Powering toward normal

Electrical power reappeared in parts of eight weary northern states yesterday, gradually undoing some of the nation's far-reaching blackout but leaving behind a tangled aftermath of failing water systems, stranded travelers and heightened worries about the condition of the nation's rickety power grid.

Millions of Americans and Canadians from Michigan to New England remained in muggy darkness for a second day, as government and utility officials struggled to understand and reverse the vast power collapse that rippled across a 9,300-square-mile area in less than 10 seconds Thursday.


Even in regions where power was restored, normality was tenuous, as officials wrestled with a creaky electrical infrastructure that critics say has not been significantly upgraded since the East Coast's last major blackout in 1977.

Several areas were under rolling blackouts, to counter the overwhelming demand from power-starved customers.


Workers made progress, however, restoring electrical power to well over half of the roughly 50 million people initially affected, according to regulatory officials.

More than 100 power plants, including 22 nuclear reactors, were shut down initially, but the scope of the crisis narrowed considerably yesterday. Toronto, Cleveland and New York City were coming back to life.

President Bush called the blackout "a wake-up call" and pledged to correct whatever deficiencies in the nation's power system the crisis reveals.

"The grid needs to be modernized; the delivery systems need to be modernized. We've got an antiquated system," Bush said.

"It's going to take a while, I think, but we will find out what caused the blackout, and we'll deal with it."

The cause of the power outage continued to confound utility officials, who focused their attention yesterday on an aging electric transmission loop that encircles Lake Erie. They acknowledged that a final determination could take weeks or more.

Industry officials had suggested early yesterday that the outage was triggered by a malfunction in Ohio but backed off that assessment later in the day. Focus on a lightning strike in upstate New York was also dismissed.

Power grid experts were admittedly perplexed.


"We never anticipated we could have a cascading outage" of this magnitude and speed, said Michehl Gent, chief of the North American Electric Reliability Council, the industry-sponsored organization charged with assessing the dependability of the nation's electric grids.

The impact of the blackout, meanwhile, continued to interrupt the procession of life through the darkened regions, closing office buildings, stalling commuter trains and clogging airports with re-scheduling travelers.

Phil Bird, 21, spent nearly eight hours traveling with two large suitcases and a backpack from New Jersey to Baltimore yesterday. His flight from New York to Paraguay was diverted to New Jersey and, after a trip into Manhattan and back, he finally boarded a train headed south.

Lydie Duverne-Polilat spent six hours traveling from Long Island, N.Y., to visit friends and family in Baltimore and said she had trouble even getting a cup of coffee before leaving New York.

"I was supposed to bring bagels," she said. "The place was completely shut down."

With temperatures approaching 90 degrees and air conditioners sidelined, heat emerged as one of the crisis' greatest demons. Some cities opened generator-driven "cooling centers" for sticky residents, and New York officials hooked up 600 sprinklers in parks across the city. Beaches in New York and Cleveland were closed, however, because of health concerns related to electric-powered sewage plants.


Despite the enduring blackout in some areas, few reports of looting or vandalism surfaced in the United States - a contrast to the 1977 New York blackout, during which more than 3,000 arrests were made. Police in Toronto and Ottawa reported making several dozen arrests during the blackout, many for smash-and-grab thefts.

At least one death in the United States was attributed to the crisis- a 40-year-old New York man who suffered a heart attack during an overnight fire. Two deaths in Canada were also linked to the outage, one from a traffic accident and another in a house fire.

In the Cleveland area, where all four pumps that funnel drinking water uphill from Lake Erie were incapacitated, more than 1.5 million residents had to rely on bottled water and 7,600 gallons of drinking water trucked in by the Nation Guard.

The pumps were restarted early yesterday but the flow was held to a trickle because of low water pressure.

Detroit also saw some restoration of power, though city officials warned that full service might not be back until tomorrow. And the American Automobile Association of Michigan warned that only five of 54 gasoline stations in the area were pumping gas because of the blackouts.

A small explosion at a refinery south of Detroit was attributed to the blackout, causing no injuries but forcing police to evacuate hundreds of residents who live within a mile of the blast.


Gasoline was also scarce in Toronto, where power to the financial district was restored but many businesses remained closed and public transportation was sporadic.

Despite the obvious effect that the blackout had on small businesses, restaurants and local services throughout the darkened areas, economists suspect that long-term impact will be scant - not even as noticeable as the effects of the February blizzard, which struck at a key time for retailers.

On Wall Street, where officials at the New York Stock Exchange were prepared to open trading with auxiliary power, electricity was restored by early morning. Mayor Michael Bloomberg rang the opening bell at 9:30 a.m.

The Nasdaq stock market, which had switched to generator power late Thursday, was fully operational. At the smaller American Stock Exchange, trading was delayed until just before the scheduled close because of the lack of air conditioning on its trading floor.

In Washington, meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said it had begun an investigation. Congress rejected measures last year that would have financed updates to the nation's power grids, and some analysts expect political fallout.

Bill Richardson, energy secretary during the Clinton administration, told reporters yesterday, "We're a superpower with a Third World grid. We have not imposed harsh reliability standards on utilities."


Sun staff writer Stacey Hirsh and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

By the numbers

A look at the biggest blackout in U.S. history:

States and Canadian provinces affected: Nine (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Ontario). An area with a population of roughly 50 million.

Power plants shut down: More than 100.

Seconds it took for outage to spread across region: Nine.


Deaths blamed on blackout: 1 in New York, 2 in Canada.

Main water pumping stations in Cleveland failed: All four.

Pages in yesterday's editions of Detroit Free Press and Detroit News: Eight.

Miles of New York subway track closed: 656.

New York City police officers on duty overnight: About 10,000.

- Associated Press