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Ref: Power outage in South Florida shuts down communities but initiates quick response

Miami Herald

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FPL: All power back by 5:30 p.m.

Traffic lights, air conditioners and elevators began returning to life Tuesday afternoon -- and something approaching normalcy began returning to South Florida -- after a major power outage cascaded through much of region and the state.

Florida Power & Light said it hoped to have all customers back in service by 5:30 p.m. Anyone without power at that time should call 1-800-4-OUTAGE.

Still, an especially difficult evening rush hour appeared to be in store for South Floridians.

The precise cause remained a mystery, but the problem began in an FPL substation in West Miami-Dade County -- not in the utility's nuclear plant at Turkey Point -- and then rolled through the system, according to Aletha Player, a company spokeswoman.

''This failure is in no way a safety issue,'' she said.

Many experts, however, remained puzzled. Normally, a problem at a single substation should not cause an outage of the magnitude that dominoed through the state Tuesday.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez said there was no sign that ''criminal activity'' was involved in the power failure. He attributed it to a ''procedural'' issue at FPL.

At the peak of the blackout, about 700,000 customers were without power, Player said. Within two hours, 500,000 of those customers were back in service.

FPL has 4.4 million customers in Florida, though the outage also affected customers of other utilities.

State officials said that more than two million customers temporarily were in the dark in South Florida, in Hillsborough and Sarasota counties on the state's Gulf Coast, and in Orange, Lake, Brevard and Volusia counties in Central Florida.

In all of those areas and especially in South Florida, the failure disrupted life in nearly every imaginable way.

• At one point, Miami-Dade schools briefly delayed regular dismissals, but school buses began moving shortly after 3 p.m.

• Hospitals temporarily operated on backup power, but later returned to normal operations.

''We had a blip here and the generators kicked in immediately,'' Jackson Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Lorraine Nelson said.

Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and Baptist Hospital in southwest Miami-Dade reported similar situations.

• Fire rescue units rescued several people trapped in elevators.

The volume of emergency calls returned to normal in Miami-Dade by 4:20 p.m. and Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo said he had recalled extra units that were on the street.

''During the peak of the outage, we were running all over town,'' said Lorenzo, who had canceled training and other events to maximize the number of fire-rescue units responding to 911 calls.

• Some cellphone service failed along with the power.

• Brief delays were reported at Miami International Airport, but service was not affected at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

• Police initially reported many traffic accidents and dispatched officers to as many intersections as possible, but signals later began flicking back on.

As the failure struck, all but four of Miami-Dade County's 2,670 traffic lights blinked off when the power outage began at precisely 1:09 p.m. ''A massive failure,'' said Robert Williams, chief of the county's traffic signals division.

By 3 p.m., 92 percent of the lights were functioning as power was restored one intersection, one neighborhood at a time, though far more quickly than after Hurricane Wilma left nearly the entire region without electricity in 2005.

In downtown Miami and in the Brickell business district, the loss of power plunged motorists into gridlock -- and as office towers lost air conditioning, thousands of employees streamed onto the streets, filling up tables in sidewalk cafes.

Some parking garage attendants made the ultimate professional sacrifice: They raised the barricades and allowed cars to pass in and out without paying.

FPL said the precise cause of the outage still was not known at 4 p.m., but Player said it began at a substation in West Dade. Fail-safes in the power grid shut down parts of the system.

''The system performed as it should have,'' she said. ``Our system is designed to protect the system.''

Said Bob Trapp of the state's Public Service Commission: ``The system protected itself by going into rotating blackouts. It has a ripple effect throughout the state.''

Both nuclear reactors at FPL's Turkey Point's tripped off unexpectedly, taking a plant that supplies power to more than 450,000 homes almost instantly off-line, but that was a consequence of the initial failure, not the originating cause, FPL said.

April Schilpp, FPL's senior manager for nuclear communications, said automatic safety systems took down the plant's two nuclear reactors, as well as three fossil fuel burning units, when sensors detected a loss of electrical power being fed to the plant from outside.

That electricity runs many of the plant's operating systems, such as cooling pumps.

''If we lose all off-site power, which is what happened in this case, then the plant automatically shuts down,'' she said.

The electric grid is interconnected and has many built-in breakers and transfer points. Ordinarily, when there's a break at one place in the system, the changes to other parts of the grid are so seamless that most customers don'tnotice.

For there to be a massive regional or wider outage, the system has either had an elemental failure or there were so many failures cascading along the lines that the system was overwhelmed.

The service failures came during an unusually warm February day in South Florida, with temperatures reaching near-record highs. At 1 p.m, Miami and West Palm Beach reported a reading of 84 degrees; it was 83 degrees in Fort Lauderdale.

Some air conditioning companies reported summer-like levels of service calls, but it was not known if the heat caused or contributed to the failure.

Locally, FPL and others reported blackouts in portions of Miami, Doral, Westchester, Pembroke Pines, Miramar and Boca Raton.

In Broward, the problem appeared to be limited to the southwestern suburbs.

At least six Broward public schools were still without power at 2:30 p.m.

They included Flanagan High, Pines Middle, Davie Elementary, McNab Elementary and Nova Eisenhower and Nova Blanche Forman elementaries, according to district spokesman Andrew Feirstein.

Students were dismissed according to their regular schedules, Feirstein said.

Craig Fugate, the state's emergency management director, ordered the state's Emergency Operations Center to gear up in response to the outage.

Miami-Dade activated its emergency operations center shortly before 2 p.m., requiring all essential personnel to report to the Doral office.

In South Beach, Robert Greenberg, an Internet marketing specialist with an office above Epicure Market, waited out the power outage outside.

''There's nothing I can do about it, so why get all upset about it?'' said Greenberg, 47.

Beside him, soaking up the sun, was Michael Smith, 64. He was about to enter Epicure when they said he couldn't go in because of the power failure.

''What's there to be upset about?'' he asked. ``We live in paradise.''

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