junge Welt

August 16, 2003

Electrical Power Failure in USA and Canada

By Rüdiger Göbel

AP/Mike Derer

Berlin, August 16— The biggest power failure in the history of the United States has crippled large portions of the US and Canada. About 50 million people in eastern North America were affected by the blackout on Thursday and Friday. It affected them the same as it did the Serbs in June of 1999 and the Iraqis since the fall of Baghdad this past April. Instantaneously, they were without electricity in the midst of high summer temperatures. With temperatures over 86 degrees, air conditioners stopped and freezers began to thaw in New York, Washington, and other large cities. Hospitals had to rely on emergency generators. Thousands were stuck in subways and elevators. A state of emergency was declared in New York and New Jersey. Beside many states on and near the east coast, the further westerly states of Michigan and Ohio as well as the Canadian province of Ontario were affected. Traffic came to a standstill everywhere and nuclear power plants were shut down. Minutes after the first lights went out, two F-16 combat aircraft took off from Washington, D.C. and patrolled between the capitol and New York. The fear of another 9-11 was everywhere.

During the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the Serbian electrical grid was targeted and crippled by the newly developed graphite bombs. At one stroke power to the entire country was cut off. The Serbs had to use up their frozen food supplies within days. At the time, the US announced its intention to conduct further attacks against essential infrastructure elements. The threat worked. On June 10th the Yugoslavian leadership, under President Slobodan Milosevic, responded to the ultimatum and accepted defeat.

In Iraq, the US war of aerial bombardment and the subsequent looting tolerated by the occupation forces led to a situation where the more than 23 million inhabitants have to get by with almost no electricity. Protests and annoyance at the hated occupation forces grows daily. On Friday, in the Shiite quarter of Baghdad, many thousands of the faithful demonstrated against the US Army. The crowd, waving Islamic and Iraqi flags, chanted, "At your order, Muktada, we will rise up in a revolution as in 1920." Associates of the Shiite leader Muktada Sadr had distributed leaflets calling for a public Friday prayer to protest the US presence in the Gulf region. On Wednesday, US soldiers in a military helicopter had removed a black Shiite flag from a radio and TV tower. This triggered protests and violent clashes. In the course of suppressing the protest, an Iraqi child was shot by US soldiers.

The use of firearms against the civil population in Iraq is systematic. At the beginning of the week, occupation forces had also fired into a crowd of demonstrators in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Angry Iraqis had demonstrated against the obvious inability of the occupiers to keep the electrical system working. Of all places, in Iraq, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves, one cannot now buy fuel which is used to power, among other things, generators and air conditioners. In southern Iraq temperatures are now running above 120 degrees F.

On Friday there was confusion as to the cause of the power failure in the heart of the superpower. In the country with the largest energy demand, the initial explanations ran from the new computer virus LovSan, to a lightning strike on a power plant in Niagara Falls, to a fire in a nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, to a network failure in Ontario. The only cause which was immediately ruled out was a terrorist attack.

Experts trace the cause of the destructive chain reaction back to overloading and aging of the American power network. "We are a superpower with the electrical system of a third world country," complained the former Energy Secretary and now Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. In the meantime, US President George W. Bush attempted to calm his fellow citizens from San Diego: "Slowly but surely we will overcome this massive national problem."

Bush's big blackout might boost the spirits of all those in Iraq who are complaining about the occupier's slowly dragging reconstruction. It might also create understanding for the Americans' inability to rebuild Iraq's destroyed infrastructure.