A massive blackout struck parts of Florida on Tuesday, knocking out power to millions of people as it snarled traffic at intersections and trapped residents in elevators across the state.
The outage, which affected at least 2 million people, was controlled relatively swiftly and power came back to most areas of the "Sunshine State" within several hours.
The head of Florida Power & Light, the main energy provider in the area, said the afternoon blackout was triggered by an unexplained equipment failure and fire at a Miami transmission facility, which caused an automatic emergency shutdown of the Turkey Point nuclear plant in south Florida.
"We will conduct an extensive investigation into all aspects of the failure," Armando Olivera, president of the FPL Group Inc. subsidiary, told reporters.
At least three other power companies were affected as the outage spread sporadically but extensively up the Florida peninsula as far north as Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico in what officials called a domino chain of blackouts.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, an industry group, said it launched a review of the outage that shut down 15 transmission lines.
Miami-Dade fire rescue service said the biggest danger that faced residents was failing traffic lights as people were not following rules that say intersections should be treated as four-way stops when the signals are out.
In the Miami area alone, authorities said they responded to more than 50 emergency calls about people trapped in elevators although no injuries or serious problems were reported.
"Everything went off without a hitch," said Lt. Ignatius Carroll of Miami Fire Rescue. He told Miami's WSVN television there were multiple cases of claustrophobia in unusually warm February weather, however.
"Remember this is south Florida. We are used to dealing with power outages because of hurricanes. This is like a dress rehearsal for us," said police spokeswoman Nelda Fonticiella.
ONE MILLION CUSTOMERS
Olivera, speaking on a conference call, said about 1 million customers across the state were left without electricity, or about 2 million people over all.
"I want to stress that our system operated safely at all times. Our nuclear facility at Turkey Point automatically shut down safely, and in accordance with the design of the plant procedures for transmission and grid disturbances," Olivera told reporters.
Flights at Miami international airport were only marginally affected.
FPL said only 8,000 customers were still affected five hours after the blackout occurred around 1 pm.
Enrique Santacana, president and chief executive officer of the North American operations of Swiss engineering group ABB, said the Florida outage was a reminder of the risks caused by years of severe under-investment in US electricity distribution networks.
Without "tens of billions of dollars" in new investment, the United States can expect further large-scale outages, said Santacana, whose company makes electrical distribution equipment and counts FPL among its customers.
"We're in a race," Santacana told the Reuters Manufacturing Summit. "You have aging infrastructure that has to be replaced. And for many years we had to be replacing it and we didn't and now it is catching up with us."
On August 14, 2003, New York City and much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest suffered a blackout that affected 50 million people. It was widely seen as the worst blackout in North American history.
That outage stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters and trapped subway riders underground in New York City, where thousands of people spent a hot night sleeping on sidewalks or walking miles in the darkness to reach their homes. (Reuters)
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