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Massive Blackout Hits Northeastern United States, Eastern Canada - 2003-08-15


A massive power blackout has struck the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. U.S. government officials have reassured a nervous public that terrorists are not responsible.

The blackout affected the most populous part of the United States as it sweltered in the August heat.

The outage shut nuclear power plants from New York all the way to Michigan in the midwest, trapped New York City dwellers in subways and others in the region in elevators. It drove New York workers out of stifling office buildings into the streets, many of them forced into a long walk home in blistering heat. Traffic lights also went out across the region as afternoon rush hour began, creating havoc on the streets and forcing police in many jurisdictions to spread out to direct traffic.

Air traffic also slowed as U.S. aviation authority temporarily halted flights to airports in New York, Cleveland, Ottawa, and Toronto.

With more than half of New York State's 19 million residents lacking electricity, state governor George Pataki declared an emergency.

To allay fears of terrorism, U.S. government and New York officials said the blackout was apparently a failure of the power grid. "There is no evidence of any terrorism whatsoever," said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. "For some reason or other, there was a power failure in northern New York or southern Canada. That cascaded down through the system and affected the power grid as far east as Connecticut, as far south as New Jersey, and as far west as Ohio."

But the exact nature of the power failure is in dispute. Canadian authorities say it was set off when lightning struck a power plant on the U.S. side of the border at Niagara Falls. But New York officials says the most likely cause was a problem in Canada.

The regional power grid was improved after widespread blackouts in 1965, 1977, and 1996, but Mr. Pataki says it did not work Thursday as it should have.

"We had this northeast outage back, I guess, in the 1960s and it wasn't supposed to happen again," he said. "It has happened again and there have to be some tough questions asked as to why."

President Bush, speaking to reporters in San Diego, California, says the national government will investigate the cause of the blackout. He was asked if the problem means the power grid is vulnerable to terrorism.

"We'll have time to look at it and determine if our grid needs to be modernized," he said. "I happen to think that it does and I have said so all along. But this is going to be an interesting lesson for our country and we'll have to respond to it."

Mr. Bush commended the calm response to the widespread power outage. Indeed, the behavior of New Yorkers Thursday was a sharp contrast to the 1977 blackout, which lasted a full day and led to a night of terror as civil disturbances and looting raged throughout the city. Mayor Bloomberg says people remained orderly this time.

"People are doing what you would expect them to do in New York City they are cooperating. With a lot of luck, we will look back on this and say, 'Where were you when the lights went out,' but nobody will have gotten hurt," he said.

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