LOS ANGELES (AFP) – A huge power cut hit much of Los Angeles trapping office workers in elevators for up to two hours and causing tailbacks as traffic lights went down.
Authorities blamed a power cable that was "accidentally" cut but the incident came as a new shock to the nation two years after power cuts in the northeast that lasted several days, and two weeks after Hurricane Katrina caused widespread devastation along the Gulf Coast.
The power cut hit a large part of metropolitan Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley in the middle of the day with power going out at 12:37 pm (1937 GMT) and staying off for about two hours in most areas.
Ron Deaton, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), said city maintenance workers had accidentally cut a line at a receiving station, then connected it to another line "that was not expecting that amount of electricity."
He said the surge triggered outages that knocked out service to more than two million people in parts of the city of Los Angeles and its immediate suburbs.
An Al-Qaeda videotape released Sunday had promised an attack on Los Angeles but authorities quickly reassured the public that terrorism was not suspected.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the outage was caused solely by human error, though the timing of the problem prompted concern.
"Like every other city, Los Angeles experiences power outages from time to time," Villaraigosa said. "The fact that this one happened today on the heels of September 11 and on the non-specific threat reported yesterday created a heightened sense of concern."
"I”m here to assure you that our city is prepared to handle these situations … power was restored to the vast majority of DWP customers, 90 percent, within the first two hours," he said.
Police put their forces on a "tactical alert" with all officers ordered to remain on duty until further orders and only emergency calls answered. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton surveyed the city by helicopter during the outage.
Fire brigade helicopters were also ordered into the skies. Los Angeles fire department spokesman Jim Wells said there had been many reports of people stuck in building elevators but "no major problems."
Many offices and schools came to a standstill and traffic lights also went out at traffic junctions on busy streets causing jams in a city where tailbacks are notorious.
Lights flickered at Los Angeles International Airport before backup power came on. An airport spokesman, Tom Winfrew, told AFP there was no problem with flight operations. The rail system was also able to keep running with emergency power.
The United States has suffered a number of power crises in recent years and energy shortages are becoming an increasing concern in Congress.
In August 2003, 50 million homes lost power in New York and other parts of the northeast United States. Tens of thousands of people slept on the streets of New York the first night because they could not get home.
The breakdown was traced back to a problem at a power station in Ohio that rippled through the entire grid in the region.
California imposed rolling power cuts in 2001 because of a chaotic deregulation scheme that forced power producers in the state to sell much of their output, the effect of a drought and several other circumstances that put critical strains on the power grid.