CBSN

Did Blackout Enlighten Officials?

Cars try to navigate their way through New York City during the nation's worst blackout, Aug. 14, 2003. It began with three power line failures in Ohio and began to cascade, eventually cutting off electricity to 50 million people in eight states and Canada.
AP
One year ago Saturday, a large swath of the Midwest and eastern United States was brought to a shuddering halt by the nation's worst ever blackout. Stoplights went dark. Trains stopped cold. Stranded commuters by the thousands were left wandering the streets of New York, drinking warm beer.

The blackout left 50 million Americans without power and cost billions of dollars. It also revealed glaring weaknesses in the nation's power grid and in emergency preparedness in hard-hit cities like New York.

A year later, utilities have made improvements such as trimming more trees and installing better computers and software to monitor problems in the power system. New York has spent millions of dollars on new high-tech gadgets to avert the chaos that followed the blackout.

But for New Yorkers like Christine Collins, not much has changed. She says last year's blackout wasn't so bad - so why stock up on flashlights and bottled water for the next one?

"It's just not something that I'm going to allot the time in my day to," said the 26-year-old chocolate shop manager, whose emergency preparedness consists of a handful of scented candles. "We walked around in complete darkness and went to bars and had warm beers. It was great."

Unlike New York's 1977 blackout, with its arson and looting, last year's blackout generated many fond recollections for New Yorkers.

"It was fun for me, man," said Johnston St. Louis, 41, as he walked home through Brooklyn this week. "I'm just not prepared. Take it as it comes."

Some New York restaurants are even holding blackout anniversary parties, with menus featuring all-black food and cocktails. Eighty people have made reservations to eat blackened swordfish, fettucine dyed in squid ink and a blackout cake by candlelight at a Brooklyn restaurant. Another eatery will serve, also by candlelight, blackened steak and "blackout cocktails" - martinis served with chocolate syrup and topped with pieces of chocolate.

Meanwhile, the city has completed, or is close to completing, most of three dozen improvements recommended by a task force that studied the city's response last year, according to Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg now has direct radio links to his agency heads if cell phones fail, as many did last August. The city also has issued special ID cards to vital employees of private firms, so they can move quickly across police lines to bring their companies back on line in a crisis.

Critics believe more can be done to prevent future blackouts, including stricter rules to ensure a more reliable power system. Some say the biggest obstacle to such changes is political bickering in Congress over the energy bill.

"That is probably the biggest gap out there. Every time it comes up, it kind of takes a back seat to tax breaks for the energy companies," said Robert Burns, senior research specialist for the National Regulatory Research Institute, an energy think tank based at Ohio State University.

The blackout led to a broad analysis by the utility industry and a joint U.S.-Canadian government task force of how electricity is transmitted and what could be done to minimize a repeat.

The task force largely blamed Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. for allowing a local power failure that started with line outages near Cleveland to spread in less than a minute to the East Coast and into Canada.

FirstEnergy has completed all but a few minor recommendations resulting from an eight-month study by the task force. The 46-point list recommended fixes to address the task force's findings that the Aug. 14 blackout should have been prevented and that communications problems, faulty equipment and inadequate training allowed outages to spread.

One of the most visible steps FirstEnergy has taken is removing trees and other vegetation near its 11,000 miles of power lines. One line outage at the blackout's start happened when the line sagged and brushed a tree.

FirstEnergy's stock price has surpassed pre-blackout levels and it recently agreed to settle lawsuits filed against it in the wake of the outage. FirstEnergy will have to pay $17.9 million of the $89.9 million settlement; insurance will cover the rest.

"We think they've made tremendous progress," said Ellen Vancko, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Council, which develops voluntary standards for utilities and grid monitors.

In the weekly Democratic radio address Saturday, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Congress must pass legislation to protect the nation's electricity grid if it wants to avoid repeats of the devastating outages that rolled across eight states last year.

"America is not a third-world country that can't guarantee power to its citizens. We are not a country without resources, technology or ingenuity," Cantwell said in the weekly Democratic radio address.

"But we are a country without mandatory rules for performance and coordination of our electricity grid, because Washington Republicans and their special interests refuse to do what's right for the country by passing new electricity rules that hold violators accountable."

Cantwell introduced legislation that aims to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authority to devise a system of standards for the reliable operation of the energy grid. Her measure is part of the energy bill stalled in the Senate; she has been unable to persuade majority Republicans to agree to consider it separately.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., introduced a similar measure in the House, but he has been unable to have the bill heard on the floor of the GOP-run House.

Important fixes in New York are taking time. A single ID card for the city's roughly 300,000 employees would allow quicker movement through restricted areas in emergencies. But it won't be ready before 2007, Bruno said. Many of the signal-boosting repeaters for emergency responders' radios lost power in the blackout after their batteries ran out. Some now have generators. Many do not.

"There's a lot left to be done," said Bruno. "We've got a long way to go."

Brooklynite Jennifer JaMallo, 19, is taking it easy.

"If you prepare, it's almost accepting the fact that it's going to happen again," she said.

What has JaMallo stashed away for the next crisis?

"Not a thing," she said.