Super power failures
It was one of the worst power outages that left millions in the dark. The entire transport system was disrupted forcing buses, trains, and planes to come to a complete halt. Millions spent the night without power. Hundreds of thousands were stranded at the bus and train stations where they slept hoping that the system will restore soon. I saw it all firsthand in New York City on 14 August 2003.
But unlike the condescending and pejorative headlines that accompanied the recent power failure in India, media coverage of the 2003 power outage in the eight states in the US and Canada, which left 50-million people in the dark, was about peoples’ resilience and generosity. The commentary about India’s power failure, however, was focussed on questioning if India were ready to be a superpower.
The media coverage highlighted the deficiencies in infrastructure that caused “India’s darkest hour”. NPR in the US suggested that corruption may be the reason behind the massive power failure in India causing the “worst blackout in history.” Others contrasted India with China and praised the latter where such massive outages are not common. The USA Today quoted energy experts who advised that a similar failure was unlikely to occur in the US. “We are much, much less at risk for something like that happening here, especially from the perspective of demand exceeding supply,” Professor Gregory Reed of the University of Pittsburgh told the newspaper.
This is not the first time that the western media had tried to question if India were ready for the big leagues. With every misstep, big or small, the western news media doubts, as NPR recently did, “about India’s dream to become a superpower.”
Despite the reassurances from energy experts that a similar eventuality is unlikely to occur in the US, I am not so confident about the resilience of the power infrastructure in the West given the fact that while much has been invested in generating additional power, the same is not true for the investments in the inadequate power grid, which was instrumental in the massive power failure in August 2003.
Besides, such highly infrequent events are often without precedence and hence previous risk probabilities are either irrelevant or not known suggesting that we are dealing with unknown risks that are hard to mitigate. Consider Japan, which despite being a superpower and exposed to similar disasters in the past, learnt the lesson about unknown risks as it dealt with the massive loss of life (app. 18,000 dead) and extensive damage to nuclear power generation resulting from the tsunamiin March 2011.
It was a little after 4 pm on August 14, 2003, when the lights went off in Manhattan. I was at Columbia University when without notice the electricity disappeared from the campus. I tried to call my wife, who worked in downtown Manhattan, but failed to reach her. I called my mother-in-law in Toronto asking her to reach out to my wife and only then learnt that it was not just Manhattan, New York City or Toronto, but most of the North-East was without power.
Within minutes of the power outage, Manhattan came to a standstill. With traffic lights not functioning and the underground subway system disrupted, millions of commuters spilled out on the streets of New York not knowing how would they get back to their families. Children were stranded at daycare, patients were stuck at the hospitals without their rides back home. The loss of 62,000 megawatts had exposed 50-million North Americans to unprecedented hardships: no power, no transport, no elevators, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no computers, no internet, and yes, no TV.
We lived in Brooklyn Heights and I was roughly 15-km away from home. I immediately purchased bottled water and batteries from a shop and started to walk the 15-km stretch. I reached home hours later in pitch darkness. As I walked from uptown Manhattan and passed by Penn Station (railway station), Union Square, and later at night crossed over the Brooklyn bridge, I saw hundreds of thousands stranded in the City where they had worked every day, but had not spent the night before. I saw men and women camped out at the train stations and parks lying on their backs using their jackets and handbags as pillows.
The next morning I accompanied my wife to her office in the Wall Street in downtown Manhattan where the streets and parks were still filled with people who were forced to sleep overnight in open. Realising that the all offices were closed on the Friday morning, we returned to Brooklyn. We encountered a disheveled man who asked us for a lift. He was a vice president at a leading financial institution who also spent the night on the street. He was very concerned about missing his heart medication, which was left at his home.
Superpower or otherwise, all human engineered systems are prone to failures caused by Black Swans. While we engineer infrastructure against failures, we only do so for known risks. For the unknown kind, we do not have factors of safety to incorporate in our engineering designs. Every natural or man-made disaster of unprecedented scale exposes our weakest links and failures in assumptions, design, and imagination.
The heat wave that struck Europe in August 2003 was another unprecedented, infrequent event. Conservative estimates suggest over 70,000 people dying as a direct result of infrastructure and planning failures in Europe. The French National Institute of Health and Medical Research estimated over 14,800 deaths of mostly elderly in France alone.
Two years later in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal cities in the United States, mostly Louisiana, killing over 1,800 people and causing property damage exceeding $108 billion. In fact, the actual death toll could be much higher because a year later funds ran out for the initiative to identify hundreds of missing persons. In Katrina’s case the failure risk of levees, which eventually failed, were already known. Little, however, was done to protect New Orleans, a city mostly populated by African Americans. In fact, research later revealed that “African Americans were disproportionately represented among both elderly and non-elderly victims, and the vast majority of those still missing.”*
Unlike the power outage in July 1977, which left eight million without power and subjected to widespread looting in New York City, the 600-odd million Indians dealt with the catastrophic power failure with grace. Despite the chaos, violence and looting has not been reported, revealing that India may have a vulnerable physical infrastructure, its social infrastructure is indeed resilient.
* Sharkey, Patrick. Survival and Death in New Orleans: An Empirical Look at the Human Impact of Katrina. Journal Of Black Studies, Vol. 37 No. 4, March 2007 482-501.
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.