Northeast outage tests contingency plans

When electricity failed across the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada last week, it disrupted the daily routines of millions of people, yet most government agencies managed to keep their operations up and running with only a few hiccups.

At the FBI's Detroit field office, for example, emergency power and plans went into effect and everyone reported for work Friday as scheduled, Special Agent Dawn Clenney said.

"We're up and running. We're the FBI," she said. Clenney would not discuss specifics of the bureau's emergency plans.

However, in many places, no electricity means no water. That, in part, forced NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland to shut down altogether Aug. 15. The lack of running water violates regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to a center spokesman.

Agency officials would not comment on the number or type of systems that might have gone down, citing security issues. But the center's Web site was unavailable for some time.

The FBI experienced the same lack of water, but those agents with active cases continued to work in Cleveland during the blackout. "We always have a plan," Special Agent Robert Hawk said. "We're fine; we just don't have anything to drink."

Officials at the Federal Aviation Administration were proud to report that flight services were maintained with minor to no interruption of schedules on the agency's end because its backup power sources kicked in when the blackout occurred.

The problem for millions of travelers nationwide was that the Transportation Security Administration could not continue screening passengers at affected airports. Screenings could be done with handheld wands, but TSA officials decided not to and instead suspended screenings entirely to prevent backups, a spokesman said.

Other agencies had limited problems. Some of the Coast Guard's administrative offices in the Northeast had to shut down, and the agency was unable to raise or lower several bridges along the St. Lawrence seaway. But the systems and vessel-tracking services in the command centers had backup systems that came online as planned, a spokesman for the service said.

Several military bases — including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and Fort Drum in New York — were not affected and did not need to fire up their backup generators, even though the surrounding areas had spotty blackouts.

Others were not as fortunate, but still had few problems. The Air Force Research Lab in Rome, N.Y., lost power, but the "core services weren't affected," according to a spokesman. And a five-hour blackout at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., did not cause problems because cadets have not yet returned for classes.

Federal agencies working with state and local governments found that coordination occurred as planned (see box, Page 8).

Local offices of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which work with state counterparts, briefly lost e-mail access, Web sites and other Internet services, but they stayed in business. "They are part of the contingency plans of their states," said Ed Curlett, an APHIS spokesman. "We're in the loop on that."

The Homeland Security Department activated the emergency support team in Washington, D.C., part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's legacy, to help affected states, but none requested aid, a spokesman said.

The department also deployed mobile emergency support detachments to New York to ensure communication among headquarters and the states, but as of the afternoon of Aug. 15, they were not needed, the spokesman said.

Randall Edwards, Diane Frank, Matthew French, Sara Michael and Dibya Sarkar contributed to this report.

About the Author

Connect with the FCW staff on Twitter @FCWnow.


  • Defense
    Ryan D. McCarthy being sworn in as Army Secretary Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Sgt. Dana Clarke/U.S. Army)

    Army wants to spend nearly $1B on cloud, data by 2025

    Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said lack of funding or a potential delay in the JEDI cloud bid "strikes to the heart of our concern."

  • Congress
    Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) at the Hack the Capitol conference Sept. 20, 2018

    Jim Langevin's view from the Hill

    As chairman of of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committe and a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jim Langevin is one of the most influential voices on cybersecurity in Congress.

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.