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Published: Friday, 8/15/2003

Problems a familiar jolt from N.Y.C. to Toledo

BY HOMER BRICKEY
BLADE SENIOR BUSINESS WRITER

For millions of New Yorkers and many thousands of Toledo-area residents, yesterday's massive power outage brought a sense of d j vu.

It has happened before, and the pattern of crippled commerce, choked transportation systems - and for some, sheer terror - is all too familiar.

For New York, this was the third such nightmare, very similar in many ways to the massive failure that put 30 million people in the dark and trapped 780,000 in the subways in November, 1965, and to the giant blackout that crippled the Big Apple for 25 hours in July, 1977.

The Toledo area escaped both of those disasters, but many in the region have painful memories of their own.

As recently as February, 2002, an ice storm knocked out power to 115,000 homes and businesses in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

And in March, 1996, a vicious storm on the first day of spring cut power to 101,000 in the region - and many customers did not get back electricity for up to four days.

Old-timers in the area recall three extensive outages in the 1950s that shut down the entire Toledo Edison system, all 180,000 customers in a 2,500-square-mile territory. All resulted from freak accidents.

In April, 1953, a fire broke out in a circuit breaker in Edison's Acme plant in East Toledo.

A year and a half later, in September, 1954, a faulty substation in North Toledo knocked out the entire system, and in September, 1956, the network blacked out when an engineer turned the wrong valve at Toledo Edison's Bay Shore generating plant in Oregon.

There have been many selective outages in the region in recent decades, thanks to destructive storms.

Among them: the blizzard of 1978, which cut electricity to 30,000 homes in late January that year; a storm in August, 1981, that left 10,000 without power, and one in July, 1985, that zapped power for 12,000 families.

Two years ago, in July, 2001, an explosion near then-new Fifth Third Field in downtown Toledo ripped through electrical cables and left the entire downtown powerless for nearly three hours, disrupting traffic and restaurant and bar business on a hot Saturday night.

Although thunderstorms and ice storms are the usual culprits, sometimes power outages are caused by unusual circumstances.

For example, an inquisitive squirrel got into high-tension power lines in September, 1996, knocking out electricity for 8,000 homes in the Sandusky area.

But for sheer terror and drama, the two big power failures in the Northeast can't be beat.

On Nov. 9, 1965, eight northeastern states and part of Ontario lost electricity for the entire evening - the lights didn't come back on until 3:35 the next morning. But it took many more hours to restore subway service completely. It was the nation's worst power failure at the time.

After a month-long investigation, the Federal Power Commission determined that the failure started with an erroneously set relay in Ontario, which caused a chain reaction in the power grid in the northeastern part of the United States that within seconds enveloped electric lines in 80,000 square miles.

Despite measures to prevent a recurrence, another massive blackout happened on July 13, 1977, this time triggered by lightning.

Ten million New Yorkers spent the night in darkness, and many did not get power for more than 24 hours even as the temperature soared.

The city operated under a state of emergency and business virtually ceased for a day.

The disaster brought out the best and the worst in New Yorkers.

There were many stories of bravery, cooperation, and human kindness - but at the same time many opportunists looted businesses during the crisis, and nearly 2,000 people were arrested.

Toledo wasn't directly affected by the New York blackout, but many Toledo businesses - brokerages and others dependent on information from Wall Street - suffered through a day without the major stock exchanges.

The western part of the United States had its share of problems in July and August of 1996, when outages affected millions of families in seven states and parts of Canada, largely as a result of a heat wave that strained the power system.



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