Statewide blackout darkens University

Students were trapped in elevators and evacuated from classrooms, offices, lecture halls, the Library and the student union Tuesday afternoon after a statewide blackout brought the University’s day-to-day operations to a halt for nearly an hour.

Nobody was hurt, according to University Police, although traffic lights at the intersections of Palm and Laurel and Willow and Maple stopped working during the outage.

People were stuck in elevators in the ROTC building, Cooper Hall and the Crescent Hill Garage, UP Spokeswoman Lt. Meg Ross said.

At the Phyllis P. Marshall Center, the blackout struck at the peak of lunch hour – about 1:15 p.m. Because there wasn’t electricity, patrons couldn’t pay for their meals. The management of the cafeteria allowed patrons who were already line and could not pay with cash to keep their food, as long as they promised to return to pay on the honor system.

For location manager Mark Smith, who has worked at the University for five years, the blackout was a unique experience, as he had never yet seen such an unexpected outage during his tenure.

“The power went off abruptly, without warning,” he said.

It is unclear whether food was lost, or whether all the people who left with food returned later to pay for their meals.

Customers were evacuated from the USF Bookstore for safety reasons, assistant manager Bryan Bell said.

The Bookstore reopened when power was restored.

The University did not officially cancel classes, but some professors chose to do so because of the outage.

Student Government’s Election Rules Committee, which is overseeing student body president and SG Senate elections Tuesday and today, will not extend voting because of the outage, Supervisor of Elections Cassandra Hall said.

The blackout was felt at the USF residence halls and several student apartment complexes near campus. The Pointe, located on 138th Avenue, lost power for nearly a half-hour, as did St. Croix, which is located off of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. College Court, Campus Lodge and ON50 were not affected. The Edge at 42nd, which was originally told by Tampa Electric Company (TECO) that it wouldn’t have power until Thursday, regained its electricity after 25 minutes, said Cheri Johnson, leasing agent for The Edge.

MoBull Plus – the text-messaging system the University uses to notify students of emergencies – did not send out an alert about the power outage as it was not considered dangerous, USF spokesman Ken Gullette said.

“It’s not a MoBull situation because no one’s life is in danger,” he said.

Even the University’s Web site was down temporarily because of the blackout. Christopher Akin, associate director of Information Technology at USF, said the site was temporarily offline because of a “network blip during the blackout,” and was back up in less than an hour.

He also said that a blackout would not put MoBull offline, as it is run by an off-campus company called Rave Wireless, which is based outside of the state.

When the power went out across campus, students shuffled about in front of darkened buildings, and many were curious to know what had happened and whether they still had to go to class.

“This blonde girl was waiting at Subway and freaking out,” said Aimee LeClair, a junior majoring in mass communications. “She’s like, ‘does this mean there’s a terrorist?'”

Nearly 50,000 people in the Tampa Bay area were affected by the blackout, which originated in South Florida, said Rick Morera, spokesman for TECO. About 80 percent of customers regained power later in the afternoon, he said.

Stan Johnson, manager of situation awareness for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), said the outage was caused by a short circuit at a Florida Power and Light (FPL)-owned electric substation in South Florida.

Johnson compared the electric grid – or system – to a highway, saying that a substation was like an interchange where the direction and flow of power is routed. Tuesday’s incident was “like an accident on an interchange,” he said, as the transfers did not take place properly.

Eight power plants shut down “to protect themselves” when the short circuit took place, affecting TECO, he said.

“When those eight power plants shut down, the electricity they were making is no longer available,” he said. “Therefore, people’s lights went out.”

Johnson, who said NERC monitors how power flows in addition to developing standards by which utilities sell each other power, said the transfer of electricity from one location to another is a very delicate process, complicating the prevention of outages.

“It has to be done just right or the lights go out,” he said. “It did not happen in this case, so we need to find out what happened.”

Mayco Villafana, a spokesman for FPL, said the company is still working to figure out what caused the outage.

Blair Heusdens, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Emergency Management, said 800,000 people lost power at the peak of the blackout. By Tuesday evening, all but 80,000 had regained electricity, she said, and no injuries were reported.

With reporting from Christine Gibson, Candace Kaw, Amy Mariani, Joe Rienzi and Cynthia Roldan.