Fla. Power Outage Affects Millions

Widespread power outages are being reported around southern Florida, including parts of Miami. The state's largest power company, Florida Power and Light, is investigating the cause. Video by AP
By Peter Whoriskey and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

MIAMI, Feb. 26 -- Commuter trains stopped on their elevated tracks, elevators halted between floors, traffic lights went dark, and two nuclear power reactors were shut down Tuesday afternoon as a cascading power outage left millions of Floridians without electricity, according to state officials.

Power was restored to most customers within four hours, but not before the outage had prompted bouts of panic, particularly as the extent of the problems became known.

The state's largest electric company said the disruption was caused by a small malfunction in a transmission substation west of Miami, where a fire erupted. City and federal officials quickly rejected the possibility of a terrorism or criminal link.

Florida Power and Light officials could not readily explain how the minor glitch could cause extensive outages as far away as Tampa and Daytona Beach. Safeguards built into the electrical system, they said, should have contained the trouble.

"That's the part we don't have an answer for yet," FP&L President Armando Olivera said.

Fire rescue officials received more than 30 calls from Miami-Dade County alone, excluding downtown Miami, regarding people stuck in elevators.

"You can imagine the hysteria," said Lt. Elkin Sierra of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. "One woman thought she was going into labor."

Others descended stairs for dozens of flights in high-rises served by elevators. Those who had been at work headed home at midafternoon. Several South Florida hospitals were forced to switch to generator power. Shoppers wandered uncertainly through the aisles of dimmed department stores. Parents rushed out to schools to pick up their children.

Out on the streets, an impromptu rush hour made clear the blackout's most pervasive effects: Traffic crawled on city streets because stoplights no longer worked and tentative drivers braked their way through intersection after intersection. Police were assigned to direct traffic and "eliminate or alleviate any possible road rages," a police spokesman said.

The system of commuter trains that carry more than 30,000 people around the Miami area also stopped. That left passengers at least temporarily stuck on the tracks.

Given the extent of the outage on a clear day in Miami, many wondered at first whether it had malicious origins.

"What I can assure people is that this was something technical; it wasn't anything criminal-related," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said.

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