By David Franke
© 1999

In the middle of a record heat wave, electric power was lost in a
relatively small part of New York City — an area containing 200,000 of
the city’s 7,300,000 residents. The power stayed out for 30 hours.

You’d think it was the end of the world. And this is a city that likes
to think of itself as tough.

Don’t get me wrong — I feel their sweat. It was hot in Washington too,
and I sure was glad that our power managed to continue without
interruption. It’s just that I’ve spent the past six months trying to
get people to consider what might possibly happen when Y2K hits
in full force, and for the most part it’s been like talking to a brick
wall. Here we had what amounts to just a quick preview of that possible
Y2K chaos, and everyone from the Mayor on down blew their fuses.

True, we won’t have a heat wave on Jan. 1, even with global warming. But
have you forgotten about the ice blizzard that paralyzed Quebec and
upper New England in the winter of 1997-98? That did immensely more
damage to that area’s electrical infrastructure than this heat wave
caused in Gotham.

You may also object that I’m comparing apples with oranges — that this
was an unscheduled natural disaster, and Y2K is a man-made problem that
is being solved by mankind.

Not so quick. Con Edison, the city’s electric monopoly, insists it
wasn’t lack of power that caused the blackout, but infrastructure
damage. With Y2K, there are potential problems both with adequate power
supply and with infrastructure — and those potential problems could hit
everywhere, at the same time, rather than in one pocket of the
city. And then there’s the very real possibility of compounded
problems — infrastructure damage due to Y2K quickly followed by
infrastructure damage due to an ice storm, with a cumulative effect that
topples the system, and for a lot more than 30 hours.

As minor as it was in the big scheme of things, this blackout is
extremely instructive. Let’s take a look at what it suggests we can
expect if Y2K turns out to be real, and not just a paranoid delusion.

Sue the Bastards!
If anyone had the slightest doubt that everyone in the U.S. is going to
be suing someone else in 2000, look at New York City. Before you could
say “Wha’ happened?” Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was threatening to sue
Con Edison and take legal action against the utility in five different
ways. And he’s a Republican! Imagine how a lawyer-loving
Democratic mayor would have reacted!

Well, you say, that’s just politics — he was grandstanding and taking
advantage of an opportunity to outflank Hillary, who was lost somewhere
trying to locate upstate New York. Duh — what do you think the
politicians are going to be doing in election year 2000?

It’s instructive to look at some of the rhetoric he used, too: “I think
the city of New York is entitled to a more secure flow of
electrical power than Con Edison is giving us” (this was the first major
blackout in New York City since the Great Blackout of 1977). “We’re in
an age of high technology … . It would seem to me that, over the
years, we would have developed more of a fail-safe system than
Con Edison has been able to develop” (emphasis added).

When people feel they are entitled to fail-safe high technology, how do
you think they are going to react to Y2K failures?

It’s a plot!
The major area affected by the blackout was the very northwest corner of
Manhattan — the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods. That’s a
mostly poor, largely Hispanic area, and if the quotes in the city’s
newspapers are an accurate reflection, the immediate reaction of many of
those residents was, “Why us? Why us and not downtown? I think it’s
racist. It has to be something like that” (an actual quote from The New
York Times).

A somewhat more sophisticated statement of this viewpoint is that
they take care of the good neighborhoods and let our poor
neighborhoods get run down.” Who “they” are shifts with the situation,
of course, and in this case it’s Con Edison. The charge is that they
didn’t take care of the feeder cables in the blackout zone. Con Ed
denies this, of course, but it could be true, you know.

David Paterson, a Democratic state senator who represents part of the
blackout zone, is talking about organizing a class action lawsuit
against Con Ed. One thing’s pretty certain — there will be
investigations and hearings on this matter. And if Y2K problems occur, a
lot of people will be looking at the geography of those problems.

‘Trust us. We’re the experts. We know what we’re doing’
We hear this refrain everywhere today when the topic turns to Y2K.
“Trust us. We’re the experts. We know what we’re doing.”

Well, here we have a utility that’s touted as one of the best in the
nation — not one of those hillbilly rural electric coops, which we’re
supposed to believe are the only ones left with any Y2K problems. Did
our stellar utility prepare for this heat wave?

On June 2, the company bragged that “electricity use by its 3 million
customers in New York City and Westchester County will reach new heights
this summer.” I say “bragged” because the announcement went on (to Con
Ed’s present embarrassment) to tell how the utility was more than ready
for Ol’ Man Summer.

“Throughout the year,” Con Ed assured its customers, “we prepare power
plants, transmission and distribution lines and substations to meet the
demands placed on them by hot and humid weather. In fact, some of our
summer preparations may take several years to plan, engineer and
construct. Our electric system must be in high state of
to deliver the power needed by our customers during heat
waves” (emphasis added).

Sounds just like all those statements of Y2K-readiness, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the question of the reliability of all those official
statements about surplus power and such. New York State’s eight major
utilities, we were told, have a capacity of 34,650 megawatts of power —
and that, we were assured, is an ample supply. Indeed, even at the
height of the heat wave the state’s power demand topped out at 30,500

There’s just one problem. The New York Post quoted Bob Stevens, a
utility consultant at Mercer Management Consulting: “Some plants can’t
be started up too quickly, so even though the utilities may have that
capacity, it doesn’t mean that they’ve got it all going at once.”


I don’t think we would have learned that, had it not been for this
week’s little problem. Does all this reassure you about the utility
industry’s assurances in regard to Y2K?

‘Trust us. We’re your leaders. We know what we’re doing’
We hear this refrain everywhere today, from our politicians, when the
topic turns to Y2K. “Trust us. We’re your leaders. We know what we’re

Here is one of the most revealing passages in the press coverage of the
blackout — this one’s courtesy of The New York Times:

And as Mr. Giuliani spoke of lawsuits, his aides were acknowledging
that, despite years of complaining about blackouts, they remained
largely uninformed about the quality, design, and load capacities of the
city’s power grid.

Jerome M. Hauer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management,
said the city has enlisted consultants to study the power system. “The
city will now get more involved in understanding that,” he said.

Less than 200 days before Y2K, and the nation’s largest city is hiring a
consultant to get the scoop on its power grid!

I have no trouble believing that, because I’ve seen the June 9, 1999,
“Preliminary Official Statement of the City of New York” in regard to
Year 2000 — and it’s equally damning.

We’re told, in that statement, that New York City’s Year 2000 Project
Office was established in November 1996. And we’re told that “the city’s
goal is to complete remediation or replacement of all mission-critical
and high priority systems before or during the 1999 calendar year in
sufficient time for testing to be completed by the end of the 1999
calendar year.”

Then comes the whopper: the statement that “work has been completed, and
all or part of the necessary testing has been performed, on
approximately 69% of the mission-critical and high priority systems of
mayoral agencies” (emphasis added).

Let’s analyze that. In 31 months the city has managed to start
testing (that’s the meaning of those weasel words I emphasized, “or
part”) 69 percent of the mission-critical and high priority systems. So
in the remaining six months they’re going to complete their testing of
this 69 percent, and do the remedial work and the testing with
the remaining 31 percent? What’s giving them this sudden burst of
energy? Why didn’t they have it before?

Back in the good old days (last year), everyone was promising that all
Y2K work would be completed by the end of 1998, leaving this year for
everything to be tested. Well, those promises didn’t work out. Yet we’re
supposed to believe the promises our politicians and business leaders
are giving us now.

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