Friday, August 15, 2003

15 Ohio counties also dark

By Gregory Korte and Spencer Hunt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Across northern Ohio Wednesday, pedestrians helped police officers direct traffic, sheriffs locked down county jails and television stations were knocked off the air.

State emergency management officials said all or part of 15 Ohio counties were without power.

Northeastern Ohio has already been plagued by storms and flooding this summer, and some were finding a sense of humor in the situation.

"We're just waiting for the pestilence," said Mark Williamson, a spokesman for the city of Akron. "We've had everything else."

The affected counties were Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Huron, Knox, Lake Lorain, Lucas, Morrow, Ottawa, Portage, Richland, Summit and Stark. Those counties are home to 3.7 million people.

Traffic jams afflicted big cities and small towns alike.

The outage hit during rush hour in Cleveland, leaving intersections with no traffic lights jammed with cars. On the commuter rail system known as the Rapid, trains came to a stop in midroute, requiring passengers to walk to the nearest station.

In Norwalk, population 15,000, railroad-crossing gates went down automatically, stopping traffic on state routes.

Other cities without power included Akron, Elyria, Lorain, Mansfield, Sandusky and Tiffin.

But outages were scattered and intermittent. Most of Canton had power, but Stark County neighbor Massillon did not.

Cleveland's woes were more like New York City's. Firefighters rescued people trapped in elevators, and flights were delayed at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.

Most major hospitals had backup power for vital functions. Air conditioning wasn't one of them.

"Everyone is very hot because the air conditioning is off. Our laboring moms are suffering," said Olga Kropko, a University Hospitals labor and delivery nurse.

She said the hospital was operating under disaster mode, meaning no staff could leave and additional personnel might be called in.

Police agencies from Ashtabula and Toledo were stretched thin, calling in reserves and locking down county jails to free up corrections officers for patrol duties.

Communication problems were the order of the day, as power outages at repeater stations meant sheriff's deputies in rural counties lost radio contact with dispatchers.

Mansfield Police Chief Phil Messer said his officers wouldn't respond to nonemergency calls until at least this afternoon, and officers were being doubled up in cruisers for safety.

"When dark hits, every burglar worth his salt is going to be out tonight, knowing the security alarms are going to be out," he said.

Even with traffic lights out, police said there were surprisingly few reports of any auto accidents.

"Everybody's been extremely cautious," said Williamson, the Akron spokesman.. "People are more guarded when something like this happens. They take their time."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer printed a scaled-down newspaper on the presses of the Akron Beacon Journal , invoking a rarely used agreement between the two competitors to help each other publish in the case of an emergency, said James Crutchfield, Beacon Journal publisher.

Phone lines and cellular towers were out in many areas, and authorities were asking people not to make unnecessary calls. Not knowing how long outages would last, authorities were also asking people to conserve water.

Prisons in Conneaut, Grafton, Lorain and Toledo, housing about 5,100 inmates, lost power and were using backup generators, said prison system spokeswoman Jo Ellen Culp. Power was out at the Lima Correctional Institution but the outage was not believed to be part of the bigger problem, she said.

Ohio's two nuclear plants - Perry in Lake County and Davis-Besse in Ottawa County - were shut down as a precaution.

The Associated Press, the (Mansfield) News Journal and USA Today contributed to this report.

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