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Amped-Up Over Nothing

Okay, now you try it. You pull on the cable like this, you take your wire clippers in your right hand, and you... no, not that cable! Zap. Yikes. Gosh, it’s dark in here.

Los Angeles’ power outage on Monday plunged about 2 million people into — well, no, not darkness. It was in the middle of the day. But it virtually shut down the — wait. It really didn’t shut down anything, at least not for long. Businesses stayed open. Traffic was snarled. The trains stopped, then started again. Meetings were delayed. People were annoyed and confused.

In other words, it was a pretty normal day.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said the power failure was caused by workers who accidentally snipped the wrong wires, or perhaps cut wires in one big clump instead of cutting them separately, triggering a short when the naked ends touched each other. The interruption gave electric current nowhere to go and threatened to burn out transmission stations down the line. So two generating plants shut down to avoid a catastrophic overload, exactly like they are supposed to.

DWP workers found the source of the problem in about an hour, and fixed it about a half hour after that. The lights were back on in less time than it takes to get City Council members to show up for a meeting and move through the consent agenda.

There was a brief moment of panic, spurred in part by a September 11 videotape warning of an al-Qaeda attack on the city at some point. Plus, the devastation of Katrina on New Orleans and the adjacent coast has made a permanent imprint on the public consciousness. A total social meltdown in the U.S. was once unimaginable, but now we have seen it.

The prospect of a terror attack, or even an infrastructure meltdown, put the L.A. outage in the worldwide news.

And then it was over. Nothing to see here. Move along.

New York, Michigan, Toronto, 2003 — now that was a blackout. People climbed out of darkened subway tunnels and trudged home on foot, some walking 10 miles or more. Then there was the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, when thousands spent the night on subway platforms or in darkened offices. Folklore has it that the birthrate spiked about nine months later.

No, it wasn’t like that here. The astonishing thing about the not-so-great Los Angeles Blackout of 12:30-2 p.m. September 12, 2005, is that it was not at all astonishing and will be forgotten by the end of the week. That’s because L.A. owns its own electric power company, its own generators, its own transmission lines, and can fix its blunders fairly quickly. Sure, there’s something a little rankling, and in the end a little amusing, about one worker with wire clippers shutting down the whole system. But that’s how electric power works. We know we are vulnerable.

For panic, you’ll have to check the Los Angeles Times, which made the outage into a rare Page One local news story — plus another four stories besides. “Outage Over, but Concerns Grow in L.A.,” the lead headline read. I suspect the concerns had something to do with the power being out at the Times itself. By the way, 44 Times reporters had byline or contributor credit on those five stories.

It’s usually the Daily News that sports the over-the-top headlines, but this time the paper — based in Woodland Hills, which, come to think of it, was not affected by the blackout — struck just the right tone with a headline that summed up the situation perfectly:

“Oops!”

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