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3 Biggest Blackouts in U.S. History

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Blackouts (aka power outages, power failures)

Transmission Line
have been occurring in the United States since the dawn of the electric age in the 19th century. From a scientific interest to a critical component of the modern age, electricity has become inseparable from modern life. As a result, blackouts have the ability to disrupt nearly every aspect of life as we know it. We hardly pay attention to our electrical infrastructure when it is working correctly, but when a component breaks and the electricity stops flowing, cities are crippled and individuals are forced to cope without modern services and conveniences. Here are the three biggest blackouts in United States history:

3. Hurricane Sandy 2012

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern United States, making landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey. At this point, a Category 1 hurricane, Sandy would leave a path of destruction and over eight million people without power across New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire. Virginia, Rhode Island, Vermont, the District of Columbia, and Maine would all be affected to a lesser degree. It would take many areas over a week to fully restore power, and is the most recent incident to highlight the fragility of our electrical network.

2. Northeast Blackout of 1965

On November 9, 1965, over thirty million people in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and in Ontario, Canada would be without electricity. Unlike many other power outages that are caused by natural events, this one was caused by a simple human error. A protective relay on a single transmission line was set to too low of a capacity. As night fell and power usage rose, the protective relay tripped on a main power line in Southern Ontario. The power flowing through this line was transferred to other lines, and caused them to overload and trip. This cascading failure would spread across the Northeast electrical grid, pushing systems and generators to automatically shutdown to prevent damage. While power was restored in under fifteen hours and there was little permanent damage or crime, the incident would have a lasting effect as electrical providers would undertake measures to prevent similar outages in the future.  

1. Northeast Blackout of 2003

Affecting approximately forty five million people across eight states, the Northeast blackout of 2003 was the single largest blackout in the history of the U.S. On August 14, 2003, a power line in northern Ohio touched some overgrown trees, as it sagged downwards from heat and wear. Normally, this would trigger an alarm and alert operators, and greater damage could be avoided. However, the alarm system failed and several other lines subsequently drooped into the trees below them. This would lead to another cascading failure as power would transfer to other lines, which would then cause those lines to become overloaded. As a result, virtually all of New York lost power and several other major metropolitan areas went dark. Full power restoration would take around forty eight hours. Cellular service was widely disrupted; cities water system’s lost pressure, and some were forced to evacuate on foot in urban areas or be stranded. At night, the blackout was so widespread that features not normally visible in the sky due to light pollution were easily seen. Fortunately, in contrast to many other blackouts there were no riots or significant looting, though the economic impact was estimated at around seven to ten billion. Highlighting the good side of human nature, there were block parties across certain New York neighborhoods with restaurants, bars, and individuals giving away free perishables.

Image Credit: nayukim via Flickr.

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