Blackout Points Up Need
The lights are on, however tenuously in some areas, and now the finger pointing begins. While most of the blame for the power failure that blacked out most of the northeastern United States two weeks ago would seem to be laid at the feet of Akron, Ohio-based First Energy, a conglomerate whose failed alarm systems would appear to have been one reason the outage spread as far and as fast as it did, there’s more than enough blame to go around. According to reports state Public Service Commission officials are looking into why some upstate areas got power back sooner than New York City and environs. All 3.1 million Consolidated Edison customers in New York City and Westchester County were without power, some for as long as 26 hours.
New York City was definitely more severely affected than other areas by the blackout. The losses from canceled Broadway shows, darkened movie theaters, and postponed baseball games, to say nothing of spoiled food and lost productivity already number in the billions of dollars. If they are not compensated, many small businesses will be forced to close. While larger businesses, such as supermarkets owned by corporations have insurance at least in part, it is unavoidable that they seek to find some way to make up for their losses, most probably by passing along higher prices to their customers. No one in New York City was unaffected by this disaster, and everyone can expect to be afflicted to some degree by its consequences.
We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. After the first multi-state power outage occurred in 1965, intensive investigations were conducted. Supposedly the recommendations put forth by blue-ribbon panels to prevent or contain another such event were put into place, but 12 years later the catastrophic blackout of July 1977 struck New York City. Again, boards of inquiry and panels of experts investigated. Again, reports were written suggesting measures that could be undertaken to prevent another such catastrophic loss of power from recurring. The chairman of the mayoral commission that investigated the 1977 blackout noted last week that the commission’s recommendations and its 300-page report have been largely ignored during the ensuing 26 years. Reporters from a daily newspaper found the report where its authors rightly feared that it would end up, gathering dust on a shelf in the municipal archives. Not one of its recommendations has ever been implemented.
This is, indeed, a different era. There were many heroes—nurses at the Bellevue Hospital neonatal intensive care unit who "breathed" manually for a newborn infant after auxiliary power systems failed, a Housing Authority aide who stayed with 15 children at a community center in Brooklyn until the last child was picked up by parents more than 13 hours after the blackout started, civilians who had never in their lives directed traffic who took over at busy intersections. There were those who took advantage of the situation—some vendors charged $5 and upward for bottles of water that usually sell for $1.25 and in one notable instance a traffic enforcement agent ticketed cars on Manhattan’s Upper West Side while civilians directed traffic in his stead. (The agent claimed he didn’t know there was a blackout.) But while a spike in reported burglaries, actually looting incidents, occurred, the anarchy that swept the city after the 1977 blackout did not take place.
Whether it took place in a different era or not, the blackout of 2003 affected many states, and the problem clearly cries out for federal intervention. Energy bills are now in Congress; we are not immediately aware of their status in the legislative process. If they contain stipulations that would alter the sequence of events so that a power failure like that of August 13, 2003 is in large measure prevented, well and good. If such a provision is not in the pending legislation we urge that it be written in as soon as possible. We also urge President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom have experience in the energy industry, to apply their personal knowledge to this problem.
Most of what we know about electric power generation would leave a lot of room in a 40-watt light bulb. But we think that in this year 2003, at the start of the third millennium, it’s obvious that this city, this state or the nation should not be at the mercy of lightning strikes or the vagaries of malfunctioning alarm systems. We should not be subject to the whims of an electrical transmission system which would have seemed hi-tech at the time Thomas Edison first started his experiments, well over a century ago. We must make sure this never happens again.