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Superpower US grapples with Third World grid

Washington, Aug. 16: Two days after 50 million north Americans across the US and Canada were plunged into a blackout, there is still no clear idea of what caused the breakdown which has cost the already depressed US economy billions of dollars.

The US and Canada are blaming each other for the worst power outage in the history of the two countries. But as power supply was restored in most affected states last night, the two governments announced a joint task force to go into the cause of the blackout and propose steps to prevent its recurrence. The task force will be headed by US energy secretary Spencer Abraham and Canada’s minister for natural resources Herb Dhaliwal.

Although electricity and civic authorities today claimed a 100 per cent return to normal supplies in New York, thousands of passengers are still stranded at the three major airports in the New York area.

They include a large number of Indians who had either flown in from India to take domestic connections or vice versa. Similar scenes were reported from Toronto and Detroit.

In Cleveland, Ohio, restoration of power has not adequately helped resume supply of water, which is pumped to the city’s high lying areas and high-rise residences. Like in Indian cities, residents are now being advised to boil water for four minutes before drinking or to buy mineral water.

In Michigan’s biggest city of Detroit too, power is back, but petrol stations are still unable to pump fuel, causing long lines and frayed tempers among motorists. Detroit, known as America’s motoring capital, accounts for four per cent of US gross domestic product. There, all the 54 car making facilities will remain closed till Monday.

Across this continent’s north east to mid-west, there were impromptu barbecue parties in communities, where people emptied refrigerators of thawing frozen food, put them on gas-run barbecues in candle-lit yards and cooked meat to prevent the food from getting spoiled.

In New York, supermarkets handed out melting ice cream cones to strangers, while restaurants, including some Indian ones in Manhattan, served free meals after civic authorities warned of contamination of food from lack of refrigeration.

Bottled water, which is not perishable, was, however, at a premium, shops having jacked up prices by as much as five times.

India figured prominently in news coverage of the blackout, with American network correspondents in New Delhi reporting that such power outages were all too common in many Indian states.

Most Americans were keen to know the reaction to the blackout in Baghdad, where the US invasion has been followed by a complete breakdown of electric supply in Iraq’s searing summer heat.

There was relief all across the US that no evidence of terrorism had been thrown up although initially there were fears that the blackout may have been a run up to the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Bill Richardson, president Bill Clinton’s energy secretary, now governor of New Mexico, was in great demand at TV talk shows and offered the most memorable quote during the crisis.

He repeatedly said: “We are a superpower with a Third World grid. We need a new grid”.

President George W Bush said: “We will use this rolling blackout as a wake-up call. A wake-up call for the need to modernise our electricity distribution system”.

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