Right after the little light had gone off in 40 million refrigerators in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, there were earnest assurances. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg assured his city and the world early and often on Thursday that the great blackout was not terror-caused. From the other end of the country, from various venues in California, came assurances from President Bush: not terror-related.
Four days later it has become abundantly clear that nobody in charge could have made that claim as a lead pipe cinch Thursday, or Friday, or Saturday, and perhaps not even Sunday. True, they knew the blackout was not the result of highjacked planes being driven into transmission lines, or nuclear plants being blown up. In short, nothing tangibly dramatic had occurred out on the collapsed grid. For several news cycles, however, there were some painfully wrong guesses. The Prime Minister of Canada suggested the cause was a lightning strike somewhere near the Niagara-Mohawk facilities in upstate New York. New York suggested that Toronto was to blame (after all, remember SARS?). It got nasty. The mayor of Toronto sniffed, finally, when has the United States taken the blame for anything?
As of late Sunday, it was apparent that no one knew what caused the great blackout. Informed speculation centered on transmission lines near Cleveland, the city of exile for New York radio and television personalities who somehow fail or offend. But there are backstops to these transmission lines. If they start to overload or underload, there are computer systems and alarms, means of detection. Were humans asleep at the alarm switches? What might have caused the lines to malfunction? Some suggest they got too hot, expanded, sagged, and grazed a tree. (But trees are all chopped down along transmission right-of-ways, aren't they?)
The jury is still out. In fact, it hasn't even been chosen yet. Could computer hackers have insinuated their way into the works? Can they yet?
The New York Times has sent a bouquet to the city of its birth. A front-page Sunday headline reads: "In Calm Blackout, Views of Remade City." The premise is that New York was calm throughout the ordeal, unlike the revolutionary unrest that gripped portions of it during the blackout of 1977. It has been "remade" by the millions of immigrants who arrived since and melded if not melted the pot, is the gist of the story.
Unfortunately, this paean to calm continues on a jump page which contains another sidebar story detailing the woes of owners of stores hit by looters. More than $100,000 worth of jewelry heisted from the Zodiac Jewelry on Third Avenue in the Bronx. More than nine members of a group arrested robbing the Gastonia Grocery in Crown Heights. Twenty nabbed stealing sneakers from a Foot Locker. Six stopped in a cell phone store. The list goes on. Not the horror of '77. But not the honor system working well in old Gotham, either.
It is good to know as one burns on a 20th story window ledge that it wasn't arson. That, too, is a blessed assurance. But it would help more had all the fire stations been alert, had all the alarms worked, and no society been tested.
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