Learning From the Blackout

A lot went right, but much remains to be done

Last week's electricity blackout may have been the worst in North American history. But it taught several important lessons:

The training and planning of government officials at all levels since 9/11 paid off. In Washington, officials at the Department of Homeland Security manned their phones and soon determined the power outage was not a terrorist act. They quickly put the word out, helping calm the public. Before the situation became clear, F-16 fighter jets were quickly sent aloft to patrol the East Coast, just in case.

State and local officials evacuated skyscrapers and subways, called in off-duty police officers, rerouted traffic, and issued public advisories about drinking water. In many cases, officials from neighboring jurisdictions were in the same room when crucial decisions were made, ensuring better communication at the top.

Gaps in preparedness were still evident here and there. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Verizon pledged to get to the bottom of a few temporary failures of the city's emergency dispatch system. And no level of government should rest on its laurels. There is still work to do.

The public is better prepared for such disruptions than in the past. In New York's 1977 blackout, it didn't take long for looting and arson to break out. Not this time. New Yorkers, many of whom had vivid memories of that September day almost two years ago, calmly did what they had to do: walked miles home, slept at offices, spent the night on the street. Detroit, Cleveland, and other cities in the afflicted region - often facing worse situations than New York City - reported calm, with no spike in crime. Instead, neighbors pulled together, as they do when one of the Great Lakes region's notorious snowstorms strikes. The public's mental preparedness made all the difference.

Now citizens must cooperate in conserving energy wherever possible over the next few days, until the electrical grid is back to normal capacity.

Given the water problems that struck several Midwestern cities, people should stock more bottled water in the future. And sales of portable generators are likely to rise.

Politicians should hold their fire until the cause is clear. The quick finger-pointing by Canadian and American officials was unseemly. Canadians claimed a lightning strike in New York. Americans blamed a failure north of the border. Mouths on both sides have spouted too much of this cross-border vaudeville of late.

Officials still do not know the cause of the blackout, although Michehl Gent of the North American Electric Reliability Council says the initial power failures occurred in Ohio. That doesn't explain, however, how they overwhelmed safety systems and ricocheted through the grid, around Lake Erie and into New York. A joint US-Canadian team will investigate.

At the same time, safety systems did finally stop the runaway failures, which spared Boston, Providence, Quebec, and the Mid-Atlantic region. Nuclear power plants in affected areas shut themselves down without incident.

The US must invest more in electrical infrastructure to meet the growing demand for electricity. Outdated equipment may or may not have played a role in this drama, but the nation has too few generating plants and too few transmission lines to meet the need. Like it or not, the US population and consumer demand continue to grow - think of all those desktop computers that weren't there 20 years ago.

Yet the public shares a large portion of the blame for the current situation. Environmentalists and not-in-my-backyard groups ensnare in lawsuits any effort to build modern new generating plants and transmission lines - delaying them for years and adding to the costs. This drives away power companies and investors.

Then there's the argument over which kind of energy generation is "safest." People can find a reason to object to any fuel: Coal is too dirty; oil too politically risky; natural gas insufficient; nuclear power too dangerous; wind power too ugly, solar power too expensive. Power lines are unsightly.

In this environment, something has to give. Last Thursday between 3 and 4:30 p.m., something did.

A revised legal infrastructure is needed to help prevent a recurrence. In Washington, the House and Senate have passed competing energy bills. They must waste no time this fall in hammering out a law that addresses the problems the blackout uncovered.

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