It's Been 15 Years Since Tree Limbs in Cleveland Killed 50 Million People's Power

Only three days after half of Cleveland's west side lost power, thanks partially to a backup line that's been out of service since 2016, we commemorate the 15 year anniversary of the time Northeast Ohio killed power for more than 50 million people in the United States and Canada.

The Northeast Blackout of 2003 began when tree limbs in the Cleveland area irritated powerlines, tripping circuits that led the system to draw large amounts of power from electric lines around Lake Erie to fill the gap.

FirstEnergy's alarm system intended to alert staff in Akron of the problem failed due to a technical bug, and a domino effect of blackouts followed suit. Investigators later reported FirstEnergy could have prevented the outage by monitoring and shutting down power to a limited region. What should have been a manageable, local blackout cascaded into collapse of the entire electric grid.

When the blackout hit, more than 540,000 homes and businesses were without power in the state of Ohio. In Cleveland, water service stopped because the city is supplied by electric pumps and backup electricity was available only on a very limited basis. Water had to be boiled for several days after power was restored. Cleveland also declared a curfew on all persons under the age of 18.

In New York, the outage left nearly 16 million people in the dark less than two years after the 9/11 attacks, leading many to suspect terrorists had taken down the grid.

Nope. We just made a huge mistake here in Northeast Ohio and scared the shit out of everyone.

Luckily, the outage caused major reform as congress authorized creation of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. in 2005, which set standards to prevent a recurrence by mandating computer systems and communications to monitor and respond to outsize power fluctuations.

The NAERC also requires better tree trimming and system maintenance programs in addition to giving grid operators more authority to isolate their systems from outage-causing events. These regulations are also now a finable offense, with power companies that don’t comply facing fees of up to $1 million a day.

In typical Cleveland fashion, we've found a way to celebrate our not-so-great legacy. Great Lakes Brewing Company introduced "Blackout Stout" in 2016 to commemorate the event, and The Side Quest Bar in Lakewood is hosting a 15th Anniversary Party tonight with themed cocktails, card games by candlelight, and candlelight tarot card readings by Lilith Avalon. Don't worry, the A/C will be on and the kitchen will still be open, they're not monsters.

One would think that causing such a widespread panic would tarnish the legacy of FirstEnergy Corporation forever, considering they sparked the (at the time) second largest blackout in the world's history. However, bygones are bygones as we gave them the naming rights to everyone's favorite "Factory of Sadness," the Cleveland Browns Stadium just 10 years later.
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