NEW YORK, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- Thursday's massive power blackout raised questions about the North American power grid system but also showed that the United States is better prepared to respond to major emergencies, President Bush and other officials said.
"One of the things we'll have to do, of course, is take an assessment of why the cascade was so significant, why it was able to ripple so significantly throughout our system up east," Bush said in San Diego. "And that will be a very important part of the investigation once we deal with the immediate -- and the immediate, of course, is to take care of people."
Bush said the response by federal, state and local officials showed the country is much better equipped to respond to emergencies than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.
The president said "we're better organized today than we were 2 1/2 years ago to deal with an emergency, and the system responded well."
Bush, along with other officials including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were quick to state that the outage resulted from a technical failure rather than a terror attack.
The outage brought out generally calm responses in New York City, where emergency response systems honed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, responded smoothly.
Some said the crisis brought out the best in many people. Carol Huff, an employee of UBS investment bank in Stamford, Conn., was in New York attending a meeting Thursday for a national literacy program called "Everybody Wins." The meeting was on the 26th floor of the Federal Reserve Bank building in Manhattan.
"For the most part, people were calm," she told UPI. But the faces of some of the people, financial industry employees who had been in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, showed concern, she said.
"They were clearly apprehensive about the situation," she said. "But I have to say, the staff from the Federal Reserve did everything possible to be reassuring and calming to everyone at this meeting -- that it was going to be OK," she said.
Huff said, "People are going out of their way to be nice and considerate."
It was unclear exactly what triggered the cascading shutdown of 21 power plants -- including nine U.S. nuclear plants at seven sites.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Scott Burnell told UPI the nine nuclear plants were shut down in safe condition and where appropriate emergency diesel generators were running to ensure safety-related systems stayed in operation.
Speaking in a radio address shortly after the outage, Bloomberg said the blackout started either in northern New York state or southern Canada about 4 p.m. and "cascaded down." By 6 p.m., power was being restored in various areas -- a process that experts said would take hours.
"The problem is when these power plants went off line, they get cold," Michael Gent of the North American Electric Reliability Council told CNN. "The ones that use natural gas can be back in an hour or so, the ones that burn coal might take four to eight hours, the nuclear plants might take half a day."
Nuclear reactors in New York state were offline at Indian Point 2 and 3; Nine Mile Point 1 and 2; the FitzPatrick and Ginna plants. Additionally, Michigan's Fermi plant, Ohio's Perry and the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey all were offline as of late Thursday, Burnell said. The NRC didn't have a time table for getting the plants back online, he added.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission spokesman Bryan Lee said an outage within the Niagara-Mohawk Grid started the cascading effect on the Northeastern Power Grid.
Witnesses reported seeing smoke at a Con Edison power plant in New York, but Bloomberg said that was merely smoke from the normal process of shutting down the plant in response to the grid failure.
Officials said the outage affected 50 million people including those in Ottawa and Toronto in Canada; New York City and Albany, N.Y.; Erie, Pa.; Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; and Detroit.
In New York City, the outage shut down the city's subways and trains, and the Federal Aviation Association reported planes were grounded for a time at all three New York area airports.
Air traffic also was grounded for a time at Cleveland, and Ottawa and Toronto in Canada, and was disrupted across the continent.
Although in New York emergency power was working at City Hall and at all but one of the city's hospitals, thousands of people walked out of the subway system as trains stopped and stations closed. Masses of people walked home, sharing the road with cars.
"The Grand Central Station has been totally shut down. It has never happened before. All subway shut down, no transportation in sight. All traffic lights have gone," said Masud Haider.
Haider, who works at the United Nations news pool, said the U.N. building was evacuated. "They are making announcements that there is a widespread power outage all over the Eastern Seaboard: 'Please leave the building,'" he said. The announcements were made using megaphones, he said.
UPI Correspondent Bill Reilly reported huge queues at city delis, with people waiting to purchase water and other drinks, while stores reported a run on sneakers with people expecting long walks home.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said there was no train or subway service in New York City. Traffic lights went out, and passers-by helped police direct traffic in midtown Manhattan. Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter trains lost power, stranding thousands of rush-hour commuters.
Thousands of people streamed onto streets of lower Manhattan in 90-degree heat, Haider said. Bloomberg warned people to be careful in the heat and to take appropriate precautions.
"We are going to have a situation where people are going to have to walk a long distance. They need to be careful," Bloomberg told CNN. "Our advice is to go home, open up your windows, drink a lot of liquids."
In a later televised news conference, Bloomberg said he spoke with the chief executive officer of Con Edison who said power starting to come back from the north and the west.
"With a lot of luck later on this evening, we will look back on this and say where were you when the lights went out," but nobody got hurt, he said.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was in the Manhattan for a meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation when the blackout struck.
"Well there's a vending machine here, but it operates on electricity," he joked during a conference call to Minnesota news media.
In southeast Michigan, power went out around 4:14 p.m., just as the evening rush hour was beginning in Detroit.
WDIV-TV reported widespread power failures in most of metropolitan Detroit, knocking out traffic lights, gas pumps and air conditioning for more than 2.1 million Michigan residents.
Tony Early of Detroit's DTE Energy said it would take hours before power started coming back. Electricity might not be restored in some areas of Michigan until Friday.
"As we start to bring the system up, we don't want to overload the system. It will be a very deliberate process. One of the issues Friday will be that it is going to be a very hot day. We are urging customers to shut off their electrical equipment and turn off the air conditioning," Early told WDIV-TV.
A broadcast report said power was out at Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland and the outage left much of northern Ohio, including Toledo, without electricity. Ashtabula, Lorain, Mentor and Strongsville all were blacked out.
Hospitals, medical centers and television and radio stations were operating on emergency backup generators but many cell phone towers were reported out of service.