Northeast blackout of 2003

Northeast blackout of 2003
States and provinces that experienced the blackout; not all areas within these political boundaries were affected.

The Northeast blackout of 2003 was a widespread power outage that occurred throughout parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada on Thursday, August 14, 2003, just before 4:10 p.m. EDT (UTC−04).[1] At the time, it was the second most widespread blackout in history, after the 1999 Southern Brazil blackout.[2][3] The blackout affected an estimated 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight U.S. states.

Immediate impact

NOAA satellite imagery one day before and the night of the blackout.

According to the New York Independent System Operator (or NYISO) – the ISO responsible for managing the New York state power grid – a 3,500 MW power surge (towards Ontario) affected the transmission grid at 4:10:39 p.m. EDT.[4] From then through about 4:40 p.m. EDT, outages were reported in Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, New York City, Westchester, Orange and Rockland, Baltimore, Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton, Albany, Detroit, and parts of New Jersey, including the city of Newark. This was followed by other areas initially unaffected, including all of New York City, portions of southern New York state, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and most of Ontario, Canada.[5] Eventually a large, somewhat triangular area bounded by Lansing, Michigan, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, the shore of James Bay, Ottawa, New York, and Toledo was left without power. According to the official analysis of the blackout prepared by the US and Canadian governments, more than 508 generating units at 265 power plants shut down during the outage. In the minutes before the event, the NYISO-managed power system was carrying 28,700 MW of load. At the height of the outage, the load had dropped to 5,716 MW, a loss of 80%.[4]

Within the area affected, about 200,000 people – in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, the easternmost corner of Ontario (centred on Cornwall), the portion of New York state including parts of Albany and north and west of Albany, a small pocket of mid-east Michigan, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and small pockets in New Jersey – continued to have power. The unaffected area was protected by transmission circuit devices at the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations in Niagara Falls, at a switching station of the hydroelectric power station in Cornwall, as well as central New York state. Philadelphia and the surrounding mid-Atlantic areas were also completely unaffected because PJM disconnected them.[4]

Essential services remained in operation in some of these areas. In others, backup generation systems failed. Telephone networks generally remained operational, but the increased demand triggered by the blackout left many circuits overloaded. Water systems in several cities lost pressure, forcing boil-water advisories to be put into effect. Cellular service was interrupted as mobile networks were overloaded with the increase in volume of calls. Major cellular providers continued to operate on standby generator power.[citation needed] Television and radio stations remained on the air, with the help of backup generators, although some stations were knocked off the air for periods ranging from several hours to the length of the entire blackout.[vague]

It was a hot day (over 31 °C or 88 °F) in much of the affected region, and the heat played a role in the initial event that triggered the wider power outage. The high ambient temperature increased energy demand, as people across the region turned on fans and air conditioning. This caused the power lines to sag as higher currents heated the lines.

In areas where power remained off after nightfall, the Milky Way and orbiting artificial satellites became visible to the naked eye in metropolitan areas where they cannot ordinarily be seen due to the effects of particulate air pollution and light pollution.[6]

Most of the interstate passenger rail transport North-East Corridor service was interrupted, as it uses electric locomotives; electrified commuter railways also shut down.[5] Via Rail in Canada was able to continue most of its service. The power outage's effects on international air transport and financial markets were widespread.[vague] The reliability of the electrical grid was called into question.

Media coverage and official reports

In the United States and Canada, the regional blackout dominated news broadcasts and news headlines beginning August 15. U.S. and Canadian broadcast media pre-empted normal programming in favor of full-time, advertising-free coverage of the unfolding story. Once terrorism had been conclusively ruled out as a cause, many stations switched back to normal programming following an 8:30 p.m. EDT address by President George W. Bush.[7] National news stations, such as CBC and CNN, continued to cover the story by inviting politicians and electrical experts to discuss the situation and suggest ways to prevent blackouts. Internationally, coverage of the story focused on the development of the situation in the New York City metropolitan area.[citation needed]

Statements made in the aftermath

During the first two hours of the event, various officials offered speculative explanations as to its root cause:

  • Official reports from the office of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien stated that lightning had struck a power plant in northern New York, resulting in a cascading failure of the surrounding power grid and wide-area electric power transmission grid. However, power officials in the State of New York responded by stating that the problem did not originate in the United States, that there was no rain storm in the area where the lightning strike was supposed to have taken place, and that the power plant in question remained in operation throughout the blackout.
  • Canadian Defence Minister John McCallum blamed an outage at a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, but that state's authorities reported that all the plants were functioning normally. McCallum later stated that his sources had given him incorrect information.
  • New York state Governor George Pataki blamed the power outage on Canada, stating "the New York independent systems operator says they are virtually certain it had nothing to do in New York state. And they believe it occurred west of Ontario, cascaded from there into Ontario, Canada, and through the northeast."[8] This was later proven to be false.
  • CNN cited unnamed officials as saying that the Niagara-Mohawk power grid, which provides power for large portions of New York and parts of Canada, was overloaded. Between 4:10 and 4:13 p.m. EDT, 21 power stations throughout that grid shut down.[5]
  • New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who formerly headed the Department of Energy, in a live television interview 2 hours into the blackout characterized the United States as "a superpower with a third-world electricity grid." In Europe, this statement was published accompanied with comparisons highlighting the tighter, safer and better interconnected European electricity network (though it would suffer a similar blackout six weeks later).
  • In the ensuing days, critics focused on the role of electricity market deregulation for the inadequate state of the electric power transmission grid, claiming that deregulation laws and electricity market mechanisms have failed to provide market participants with sufficient incentives to construct new transmission lines and maintain system security.[who?]
  • Later that night, claims surfaced that the blackout may have started in Ohio up to one hour before the network shut down, a claim denied by Ohio's FirstEnergy utility.[citation needed]
  • The president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation said that the problem originated in Ohio.[9]
  • By Saturday morning, investigators believed that the problem began with a sudden shift in the direction of power flow on the northern portion of the Lake Erie Transmission Loop, a system of transmission lines that circles Lake Erie on both U.S. and Canadian soil.[citation needed]



Electrical power cannot easily be stored over extended periods of time, and is generally consumed less than a second after being produced. The load on any network must be matched by the supply to it and its ability to transmit that power. Any overload of a power line, or underload/overload of a generator, can cause hard-to-repair and costly damage, so the affected device is disconnected from the network if a serious imbalance is detected.

As power lines carry more current, they get hotter. This causes them to lengthen and sag between towers. They may safely reach a specified minimum clearance height above the ground. If the lines sag further, a flashover to nearby objects (such as trees) can occur, causing a transient increase in current. Automatic protective relays detect the high current and quickly act to disconnect the faulted line from service. To maintain the lines' specified operating clearance, the right-of-way must be kept clear of vegetation.

Should a fault occur and take a line out of service, the change in current flow is compensated by other transmission lines, which must have enough spare capacity to carry the excess current. If they do not, overload protection in those lines will also trip, causing a cascading failure as the excess current is switched onto neighbouring circuits running at or near their capacity.

System operators are responsible for ensuring that power supply and loads remain balanced, and for keeping the system within safe operational limits such that no single fault can cause the system to fail. After a failure affecting their system, operators must obtain more power from generators or other regions or "shed load" (meaning cut power to some areas) until they can be sure that the worst remaining possible failure anywhere in the system will not cause a system collapse. In an emergency, they are expected to immediately shed load as required to bring the system into balance.

To assist the operators there are computer systems, with backups, which issue alarms when there are faults in the transmission or generation system. Power flow modeling tools let them analyze the current state of their network, predict whether any parts of it may be overloaded, and predict what the worst possible failure left is, so that they can change the distribution of generation or reconfigure the transmission system to prevent a failure should this situation occur. If the computer systems and their backups fail, the operators are required to monitor the grid manually, instead of relying on computer alerts. If they cannot interpret the current state of the power grid in such an event, they follow a contingency plan, contacting other plant and grid operators by telephone if necessary. If there is a failure, they are also required to notify adjacent areas which may be affected, so those can predict the possible effects on their own systems.

Local operators are co-ordinated by regional centers, but the operating principle is the same whether the network is large or small.

Investigation efforts

A joint federal task force was formed by the governments of Canada and the U.S. to oversee the investigation and report directly to Ottawa and Washington. The task force was led by then-Canadian Natural Resource Minister Herb Dhaliwal and U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

In addition to determining the initial cause of the cascading failure, the investigation of the incident also included an examination of the failure of safeguards designed to prevent a repetition of the Northeast Blackout of 1965. Issues of failure to maintain the electrical infrastructure, failure of upgrading to so-called "smart cables," failure of shunting and rerouting mechanisms, AC vs. DC intersystem ties, and substitution of electricity market forces for central planning were expected to arise. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a joint Canada-U.S. council, is responsible for dealing with these issues.

On November 19, 2003, U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said his department would not seek to punish FirstEnergy Corp for its role in the blackout because current U.S. law does not require electric reliability standards. Abraham stated, "The absence of enforceable reliability standards creates a situation in which there are limits in terms of federal level punishment."[10]


In February 2004, the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force released their final report, placing the causes of the blackout into four groups:[11]

First, that FirstEnergy and its reliability council "failed to assess and understand the inadequacies of FE’s system, particularly with respect to voltage instability and the vulnerability of the Cleveland-Akron area, and FE did not operate its system with appropriate voltage criteria".

Second, that FirstEnergy "did not recognize or understand the deteriorating condition of its system".

Third, that FirstEnergy "failed to manage adequately tree growth in its transmission rights-of-way".

Finally, the "failure of the interconnected grid’s reliability organizations to provide effective real-time diagnostic support."

The report states that a generating plant in Eastlake, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) went offline amid high electrical demand, putting a strain on high-voltage power lines (located in a distant rural setting) which later went out of service when they came in contact with "overgrown trees". The cascading effect that resulted ultimately forced the shutdown of more than 100 power plants.

A preliminary report says four or five capacitor banks in the Cleveland-Akron area were removed from service for government inspection, including capacitor banks at Fox and Avon 138-kV substations. These reactive power sources are important for voltage support, but were not restored to service that afternoon despite the system operators’ need for more reactive power compensation. The normal practice is to inspect in off-peak seasons, but government officials demanded the inspection when inspectors were available. The final report does not mention this government demand. The lack of reactive power compensation caused the protective relay trip that brought the system down. The same thing also caused the 1965 blackout.

This trip caused overloading of other transmission lines, tripping their relays. Once these multiple trips occurred, multiple generators suddenly lost parts of their loads, so they accelerated out of phase with the grid at different rates, and tripped out to prevent damage.

Computer failure

A software bug known as a race condition existed in General Electric Energy's Unix-based XA/21 energy management system. Once triggered, the bug stalled FirstEnergy's control room alarm system for over an hour. System operators were unaware of the malfunction; the failure deprived them of both audio and visual alerts for important changes in system state.[12][13] After the alarm system failure, unprocessed events queued up and the primary server failed within 30 minutes. Then all applications (including the stalled alarm system) were automatically transferred to the backup server, which itself failed at 14:54. The server failures slowed the screen refresh rate of the operators' computer consoles from 1–3 seconds to 59 seconds per screen. The lack of alarms led operators to dismiss a call from American Electric Power about the tripping and reclosure of a 345 kV shared line in northeast Ohio. Technical support informed control room personnel of the alarm system failure at 15:42.[14]

Sequence of events

The following is the blackout's sequence of events on August 14, 2003[15][16][17] (times in EDT):

  • 12:15 p.m. Incorrect telemetry data renders inoperative the state estimator, a power flow monitoring tool operated by the Indiana-based Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator (MISO). An operator corrects the telemetry problem but forgets to restart the monitoring tool.
  • 1:31 p.m. The Eastlake, Ohio generating plant shuts down. The plant is owned by FirstEnergy, an Akron, Ohio-based company that had experienced extensive recent maintenance problems.[specify]
  • 2:02 p.m. The first of several 345 kV overhead transmission lines in northeast Ohio fails due to contact with a tree in Walton Hills, Ohio.[18]41°21′22″N 81°34′10″W / 41.35611°N 81.56944°W / 41.35611; -81.56944[citation needed]
  • 2:14 p.m. An alarm system fails at FirstEnergy's control room and is not repaired.
  • 3:05 p.m. A 345 kV transmission line known as the Chamberlin-Harding line fails in Parma, south of Cleveland, due to a tree.
  • 3:17 p.m. Voltage dips temporarily on the Ohio portion of the grid. Controllers take no action.
  • 3:32 p.m. Power shifted by the first failure onto another 345 kV power line, the Hanna-Juniper interconnection, causes it to sag into a tree, bringing it offline as well. While MISO and FirstEnergy controllers concentrate on understanding the failures, they fail to inform system controllers in nearby states.
  • 3:39 p.m. A FirstEnergy 138 kV line fails in northern Ohio.[19]
  • 3:41 p.m. A circuit breaker connecting FirstEnergy's grid with that of American Electric Power is tripped as a 345 kV power line (Star-South Canton interconnection) and fifteen 138 kV lines fail in rapid succession in northern Ohio.
  • 3:46 p.m. A fifth 345 kV line, the Tidd-Canton Central line, trips offline.
  • 4:05:57 p.m. The Sammis-Star 345 kV line trips due to undervoltage and overcurrent interpreted as a short circuit. Later analysis suggests that the blackout could have been averted prior to this failure by cutting 1.5 GW of load in the Cleveland–Akron area.
  • 4:06–4:08 p.m. A sustained power surge north toward Cleveland overloads three 138 kV lines.
  • 4:09:02 p.m. Voltage sags deeply as Ohio draws 2 GW of power from Michigan, creating simultaneous undervoltage and overcurrent conditions as power attempts to flow in such a way as to rebalance the system's voltage.
  • 4:10:34 p.m. Many transmission lines trip out, first in Michigan and then in Ohio, blocking the eastward flow of power around the south shore of Lake Erie from Toledo, Ohio, east through Erie, Pennsylvania and into the Buffalo, New York metropolitan area. Suddenly bereft of demand, generating stations go offline, creating a huge power deficit. In seconds, power surges in from the east, overloading east-coast power plants whose generators go offline as a protective measure, and the blackout is on.
  • 4:10:37 p.m. The eastern and western Michigan power grids disconnect from each other. Two 345 kV lines in Michigan trip. A line that runs from Grand Ledge to Ann Arbor known as the Oneida-Majestic interconnection trips. A short time later, a line running from Bay City south to Flint in Consumers Energy's system known as the Hampton-Thetford line also trips.
  • 4:10:38 p.m. Cleveland separates from the Pennsylvania grid.
  • 4:10:39 p.m. 3.7 GW power flows from the east along the north shore of Lake Erie, through Ontario to southern Michigan and northern Ohio, a flow more than ten times greater than the condition 30 seconds earlier, causing a voltage drop across the system.
  • 4:10:40 p.m. Flow flips to 2 GW eastward from Michigan through Ontario (a net reversal of 5.7 GW of power), then reverses back westward again within a half second.
  • 4:10:43 p.m. International connections between the United States and Canada begin failing.
  • 4:10:45 p.m. Northwestern Ontario separates from the east when the Wawa-Marathon 230 kV line north of Lake Superior disconnects. The first Ontario power plants go offline in response to the unstable voltage and current demand on the system.
  • 4:10:46 p.m. New York separates from the New England grid.
  • 4:10:50 p.m. Ontario separates from the western New York grid.
  • 4:11:57 p.m. The Keith-Waterman, Bunce Creek-Scott 230 kV lines and the St. Clair-Lambton #1 230 kV line and #2 345 kV line between Michigan and Ontario fail.
  • 4:12:03 p.m. Windsor, Ontario and surrounding areas drop off the grid.
  • 4:12:58 p.m. Northern New Jersey separates its power-grids from New York and the Philadelphia area, causing a cascade of failing secondary generator plants along the Jersey coast and throughout the inland west.
  • 4:13 p.m. End of cascading failure. 256 power plants are off-line, 85% of which went offline after the grid separations occurred, most due to the action of automatic protective controls.


Major cities affected
City Number of people affected
New York City and surrounding areas 14,300,000
Greater Toronto Area (Golden Horseshoe) 8,300,000
Newark, New Jersey and surrounding counties and suburbs 6,980,000
Detroit and Surrounding Areas 5,400,000
Cleveland and Greater Cleveland 2,900,000
Ottawa 780,000 of 1,120,000*
Buffalo and Surrounding Areas 1,100,000
Rochester 1,050,000
Baltimore and Surrounding Counties 710,000
London, Ont. and Surrounding Areas 475,000
Toledo 310,000
Windsor 208,000
Estimated Total[20] 55,000,000

*Ottawa-Gatineau is a special case in that it is divided by a provincial boundary and the Ontario and Quebec grids are not synchronously connected. Gatineau had power. One may have seen the drastic cutoff of areas still having power when they were crossing the Portage Bridge between Gatineau and Ottawa - the cutoff was at the provincial line (street lights on the bridge were still lit on the Quebec side of the structure.)

A streetcar left stranded by the blackout in Toronto

Affected infrastructure

Power generation

With the power fluctuations on the grid, power plants automatically went into "safe mode" to prevent damage in the case of an overload. This put much of the nuclear power normally available offline until those plants could be slowly taken out of "safe mode". In the meantime, all available hydro-electric plants (as well as many coal and oil fired plants) were brought online, bringing some electrical power to the areas immediately surrounding the plants by the morning of August 15. Homes and businesses both in the affected area and in nearby areas were requested to limit power usage until the grid was back to full power.

Water supply

Some areas lost water pressure because pumps lacked power. This loss of pressure caused potential contamination of the water supply. Four million customers of the Detroit water system in eight counties were under a boil water advisory until 18 August, four days after the initial outage. One county, Macomb, ordered all 2,300 restaurants closed until they were decontaminated after the advisory was lifted. Twenty people living on the St. Clair River claim to have been sickened after bathing in the river during the blackout. The accidental release of 140 kg (310 lb) of vinyl chloride from a Sarnia, Ontario chemical plant was not revealed until five days later. Cleveland also lost water pressure and instituted a boil water advisory. Cleveland and New York had sewage spills into waterways, requiring beach closures. Newark, New Jersey and northern cities had major sewage spills into the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, which flow directly to the Atlantic Ocean. Kingston lost power to sewage pumps, causing raw waste to be dumped into the Cataraqui River at the base of the Rideau Canal.


Amtrak's Northeast Corridor railroad service was stopped north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and all trains running into and out of New York City were shut down, initially including the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad; both were able to establish a bare-bones "all-diesel" service by the next morning. Canada's Via Rail, which services Toronto and Montreal, suffered service delays, but most routes were still running, and normal service was resumed on most Via routes by the next morning.

Passenger screenings at affected airports ceased. Regional airports were shut down for this reason. In New York, flights were cancelled even after power had been restored to the airports because of difficulties accessing "electronic-ticket" information. Air Canada flights remained grounded on the morning of August 15 due to reliable power not having been restored to its Mississauga control center. It expected to resume operations by midday. This problem affected all Air Canada service and canceled the most heavily traveled flights to Halifax and Vancouver. At Chicago's Midway International Airport, Southwest Airlines employees spent 48 hours dealing with the disorder caused by the blackout's sudden incidence.[21] Many gas stations were unable to pump fuel due to lack of electricity. In North Bay, Ontario, for instance, a long line of transport trucks was held up, unable to go further west to Manitoba without refueling. In some cities, traffic problems were compounded by motorists who simply drove until their cars ran out of gas on the highway. Gas stations operating in pockets of Burlington, Ontario, that had power were reported to be charging prices up to 99.9 cents/litre ($3.776 per US gallon) when the going rate prior to the blackout was lower than 70 cents/litre. Customers still lined up for hours to pay prices most people considered unjustified by the blackout. Station operators claimed that they had a limited supply of gasoline and did not know when their tanks would be refilled, prompting the drastic price increases.

Many oil refineries on the East Coast of the United States shut down as a result of the blackout, and were slow to resume gasoline production. As a result, gasoline prices were expected to rise approximately 10 cents/gallon (3 c/L) in the United States. In Canada, gasoline rationing was also considered by the authorities.


Cellular communication devices were disrupted. This was mainly due to the loss of backup power at the cellular sites where generators ran out of fuel or cell phone batteries ran out of charge. Wired telephone lines continued to work, although some systems were overwhelmed by the volume of traffic, and millions of home users had only cordless telephones depending on house current. Most New York and many Ontario radio stations were momentarily knocked off the air but were able to return with backup power.

Cable television systems were disabled, and areas that had power restored (and had power to their television sets) could not receive information until power was restored to the cable provider. Those who relied on the Internet were similarly disconnected from their news source for the duration of the blackout, with the exception of dialup access from laptop computers, which were widely reported to work until the batteries ran out of charge.

The blackout impacted communications well outside the immediate area of power outage. The New Jersey-based internet operations of Advance Publications were among those knocked out by the blackout. As a result, the internet editions of Advance newspapers as far removed from the blackout area as The Birmingham News, the New Orleans Times Picayune, and The Oregonian were offline for days.[22]

Amateur radio operators passed emergency communications during the blackout.[23]


Large numbers of factories were closed in the affected area and others outside the area were forced to close or slow work because of supply problems and the need to conserve energy while the grid was being stabilized. At one point a 7-hour wait developed for trucks crossing the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor due to the lack of electronic border check systems. Freeway congestion in affected areas affected the "just-in-time" supply system. Some industries (including the auto industry) did not return to full production until 22 August.


Incidents of looting were reported in Ottawa–Orléans and in Brooklyn, New York.

By region

New York, United States

People walking in New York City during the blackout

Almost the entire state of New York lost power. Exceptions include Freeport and Rockville Centre on Long Island, which relied on localized power plants; the Capital District, where power dipped briefly but returned, (a few areas of which, such as portions of Latham, NY, never lost service during the entire event); the southernmost areas of the Southern Tier of Upstate New York, mostly near Waverly, which relied on power from Pennsylvania; the city of Plattsburgh; Starrett City, Brooklyn, which has auxiliary power; most of the city of Buffalo; and pockets of Amherst in the Buffalo area, running off university power. There were also some small pockets of power in the suburbs of Rochester, as a few smaller power companies operating in those areas were able to keep running. The North Shore Towers complex was unaffected by the blackout due to their on-site self-generating power plant. Power was also available at the Kodak Park facility and its surrounding neighborhood in the city. Power was lost at the Oak Hill Country Club, in nearby Pittsford, New York, where the PGA Championship was being played, which caused minor interruptions to the tournament. Also, that evening's Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium was postponed. In New York, all prisons were blacked out and switched to generator power. The two Indian Point nuclear reactors on the Hudson River near Peekskill, the two reactors at Nine Mile Point nuclear plant, the single reactor at Ginna nuclear plant near Rochester, and the FitzPatrick reactor near Oswego all shut down. With three other nuclear plants shut down in Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey, a total of nine reactors were affected. The governor of New York state, George Pataki, declared a state of emergency.

Manhattan, including Wall Street and the United Nations, was completely shut down, as were all area airports (with the exception of Newburgh's Stewart Airport, which had once been a military airbase and had its own generators), and all New York area rail transportation including the subway, the PATH lines between Manhattan and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit's Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast lines between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station, the Morris & Essex Lines between New York Penn Station and Newark Broad Street, the Metro-North Railroad, and the Long Island Rail Road. Hundreds of people were trapped in elevators; by late evening the New York City Fire Department had reportedly confirmed that all stalled elevators in approximately 800 Manhattan high-rise office and apartment buildings had been cleared. More than 600 subway and commuter rail cars were trapped between stations; the NY State Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—which operates the PATH lines—reported that all passengers were evacuated without serious injury. However, PATH was first to resume subway service on Sixth Avenue (albeit on 15-minute headways) by 6PM that evening.

Without traffic lights, gridlock was reported as people in lower and midtown Manhattan fled their offices on foot; for hours into the evening the streets, highways, bridges and tunnels were jammed with traffic and pedestrians leaving Manhattan, though many civilians opted to help direct traffic. The bus journey from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. (which normally takes four hours) took more than eight hours, with reports that it took four hours just to get out of Manhattan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised residents to open their windows, drink plenty of liquids to avoid heat stroke in the heat, and not to forget their pets. Temperatures were 92 °F (33 °C) with high humidity, as New York had just experienced a record-breaking rain spell that had started at the end of July. With cell phone operation mostly stalled by circuit overloads, New Yorkers were lining up 10 deep or more at pay phones as ordinary telephone service remained largely unaffected.

While some commuters were able to find alternate sleeping arrangements, many were left stranded in New York and slept in parks and on the steps of public buildings. While practically all businesses and retail establishments closed down, many bars and pubs reported a brisk business as many New Yorkers took the opportunity to spend the evening "enjoying" the blackout. Since most perishable items were going to spoil anyway, many restaurants and citizens simply prepared what they could and served it to anyone who wanted it, leading to vast block parties in many New York neighborhoods. Any ice cream in frozen storage also had to be quickly served to any and all passers by. The Indigo Girls were scheduled to perform that evening at Central Park SummerStage, and the band took the stage as planned to play one of the only shows in the affected area, using generators that had been filled with fuel that morning. Their performance was not a full-length concert, as they needed to end early to allow all attendees to exit Central Park before dark. The venue also had bathrooms and vendors cooking food on propane grills.

40,000 police and the entire fire department were called in to maintain order. At least two fatalities were linked to the use of flames to provide light, and many nonfatal fires also resulted from the use of candles. New York City's Office of Emergency Management activated its Emergency Operations Center, from which more than 70 agencies coordinated response efforts, which included delivery of portable light towers to unlit intersections, generators and diesel fuel to hospitals, and a portable steam generator necessary to power air conditioning units at the American Stock Exchange.

Verizon's emergency generators failed several times, leaving the emergency services number 9-1-1 out of service for several periods of about a quarter hour each. New York City's 311 information hotline received over 175,000 calls from concerned residents during the weekend. Amateur radio operators attached to New York City ARES provided a backup communications link to emergency shelters and hospitals. Amateur radio repeaters were supplied with emergency power via generators and batteries and remained functional.

Many major U.S. networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX) and some cable TV networks (such as HBO, MTV, and Nickelodeon) were unable to broadcast because of the lack of electricity in the New York City area, but back-up stations in Dallas and flagship transmitters there made it possible for prime-time television to be broadcast. (ABC chose instead to cover the news from Washington, D.C. during the blackout).

For delayed effects at Niagara Falls, see below under Ontario.

New Jersey, United States

Affected areas included most of Hudson, Morris, Essex, Union, Passaic and Bergen Counties, including the major cities of Paterson and Newark, although some sections of Newark and East Orange still had power; also, small sections of certain towns in Essex and Hudson Counties had power. Power was returned first to the urban areas because of concerns of safety and unrest. Counties as far south as Cumberland were affected, but power was restored within an hour. Some towns in Bergen County saw only a momentary dropout in power, but did see wild oscillations in powerline voltage, ranging from about 90V to 135V, up and down every few minutes for an hour.[citation needed]

The day following the blackout, August 15, the New Jersey Turnpike stopped collecting tolls until 9:00 a.m.

Baltimore, United States

The outage affected many households and businesses in Baltimore City and all of the surrounding counties including Baltimore County. Flights were canceled and rerouted at the airports in the Baltimore-Washington area. Flights were canceled at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), Washington Dulles International Airport, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Connecticut, United States

Parts of New London, Hartford, New Haven, Litchfield and Fairfield Counties, from Greenwich to Danbury and Bridgeport, were affected, although most of the state had power all evening, aside from a few momentary interruptions that caused computers to reboot. Metro North trains stopped, and remained on the tracks for hours, until they could be towed to the nearest station. Generally, most of the state east of Interstate 91, and some places west of I-91, had power during the duration of the blackout, with some of New Haven's eastern suburbs being seen as the easternmost extreme of the effects of the blackout.

A local controversy ensued in the days after the blackout, when the federal government ordered power companies to energize the HVDC Cross Sound Cable between New Haven and Long Island. This cable had been installed, but had not been activated due to environmental and fisheries concerns. The Attorney General of Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, and the Governor of New York, George Pataki, traded insults over the cable. Connecticut politicians expressed their outrage that the cable was being turned on, since it did not help anyone in Connecticut, as the cable would transport power from Connecticut to Long Island.

Massachusetts, United States

A small area of extreme western Massachusetts was affected. In Worcester the event was of sufficient magnitude to reboot some computers, while in Springfield the effect of the event was enough to cause the automatic startup of commercial and industrial backup generation facilities. Some areas were subjected to lower-than-normal voltage and brownouts for periods of up to 24 hours. The Boston area was spared from the Blackout.

Michigan, United States

About 2.3 million households and businesses were affected, including almost all of Metro Detroit, as well as Lansing, Ann Arbor, and surrounding communities in southeast Michigan. The blackout affected three Michigan utilities; Detroit Edison (whose entire system went down), Lansing Board of Water and Light, and a small portion of Consumers Energy's system in the southeastern corner of the state. Word quickly spread to the surrounding areas without power and many flocked to surrounding areas that still had power, resulting in crowded stores, packed restaurants, booked hotels, and long queues for the gas stations in these towns. Locales closest to the affected areas in the northern Detroit suburbs that did not lose power included the areas of Oxford and Holly, communities along M-24 and M-15, and into the Lapeer and Flint/Tri-Cities area.[citation needed] The city limits of Brighton and Howell were unaffected as well. Television and radio stations were temporarily knocked off the air and water supplies were disrupted in Detroit due to the failure of electric pumps. Because of the loss of water pressure all water was required to be boiled before use until August 18. Several schools which had planned to begin the school year 18 August were closed until clean water was available. A Marathon Oil refinery in Melvindale, near Detroit, suffered a small explosion from gas buildup, necessitating an evacuation within one mile (1.6 km) around the plant and the closure of Interstate 75. Officials feared the release of toxic gases. Heavy rains on Friday coupled with the lack of sewage pumps closed other expressways and prompted urban flood warnings. Untreated sewage flowed into local rivers in Lansing and Metropolitan Detroit as contingency solutions at some sewage treatment plants failed. In the midst of a summer heat wave, Michiganders were deprived of air conditioning. Several people, mostly elderly individuals, had to be treated for symptoms of heat stroke. In the Detroit area, local television stations' news helicopters were told by each station's management to "stay above the cars' headlights" at night, and to not venture into Downtown Detroit (due to the hazard of flying into an unlit skyscraper). During the days immediately after the blackout, many stations were back on the air, but with limited resources (in one case, WXYZ-TV's news anchor was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, as opposed to his normal news suit, and apologized to viewers for the "rather warm conditions" in the station, as they only had one air conditioner and a couple fans working). The Downriver Communities would also have to contend with basements flooded with sewage-laden water on the weekend immediately after the blackout, with water and sewage pumps off from a lack of power, much to the general annoyance of residents in the areas. News crews of the areas broadcast notices during their coverages of the blackouts to the Downriver residents, explaining why the pumps have shorted out, as well as to limit water usage ("most places have water pressure, some have low pressure...some have none, and some even have negative pressure. That means in the next few hours, people in the downriver communities should expect flooded basements from, so move all your valuables high up and out of the basements", as WDIV-TV warned). West Michigan, including the communities of Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland, was mostly unaffected.

Ohio, United States

Over 540,000 homes and businesses were without power. In Cleveland, water service stopped because the city is supplied by electric pumps and backup electricity was available only on a very limited basis and water had to be boiled for several days afterwards. Portions of the cities of Akron, Mansfield, Marion and Ashland were without power. Cleveland declared a curfew on all persons under the age of 18. At Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, park employees had to help guests walk down the steps of the 200-foot (60 m)-tall Magnum XL-200 rollercoaster, which had stopped on the lift hill due to the blackout. In Toledo, the Mud Hens baseball team postponed the game scheduled for that night. However, some parts of the city were unaffected by the blackout, notably the suburb of Sylvania. Other surrounding cities like Bowling Green only experienced a brief outage.

Ontario, Canada

Toronto, Ontario, on the evening of August 14
Volunteers received fluorescent jackets from the police to direct traffic in Toronto, Ontario during the blackout
Toronto Union Station during the blackout

The area affected by the blackout included all of Southern Ontario, except Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, from Windsor to Ottawa and all the way to the Quebec border. Also affected was Northern Ontario, as far north as Attawapiskat and Moosonee on James Bay and west to Marathon on the Lake Superior shoreline. Communities affected in northern Ontario included Timmins, Cochrane, Sudbury, Kirkland Lake, North Bay, Wawa, and Sault Ste. Marie. Most of Northwestern Ontario (including Thunder Bay) was not affected.

Traffic lights, the Toronto subway and RT, Toronto streetcar system, the Toronto Stock Exchange, and CBC's studios were shut down in Toronto. The CBC switched to its backup studios in both Calgary and Vancouver for coverage, because newsgathering in Toronto was extremely difficult. The Toronto studios were only run by UPS systems. Many passengers had to be evacuated from subway trains by walking through the tunnels. Major Toronto hospitals reported that they had switched to generators and did not experience problems. The 9-1-1 system was operational. Highway 407, the world's first all-electronic toll highway, was gridlocked with passengers hoping to get a free ride.[citation needed] Parliament Hill was evacuated in Ottawa.

Toronto officials asked residents to curtail unnecessary use of water, as pumps were not working and there was only a 24-hour supply.

Traffic lights, which had no backup power, were all knocked out. All intersections were to be considered an all-way stop. Coupled with the beginning of the evening rush hour, this caused traffic problems. In many major and minor intersections in both large and small cities, such as Ottawa, Toronto, and Burlington, ordinary citizens began directing traffic until police or others relieved them. Since there were not enough police officers to direct traffic at every intersection during the afternoon rush hour, passing police officers distributed fluorescent jackets to people who were directing traffic. Drivers and pedestrians generally followed the instructions from them even though they were not police officers.[2]

Fierce disruptions of truck traffic in northeastern Ontario were reported due to the unavailability of fuel, including the backlog near North Bay. The tunnel and bridge between Windsor and Detroit were also closed, with the bridge's pillars illuminated by emergency floodlights, as to not pose a shipping and airplane hazard.

About 140 miners were marooned underground in the Falconbridge mine in Sudbury when the power went out. Mine officials said that they were safe and could be evacuated if necessary, but were not being evacuated due to the risks of doing so with no power. They were safely evacuated by the morning. In Sarnia, a refinery scrubber lost power and released above-normal levels of pollution; residents were asked to close their windows.

On the evening of August 14, Ontario premier Ernie Eves advised Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman to declare a state of emergency, instructing nonessential personnel not to go to work on Friday, August 15. Residents were asked not to use televisions, washing machines, or air conditioners if possible, and warned that some restored power might go off again. Although the full state of emergency was lifted the next day (a Saturday), residents were warned that the normal amount of power would not be available for days, and were still asked to reduce power consumption. The roof of the Skydome in Toronto remained open in an effort to conserve power until August 21, when a thunderstorm struck.

The Toronto Transit Commission operated its streetcars on the Friday, but not on the weekend, and did not reactivate the subway and RT until Monday, August 18, after assurances were received that they would be exempted from any rotating blackouts that might be needed.

Major events such as concerts were canceled for several days, and the opening of the Canadian National Exhibition, scheduled for August 15, was postponed to Tuesday, August 19.

For two days of this recovery period, diversion of water from the Niagara River for hydroelectric generation was increased to the maximum level, normally used only at night and in winter in order to maintain the scenic appearance of Niagara Falls. The resultant drop in the river level below the falls meant that the Maid of the Mist tour boats could not dock safely, and their operation had to be suspended.

The Petro-Canada refinery in Oakville had to perform an emergency shutdown due to the lack of power. The plant's flare system produced large flames during the shutdown, leading to erroneous reports in the media that there had been a fire in the plant.[citation needed] The Petro Canada lubricants plant in Mississauga experienced a fire one week later while restarting normal operations.[24][25]

Emergency services

In New York, about 3,000 fire calls were reported, many from people using candles. Emergency services responded to 80,000 calls for help, more than double the average.


The blackout contributed to at least eleven fatalities,

  • In Ontario, three fatalities occurred, a cyclist hit by a car in Guelph[26] and, in Ottawa, a pedestrian hit by a car, and a fire victim. However, the blackout cannot be solely identified as the reason.[27]
  • In Connecticut, one fatality was reported.
  • In New York City, six fatalities were reported. Two were deaths from carbon monoxide, two from fire, one as a result of a fall from a roof while breaking into a shoe store, and one man died of a heart attack in his neighbor's apartment after climbing the 17 flights to their floor.
  • In the Detroit suburb Harper Woods, Michigan, one man was reported dead on WXYZ-TV's news from carbon monoxide poisoning from using a generator inside his house.
  • In Pittsfield Township, Michigan, a 27-year-old Belleville, Michigan man was reported unresponsive when a fatal fire destroyed the mobile home that he was sleeping in, according to the Ann Arbor News. Officials said the fire was apparently caused when candles were left burning during the blackout.

Long-term effects

The Ontario government fell in a provincial election held in October 2003; consequently, power had long been a major issue. The government may have been hurt by the success of Quebec and Manitoba, which were not affected whereas Ontario was shut down. The extra publicity given to Ontario's need to import electricity from the United States, mostly due to a decision of the government not to expand the province's power generating capabilities, may also have adversely affected the Conservative government. Premier Ernie Eves' handling of the crisis was also criticized; he was not heard from until long after Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki had spoken out. Due to the regular announcements he gave in the days following the blackout, Eves enjoyed a moderate increase in the polls that his party took as a sign of an opportunity to call an election they could win, however that did not prove to be the case.

In the United States, the Bush administration had emphasized the need for changes to the U.S. national energy policy, Critical Infrastructure Protection, and Homeland Security. During the blackout, most systems that would detect unauthorized border crossings, port landings, or detect unauthorized access to many vulnerable sites, failed. There was considerable fear that future blackouts would be exploited for terrorism. In addition, the failure highlighted the ease with which the power grid could be taken down.

Restoration of service

By evening of August 14, power had been restored to:

Con Edison retracted its claim that New York City would have power by 1 a.m. That night some areas of Manhattan regained power at approximately 5 a.m. (August 15), the New York City borough of Staten Island regained power around 3 a.m. on August 15, and Niagara Mohawk predicted that the Niagara Falls area would have to wait until 8 a.m.

By early evening of August 15, two airports, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, and Toronto Pearson International Airport were back in service.

Half of the affected part of Ontario had power by the morning of 15 August, though even in areas where it had come back online, some services were still disrupted or running at lower levels. The last areas to regain power were usually suffering from trouble at local electrical substations that was not directly related to the blackout itself.

By 16 August, power was fully restored in New York and Toronto. However, Toronto's subway and streetcars remained out of service until 18 August to prevent the possibility of equipment being stuck in awkward locations if the power was interrupted again. Power had been mostly restored in Ottawa, though authorities warned of possible additional disruptions and advised conservation as power continued to be restored to other areas. Ontarians were asked to reduce their electricity use by 50% until all generating stations could be brought back on line. Four remained out of service on the 19th. Illuminated billboards were largely dormant for the week following the blackout, and many stores had only a portion of their lights on.

Preparations against the possible disruptions threatened by the Year 2000 problem have been credited for the installation of new electrical equipment and systems which allowed for a relatively rapid restoration of power in some areas.

Sustained efforts

In Ontario, some cities took part in power conservation challenges or events to remind citizens of the blackout. The most well known event being the Voluntary Blackout Day hosted by the Ontario Power Authority. During these events, citizens were encouraged to maximize their energy conservation activities. Smaller cities such as London, Guelph, Woodstock and Waterloo took part in the challenges annually. The final Voluntary Blackout Day was held on August 14 2010.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "What Caused the Power Blackout To Spread So Widely and So Fast?". Genscape. 2003-08-15. Retrieved 2011-07-13. 
  2. ^ a b "The great 2003 North America blackout". CBC. 2003-08-14. Retrieved 2008-09-19. 
  3. ^ "Timeline". INDEPTH: POWER OUTAGE (CBC News). 2004-08-18. Retrieved 2008-09-15. 
  4. ^ a b c "Interim Report on the August 14, 2003, Blackout" (PDF). New York Independent System Operator. 2004-01-08. Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  5. ^ a b c "Major power outage hits New York, other large cities". CNN. August 14, 2003. Retrieved 2008-09-16. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Blackout 2003: Bush Rules Out Terrorism, Pledges Grid Review". Newswire. 2003-08-15. Retrieved 2011-07-20. 
  8. ^ "Canada gets blackout blame: World: News". News24. 2003-08-15.,,2-10-1462_1402915,00.html. Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  9. ^[dead link]
  10. ^ [1][dead link]
  11. ^ U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force Final Report
  12. ^ Kevin Poulsen (2004-02-11). "Software Bug Contributed to Blackout". Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  13. ^ Kevin Poulsen (2004-04-07). "Tracking the blackout bug". Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  14. ^ Microsoft Word - NERC Report on Blackout - Master.doc
  15. ^ Lerner, Eric J. (October/November 2003). "What's wrong with the electric grid?". The Industrial Physicist (American Institute of Physics). Retrieved 2009-06-10. 
  16. ^ "Chapter 5: How and Why the Blackout Began in Ohio". NERC Final Report. 
  17. ^ CNN: A timeline of the 2003 blackout (August 16, 2003)
  18. ^ Coyne, John P. (2003-08-24). "Boom signaled power-line arc in Walton Hills". The Plain Dealer. Archived from the original on 2007-12-17. Retrieved 2011-08-30. 
  19. ^ "Looking back at the 2003 blackout". Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Retrieved 2010-02-23. 
  20. ^ "CBC News Indepth: Power outage". Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  21. ^ The A&E reality television series Airline episode titled "Beyond Their Control" features Southwest employees dealing with the flight interruptions caused by the blackout.
  22. ^ "Blackout Stops Presses, Shuts Web Sites," NewsInc, August 18, 2003
  23. ^ Rick Lindquist, N1RL (October 2003). Hams a Bright Spot during Power Blackout. QST 
  24. ^ Petro Canada | Update on Fire and Explosion at Petro-Canada Lubricants Plant in Mississauga, Ontario[dead link]
  25. ^ Petro Canada | Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) Greenhouse Gas Emissions Questionnaire[dead link]
  26. ^ Greeno, Cherri (2003-08-25). "The". Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  27. ^ "Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc". 2010-03-20. Retrieved 2010-04-21. 
  28. ^ "Blackout Day fades to black". 2011-10-27. 

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