Falls, New York, and federal officials, of course, are investigating the veracity of that. We'll find out here what caused the blackout. But, most importantly, what we now need to do is fix the problem and to get electricity up and running as quickly as possible.

I was pleased to hear that many of the airports up east are beginning to have flights leave, and that's good. So, in other words, slowly but surely, we're coping with this massive national problem. Millions of people's lives are affected. I fully understand that their lives will not be normal for the short run, and hope that they continue to cope with this in a manner that they have done so far. I'm confident we can get things up and running as quickly as possible and people's lives will go back to normal.