Ten years ago, 50 million people lost power. What have we learned since then?
Today marks the ten year anniversary of the 2003 Blackout that left some 50 million people in northeast United States without power. I have no "where I was when it happened" blackout story, because I was living in Lawrence, Kansas. But being new to New York, I'm finding the nostalgia interesting.
Here's the NYTimes article from that day:
A surge of electricity to western New York and Canada touched off a series of power failures and enforced blackouts yesterday that left parts of at least eight states in the Northeast and the Midwest without electricity. The widespread failures provoked the evacuation of office buildings, stranded thousands of commuters and flooded some hospitals with patients suffering in the stifling heat.
In an instant that one utility official called ''a blink-of-the-eye second'' shortly after 4 p.m., the grid that distributes electricity to the eastern United States became overloaded. As circuit breakers tripped at generating stations from New York to Michigan and into Canada, millions of people were instantly caught up in the largest blackout in American history.
Business Insider rounds up some "surreal photos"
WNYC remembers the sounds:
Sounds from the 2003 blackout, ten years ago today: http://t.co/b2Sl8gxT4v What was your experience?— WNYC (@WNYC) August 14, 2013
The Associated Press asked people to share their stories. Turns out, someone had the best sandwich ever during the blackout!
As he stepped off the bus, a volunteer handed him a bottle of water and pointed out a table spread with sandwiches for the electricity exiles. Before long, Strayton was eating lunch on another bus to his destination.
“It was slightly surreal, which is why I’ll never forget the whole thing,” he recalled. “Especially that pesto chicken sandwich.”
In classic Awl fashion, Alex Balk puts the 2003 in perspective, calling it "kind of lame" compared to the 2012 blackout following Superstorm Sandy. He also doesn't really care about your stories, but will listen:
Hell, toss in your 9/11 memories while you're down there! It makes no difference! It's just another one of those things where people nod politely and pretend to listen so they can wait until you're done and launch into their own stories.
Okay, so moving beyond the anecdotes, what did we learn from the blackout?
First, as Bryan Walsh at TIME notes, the blackout was a big deal:
But the blackout was a big deal, leading to at least 11 deaths and costing the economy some $10 billion. More important, the disaster underscored just how rickety our interconnected and jury-rigged electrical grid was — and how vulnerable it could be to disruption, both accidental and malevolent.
Could a similar blackout happen again?
Walsh says yes, but that it is less likely:
Thanks in part to $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money allocated toward the construction of a smart grid, utilities have been able to add hundreds of advanced grid sensors and millions of smart electrical meters, which help power companies keep near real-time tabs on the state of the grid. And it doesn’t hurt that power demand has remained flat or fallen over the past decade, as devices and appliances became more efficient and economic growth slowed down.
Back at TIME, Walsh notes the high costs of power outages and how the problem is getting worse:
In its report, the White House estimates that weather-related power outages have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion over the past decade. That can rise to $40 billion to $75 billion in years with extreme storms — like last year’s. With climate change likely making storms stronger and potentially more frequent — even as we crowd into coastal areas and become more dependent on constant electricity — the vulnerability of the grid will only increase.
We'll continue updating this post as more interesting reactions to the blackout come in.