Power Restored To Millions In California, Arizona

Southern California and parts of Arizona and Northern Mexico were without power after a transmission line went out Thursday. The cause of the blackout is being investigated. San Diego & Electric Co., says the outage will likely be traced to an employee removing a piece of monitoring equipment at a power substation in southwest Arizona. Reporter Amy Isackson in San Diego speaks to David Greene about the outage.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

In California and Arizona and also parts of Mexico, people are recovering from a massive power outage that was apparently caused by a single utility worker. About five million people were left in the dark yesterday afternoon.

Power is being restored this morning, but what a chaotic day yesterday. Transportation came to a halt, airports grounded flights. People were trapped on amusement park rides and in elevators. All this, it appears, because of a mishap involving one utility employee who was doing maintenance work on a high-voltage power line in Arizona. That line extends to California. San Diego County bore the brunt of the blackout, and that's where we find reporter Amy Isackson.

Amy, good morning.

AMY ISACKSON: Good morning.

GREENE: When we spoke a little while ago, you were actually still in the dark there, and I think talking to me from a firehouse, where they were letting you use their generator. It sounds like power's coming back. Where are you now, and are things getting back to normal?

ISACKSON: I am home now, and the lights are on. Earlier...

GREENE: OK.

ISACKSON: ...I went up to the fire station because their landline was working, whereas mine wasn't, because it plugs into the wall, like many people's phones these days.

But the lights are back on. The power has been restored. The local power company, San Diego Gas and Electric, is saying almost all of San Diego County, it's back up for about 1.4 million households.

And that happened much more quickly than officials were anticipating on Thursday night. They said it wouldn't be until midday today that most people got their power back, and Saturday for some.

GREENE: People will have a better beginning for the weekend than they expected, it sounds like. Well, I know officials are still trying to figure out what exactly went wrong, and how a single mishap could cause such widespread chaos. What do you know about how this was triggered?

ISACKSON: It appears that it was operator error. Power officials in Arizona say that an employee somewhere near Yuma was carrying out some kind of procedure maintenance, and that tripped a major transmission line that connects Arizona and California. And the mechanism that should've just contained that outage did not kick in, and that's what set everything off. Had everything gone right, just Yuma would've been affected. But instead, it was a wide swath of Southern California, as far north as Orange County and all the way south into Baja, California and Mexico, because that state is tapped into the U.S. power grid.

San Diego power officials say, though, there will be a broad investigation into this with state and federal officials to see if there were other factors that contributed to this outage. They're calling it unprecedented, that they have not seen a blackout like this ever in San Diego.

GREENE: Sounds like the safeguards just didn't kick in.

Amy, I know it's been hot in parts of the affected area. So it must have been frustrating not to have the power on for a lot of people. How have people been reacting to the outage, in general?

ISACKSON: People yesterday, there was - I would call it kind of controlled chaos when the power went out. People's computer screens just suddenly went blank. Cell service was largely cut off. People in downtown San Diego were getting cups of water from hotels. There were bike cabs that were giving people free rides home. Some people even stalled out on the freeway because they had driven to work on fumes and they ran out of gas on the way home. People were talking about their normal half-hour commute taking, in some cases, two to three hours to get back, some people in San Diego suburbs locked out of their gated communities.

And at first, people were really jittery with the anniversary of 9-11 coming up. They had a suspicion that this could be a terror attack. But yesterday evening, once it was clear that it was not terror-related, people relaxed, and there were people out in the street, in lawn chairs, enjoying the stars, which we don't get like this normally in San Diego because the lights are on.

GREENE: So it sounds like a bit of an upside. Well, it was quite a mess, but it sounds like the power is starting to come back. That's reporter Amy Isackson, talking to us from San Diego.

Amy, thank you.

ISACKSON: Thank you. You're welcome.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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