Blackout teaches America lessons in crisis response

Some gaps in emergency procedures and communication remain, but calm cooperation by affected residents shows post 9/11 fortitude.

If there's one thing the Great Blackout of 2003 taught the nation, it's that the threat of terrorism has changed America.

The country is more prepared to deal with major disasters, both officially and as individual citizens.

At the same time, the power outage created a new urgency to assess in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's words, "what worked and what didn't." As the lights in the Northeast slowly flickered to life, it became clear that much did work, from individuals' calm, cooperative responses to the rapid scramble of emergency personnel in volunteer fire departments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But there's still too much that didn't operate as expected, from backup police radios to the fail-safes built into the US power grid.

In all, from the confusion and camaraderie in the dark, came a lesson in how far Americans have come and the challenges to be overcome. "Some parts of the response were very reassuring, you saw some things work really well," says Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But we're three weeks away from the two-year anniversary of Sept. 11, and we haven't made as much progress on those things as we need to."

Test for first responders

In Washington, Homeland Security Department officials rushed into a secure conference room to contact governors, intelligence agencies, and other sources. Within 45 minutes, they determined there was no evidence of a terrorist attack.

But just in case, the Coast Guard increased patrols on the Eastern Seaboard. The Pentagon launched two Air Force F-16 fighter jets to patrol the skies.

In New York City, meanwhile, Operation Atlas triggered automatically. Heavily armed police squads swarmed to critical buildings. Local police precincts became independent command-and-control nodes, allowing them to function without headquarters if necessary. Police got real-life run-throughs of evacuation drills, helping people to calmly exit subway tunnels and skyscrapers.

"They got police out rapidly. They made public statements that helped keep people calm," notes Mr. Lewis. All of which was good. But the incident also showed a few holes in cities' emergency-response fabric.

In New York, for instance, the 911 emergency-call system went offline several times. Police radios went down, too. Detroit dispatchers lost their computer system and had to write down details by hand and running notes out to officers on the street. In Cleveland, millions were left without running water. That meant nursing homes, for instance, had to use swimming-pool water to flush toilets and wash floors.

"It's not clear that people have thought about backup systems as much as they should have," says Lewis. In fact, he says, the incident as a whole shows cities and states must focus on three things: Mobile communications (cellphones and police radios), electrical power, and people-movers.

As the blackout hit, city streets in New York and elsewhere filled with people, providing an easy target for any would-be terrorists. Evacuating them quickly is key. Also, "If the main way to deal with fires and explosions is to spray water on them, you'd better be able to pump water," says Lewis.

Individuals: calm and coping

Through it all, ordinary individuals were quite calm, and a testament to their transformation was found in the calm, dark streets from New York's South Bronx to Detroit's 8-Mile. Neighbors sat on stoops, swapped stories and bottles of water, and looked out for the elderly man living alone upstairs. There was little looting and no rioting as in the blackout of 1977, when chaotic darkness became a metaphor for its urban decline.

Sociologists who speciliaze in disaster research weren't surprised at all by New Yorkers' orderly response to the blackout.

People who face crises, especially repeated ones, tend to respond in an altruistic fashion. It's the sort of culture that helps Californians, say, to smile at earthquakes, or Midwesterners to calmly go into tornado mode.

In New York, "9/11 may have strengthened that 'disaster subculture,' equipping people to better respond to disasters in the future," says Gary Webb, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. "The more experience a community has with disaster, the more resilient it becomes."

Many people, like Kirsten Gross, were worried the sudden power disruption was a result of terrorism. She was stuck at a wedding at hotel in Teaneck, N.J., when the lights went out, and she was frightened. "Even when we found out it wasn't terrorism, I still felt really vulnerable, because it showed what they easily could do," she says. "But you have to take things in stride now."

That, for George Patterson who works carrying a McDonald's sign on the corner of 42nd and Fifth Avenues, shows why this blackout was "terrible but wonderful." "Everyone cooperated," he says. "It was a big surprise to me there was no trouble, even if it was hard to get home. It shows you the world is coming together because of all the things that happened before the blackout happened."

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