TEXT ON SCREEN: August 14, 2003
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-14-03): BRIAN WILLIAMS: We are in the midst of what appears to be a colossal and history-making blackout.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-14-03):DAN HARRIS: people trapped in elevators in buildings. They have activated the emergency command center.
JARROD BERNSTEIN: Youre staggering, trying to take in as much information as you can.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-14-03): DAN HARRIS: Mayor Bloombergs advice is to go straight home.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS 8-14-03): TED KOPPEL: The subway system is down.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS 8-14-03): PETER JENNINGS: Ottawa is completely without power now.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-18-03): ANCHOR: The lightning-quick domino series of failures.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-15-03): WOMAN: Gotta go to the bathroom and you cant even go nowhere.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-15-03): REPORTER: 50 million people are thought to have lost power.
NARRATION: In 2003, a massive blackout struck major areas of the US and Canada and was perceived as a wake up call for the nation.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-15-03): BILL RICHARDSON: Weve got a real crisis in our grid and this is why, despite being a superpower, we have a grid that is comparable to a third world country and thats not right.
NARRATION: But have ten years of planning and preparation left us better off today?
MIKE KORMOS: I dont think you can ever say with 100 percent confidence we wont have a blackout.
THE DAY THE LIGHTS WENT OUT:
NORA MEAD BROWNELL (COMMISSIONER, FEDERAL ENERGY REGULATORY COMMISSION, (2001-2006): Electricity is really far more important than anyone realizes. We take it for granted, we flick the switch and it goes onbut it has to be in balance or the lights go out.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-14-03): TED KOPPEL: There has been a massive power outage throughout much of the Northeast, both of the United States and of Canada.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-14-03): DAN RATHER: Millions and millions of people were caught by surprise, when the electrical grid suddenly crashed.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-15-03): REPORTER: It shut down 100 power plants, from Ottawa down to Cleveland, and as far east as New York.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-15-03): REPORTER: The most immediate concern was for thousands believed to be stranded underground, in the dark, in the New York subway system or in elevators in skyscrapers.
JARROD BERNSTEIN (NYC OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, (2002-2007): The attacks of 9/11 were pretty fresh in everybodys mind, and the first thought on almost every New Yorker that I spoke tos mind was, Is this terrorism?
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-14-03): MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The police are saying that the evacuation procedures are working, people are calm, and that they are getting out.
NARRATION: A normal August afternoon had turned to crisis. Around 50 million people across the US and Canada were left without power.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-15-03): REPORTER: All of Clevelands water supply runs on electric pumps.
JANE CAMPBELL (MAYOR OF CLEVELAND, 2002-2006): My water commissioner said, The people in the Heights have water for three hours. I said, Water? I thought the electric was out. He said, Mayor, how do you think the water gets from the lake to the people in the Heights?
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-15-03): MAYOR JANE CAMPBELL: You can get along in the dark. You can get along in the heat. But water becomes a health and safety issue very quickly.
NARRATION: While terrorism was soon ruled out, there was a frenzied search to unravel the mystery behind the source of the blackout.
ARCHIVAL (ABC 8-15-03): PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We dont know yet what went wrong, but we will.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-14-03): DAN HARRIS: What were hearing on the radio is that there was some sort of incident in Ontario, Canada.
NORA MEAD BROWNELL: There was a lot of finger pointing.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-15-03):CARL QUINTANILLA: US officials initially accused a mishap at a Canadian utility plantthe mayor of Toronto fired back. MAYOR MEL LASTMAN: Tell mehave you ever seen the United States take blame for anything?
NARRATION: It took 29 hours for the power to be turned back on in most major cities, but the brief outage contributed to at least 11 deaths, and caused an estimated $6 billion in economic losses.
MICHAEL KORMOS (EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT OF OPERATIONS, PJM INTERCONNECTION): We were fortunate that the grid stayed up as it did and it didnt continue cascading any further.
NARRATION: Engineers spent months unraveling the cause of the blackout and traced it not to New York or Canada, but to a downed power line in Ohio.
JANE CAMPBELL: The theory was it was a tree in suburban Cleveland. And we were, like, What?
NARRATION: The official report later found it was a series of human and operational failures that set the blackout in motion. A downed powerline went unnoticed because the alarm system failed at the local power company, FirstEnergy, and soon other lines were overloaded.
JOHN FUNK (ENERGY & UTILITIES REPORTER, CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER): When the line overheated, it sagged, and as it sagged, it hit a tree that shouldnt have been in the right-of-way corridor.
NARRATION: Meanwhile, at the regional service operator, Midwest ISO, an employee had gone to lunch and forgot to turn back on the tool that monitored grid problems.
JOHN FUNK: As the grid in Ohio got less and less stable, with too much voltage over too few lines, power plants began to turn off and eventually it cascaded around the Lake Erie loop and all the way to New York.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 11-19-03): DAN RATHER: Investigators said today this nations worst power blackout was mostly the fault of the FirstEnergy Corporation of Akron, Ohio.
JOHN FUNK: FirstEnergy was busy trying to grow, trying to absorb other companies, and the report found that they had let many basic things go. That included tree trimming under these power lines. Their computers hadnt been upgraded. There was more than that.
NARRATION: FirstEnergy declined to speak with us, but has publicly said it implemented new safeguards. Many saw the blackout as emblematic of a wider problem one brought about by a lack of government oversight for years in the electric industry.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-8-04): ANCHOR: The standards are voluntary, and not enforceable.
NORA MEAD BROWNELL: Its like expecting your kids, when you walk out of the room and leave a pile of candy, not to help themselves unless youve said, There will be consequences if you grab that pile of candy.”
NARRATION: FirstEnergy was never fined for its role in the blackout. In 2005, Brownells agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was finally given the power to impose hefty fines, and has levied tens of millions of dollars in penalties since 2010. But fundamental issues remain.
JANE CAMPBELL: It still doesnt quite make sense to me that the grid was that vulnerable.
BYRON DORGAN (U.S. SENATOR, NORTH DAKOTA (1992-2011)): Its a big old system. When it started, you had a little local system. You had an electric power provider, a plant, a spider web of wires around the plant that served customers near the plant. Then, you put together a national system where you connect all those spider webs Its grown up over a long period of time and there just isnt one center or one organization or one entity thats in control of the whole system.
NARRATION: There have been improvements since the blackout, including those that allow power companies to better monitor usage. The goal is to use that information to redirect power across the nations grid in real time to stop blackouts before they start.
MICHAEL KORMOS: At some point, there may be a breakthrough where it becomes very efficient and effective to store energy, in that youll be able to shift energy uses to different parts of the day as one grid, as one system, and I think that will dramatically change how this industry is operated.
NORA MEAD BROWNELL: We have perhaps a trillion dollars that needs to be invested in the electric grid to bring it up to the speed we want it to be to serve the needs of this country. Were really living on our great-grandparents willing to spend money on roads, on bridges, on electric transmission lines. We havent done that in a long time, and we have to get real about that.
NARRATION: Massive blackouts continue to be a global problem. 15 million people lost power in Europe in 2006, 60 million in Brazil and Paraguay in 2009, and more than half a billion in India in 2012. Such events have fueled the imagination of TV writers, who have added their own twist.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, REVOLUTION): ACTOR: Its gonna turn off, and it will never, ever turn back on.
NARRATION: This may be fiction, but former Senator Dorgan, who worked for years on congressional energy committees, and recently wrote a novel speculating about a terrorist attack on the power grid, says the threat today is bigger than a few downed power lines.
BYRON DORGAN: We know from lots of anecdotal examples that the terrorists that use cyber-terror are very inventive. They know that if they could bring down an electric power grid system, that would cause really maximum damage. This is a big, big challenge for our country.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 10-11-12): LEON PANETTA: The collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a cyber-Pearl Harbor.
NARRATION: This week, more than 200 private and public energy companies will stage a large-scale mock blackout. No lights will go out, but the drill will test how government and utility workers would react if the grid went down.
BYRON DORGAN: If you bring down the electric power grid system in this country, and it stays down for any length of time at all, itll wreck the American economy. So weve got a lot at stake, and we better keep our eye on the ball.