NY blackout: lots of questions, noanswers and a mayor under fire

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

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NEW YORK, United States (AFP) — A weekend blackout in New York raised a host of unanswered questions, put the mayor on the defensive as he runs for president, and triggered doubts about the state of infrastructure in America's biggest city.

Utility company Con Edison apologised for Saturday's five-hour power outage. But mystery surrounds the cause of the blackout on the west side of Manhattan which left some 73,000 customers without power, turned Times Square dark, silenced Jennifer Lopez mid-concert, and halted subway lines.

Con Edison warned more blackouts were possible as the city prepares for a heatwave this weekend, with temperatures of up to 97o Fahrenheit (36o Celsius) and very muggy air.

“We expect that there could be service outages — those things happen during heatwaves,” spokesman Mike Clendenin told TV station PIX11 on Monday, while pointing out that the company spends US$2 billion a year to prepare for such eventualities.

He said the blackout was not caused by a spike in electricity usage.

The outage struck on the 42nd anniversary of a major blackout in 1977 that sparked chaos in the Big Apple, as people engaged in looting and acts of vandalism.

This time no one was injured but 2,875 commuters had to be rescued from five subway trains and 400 elevators got stuck.

“The centre of our little island is supposed to be the centre of the universe...Yes, we want to be the centre of finance, tech and media, but we cannot even keep the lights on for a Saturday evening,” columnist Nicole Gelinas wrote in the New York Post.

ISOLATE THE PROBLEM

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, said the blackout shows the city is not maintaining its electrical grid properly.

“This type of massive blackout is entirely preventable with the right investments in our grid,” Schumer said as he called for a federal investigation into the outage.

Richard Berkley, executive director of consumer rights group the New York Utility Project, wondered if Con Edison has paid enough attention to making the grid resilient.

“This is not necessarily a reliability problem alone within Con Ed; It was a resilience problem, Because even if there was an error of some kind of malfunction of the system it should have been isolated just to one neighbourhood,” said Berkley.

He said this was one of the lessons learned from how authorities dealt with Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“A failure in New York City is an incredible failure for the world's financial markets. Here, you have something like a third of all elevators in the world. In New York City, thousands of people are going to be trapped, plus the subways,” Berkley said.

Francisco de Leon, who teaches engineering at New York University, rejected the idea that the blackout stemmed from a lack of investment in the grid.

“It is not the case that Con Edison has invested little. To the contrary, it has invested too much,” de Leon told AFP, adding that, compared to other US cities, it was very reliable.

He said the blackout was minor, hitting four or five of Con Ed's 62 networks in the city; but it affected many people because of the population density.

MAYOR OUT OF TOWN

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is among a large field of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, was campaigning in Iowa when the blackout hit, and came under withering criticism for not rushing straight home.

Governor Andrew Cuomo did make an appearance in Manhattan and called the power failure unacceptable.

“Mayors are important,” said Cuomo, also a Democrat, who frequently trades barbs with de Blasio. One bone of contention is whether the city or the state should bear the cost of upgrading the New York subway.

“Situations like this come up and you have to be on-site, I believe that,” Cuomo said on CNN.

The New York Post on Monday called on Cuomo to fire de Blasio, who returned to the city on Sunday morning after the lights had come back on.


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