A major blackout cut power in the eastern United States and parts of Canada on August 14, 2003. As of 4:10 pm ET, 21 power plants were shut down in just three minutes. Fifty million people have been affected, including residents of New York, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. Although power companies were able to resume some services in as little as two hours, electricity was cut elsewhere for more than a day. The blackout shut down trains and elevators and disrupted everything from cell phone service to hospital operations to traffic at airports. In New York City, it took more than two hours for passengers to be evacuated from stranded subway trains. Small business owners have been affected by the loss of expensive refrigerated inventory. The loss of use of electric water pumps has interrupted water service in many areas. There have even been reports of people stranded halfway on roller coasters of theme parks. On the New York Stock Exchange and bond market, however, trading was able to continue thanks to back-up generators.
Authorities quickly calmed fears among nervous Americans that terrorists may have been responsible for the blackout, but were initially unable to determine the cause of the massive blackout. US and Canadian officials pointed fingers at each other, while politicians took the opportunity to point out the major shortcomings of the region’s outdated electricity grid. Finally, an investigation by a joint Canada-US task force traced the problem to an Ohio company, FirstEnergy Corporation. When the company’s EastLake plant was unexpectedly shut down after overgrown trees came into contact with a power line, it sparked a series of issues that led to a chain reaction of outages. FirstEnergy has been criticized for poor line maintenance and, more importantly, for failing to notice and address the issue in a timely manner – before it affected other areas.
Despite concerns, there have been very few reports of looting or other blackout-inspired crimes. In New York, the police department, in full force, actually recorded about 100 fewer arrests than average. In some places, citizens have even taken it upon themselves to mitigate the effects of the blackout, helping elderly neighbors or helping to direct traffic in the absence of functioning traffic lights.
In New York City alone, the estimated cost of the blackout was over $ 500 million.