August 14, 2003


An extraordinary power blackout hit steamy U.S. and Canadian cities Thursday, stranding people in subways, closing nine nuclear power plants from New York to Michigan and choking streets with workers driven from stifling offices.

Officials were looking at a power transmission problem from Canada as the most likely cause of the biggest outage in U.S. history, said a spokeswoman for New York Gov. George Pataki. There was no sign of terrorism, officials in New York and Washington agreed.

The article says 50 million people were affected. Seriously, though, this sort of thing happens with the electrical grid, for a variety of reasons that are hard to address. The key is to be prepared — which means emergency power for things that people really need.

I wonder why more traffic lights at vital intersections don’t have backup power? It seems to be a question of cost — five to ten thousand dollars each — but it seems like it would be worth it to prevent the kinds of massive traffic jams we’ve seen. Heck, even a half-hour of backup would help get the roads cleared.

UPDATE: Here’s more on that problem, suggesting that doing something about traffic signals might help:

In scenes no doubt repeated throughout the affected area, the city’s wide avenues turned into rivers of pedestrians as people swarmed through gnarled traffic in streets devoid of traffic signals. Traffic agents gamely tried to keep people and machines separated.

Of course, in New York you’ve also got the problem of subways and trains without power.

UPDATE: But Susanna Cornett reports:

Lights are coming back bits and pieces in New Jersey, apparently faster than in NY. Traffic is not being allowed into Manhattan from New Jersey; Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and GW Bridge are out only.

People are standing on the street corners in Manhattan, some for hours, to get out into the outer boroughs. Buses are on their regular routes, and some are passing passengers empty, causing some anger. You’ll probably hear more about that.

There’s probably a good reason for that, but you can’t blame people for being upset.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Warren Cheney emails:

While it would be counterproductive to regale you with Power Outage Stories, I will pass along the info that while the Canadian government and CNN are reporting that the cause of said failure is due to a lightning strike upon the Niagara Falls power complex, WBEN radio has been reporting that the local office of the National Weather Service and their Canadian counterparts at Environment Canada can’t seem to find any sort of lightning strikes in the area short of, say, Chicago.

Local residents were asking, “Lightning? Here? Wha?” seeing that we just got rid of the weather system that could have produced said lightning a day or three ago…

Not that I’m surprised about this…

This lightning strike map certainly doesn’t show anything near Niagara.

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