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Blackout 2003: Governments Are Still Responding Ten Years Later

Where were you when the lights went out in 2003?


Where were you when the lights went out in the Northeast during the late afternoon of August 14, 2003? What did you do? Where did you go?

And how did your government respond? Are they ready for the next outage?

Those questions went viral online this past week, with a long list of fascinating articles as well as intriguing commentaries regarding how the electric grid is doing ten years later. Coffeepot chatter at businesses and governments throughout the USA looked back to those extremely hot August days a decade ago.

Here are three of my favorite flashback pieces:

The Huffington Post photos – Seeing the lines of thousands of people walking out of New York seem almost unbelievable, but yes, this did happen.

The Washington Post quotes from observers ring true. Here’s an amazing excerpt:

   "Lysa Stanton is still known as the Blackout Bride around Cleveland.

   Ten years ago, she was handling a last-minute errand with her future husband   before their wedding the next day when the traffic signals and storefronts went dark. Office workers and shoppers began streaming into parking lots.

   “It was eerie,” she remembered. “All of sudden everyone came out. That’s what scared me.’”

 I remember feeling and seeing similar things in Lansing, Michigan. But I did not have a wedding the next day.

Last, but not least, here’s’s account of facts and events of what happened in Michigan back in August 2003. The pictures of the bottled water remind me of how important it was to get H2O from Grand Rapids to Detroit during that emergency.

Michigan Government’s Response?

Getting a bit more personal, I remember our Michigan government’s response to unfolding events that day. In November of that year, I wrote this article on the Blackout of 2003 a few months after the emergency, which summarizes what happened at our State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) from my perspective.

Here’s one excerpt from that article:

     For Michigan's Department of Information Technology (MDIT), the power  outage enabled us to gain a more positive "can do" reputation with our customers. Our relatively new department has now lived through an emergency with the agencies we serve, which helped build trust. Not only did the blackout strengthen the new relationship with our client agencies, it showed the tremendous accomplishments we can achieve through teamwork in our own agency.

When I think back ten years to the Blackout of 2003, my mind inevitably goes to the people involved. I think of the citizens who were impacted. The different teams we had in state government came together as never before. We had excellent coordinated response led by Michigan State Police (MSP), other agencies and the private sector. Also, our new technology team grew up fast during that emergency.

I remember that MSP Captain John Ort, who normally would have directed our statewide response at the SEOC, was in Mexico at the time, so Inspector Kristie Etue did a great job leading us during that emergency. Ten years later Colonel Etue is Commander of Michigan State Police after being appointed as the first female Director of MSP by Governor Rick Snyder in 2011.

And Teri Takai was also there most of the blackout weekend. Ms. Takai was the former Michigan Chief Information Officer (CIO). She moved on to be the CIO of California and is currently the CIO for the US Department of Defense (DoD). And while others who were there have moved into impressive leadership roles, other responders are enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

You never know where those around you will end up some day. I try to remember that in every crisis there is also an opportunity to make a difference for good.

One more observation from ten years later: The relationships and trust built during that emergency strengthened partnerships and built trust between internal and external groups and people. Those relationships assisted in our building our cybersecurity program with millions of dollars in Department of Homeland Security grants to strengthen our physical and cyber defenses.

Coming Next: Smart Grid Questions

Moving forward, everyone wants to hear that the electric grid and our many other utilities are safe today. While it would easy to simplify our current situation and say that “all is well,” that response is far too simplistic in 2013. Yes, there are still significant risks today.

In fact, Government and private sector groups all over the country are working harder than ever on critical infrastructure protection activities. The sense of urgency to work on public / private partnerships has even grown this year with Presidential directives on protecting the most important critical infrastructures.

Some experts believe that a major attack against the grid is inevitable. Back two years ago, this article from Infosec Island predicted that a successful attack against the smart grid is coming. Other articles from earlier this year asks questions related to cyberattacks such as: Are you prepared?

In response, there are plenty of very smart people working to protect utilities and other aspects of critical infrastructure. This IBM Smart Planet website offers various approaches and ideas regarding protecting the smart grid. I know that the utilities in Michigan take this issue very seriously and are constantly improving their defenses.

The Environment Defense Fund (EDF) offers these a wide range of smart grid resources on this topic at their EDF website as well.

Final Thoughts

One thing is clear: we continue to learn about new aspects of emergency situations ten years later. We hope for the best and plan for the worst. Over the past decade Michigan has participated in Cyberstorm exercises and National Level exercises to test our cyber defense and response plans. We have more tabletop exercises planned moving forward.

And yes, there will be other emergencies. There have been for hundreds of years.

Whether from fires, floods, tornadoes, ice storms or perhaps from a cyberattack, the lights will go out again somewhere in America. And state and local governments will work with our federal and the private sector partners to restore services.

Planning, defending, preparing, responding and recovering from all hazards is what we do. And we can always get better.

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.