The Darkest Night

    The
Darkest
Night

    Brasília’s authorities wanted to dispel the notion that the
    blackout had anything to do with the privatization of the power system in the country.Au
    contraire, they explained, the accident proves that the privatization was necessary. The
    country is in need of more transmission lines and only the private sector has the money
    today for such an investment.
    By Francesco Neves

    It could have been much worse, but the biggest blackout Brazil ever had was bad enough.
    At 10:16 PM on March 11, the lights went out in 11 southern and central states, plus the
    Federal District, leaving more than 97 million Brazilians out of a 160 million
    population—including those from Rio and São Paulo, the most populated
    centers—without electricity. Those who thought the lights would come back on soon
    went to sleep or had to wait up to four hours. Had the disaster hit a few hours earlier
    during rush time the chaos would have been much greater.

    What happened? The government, taken by surprise, took a whole day to find the answer.
    A lightning bolt hit a power substation close to Bauru, a city 220 miles northwest of São
    Paulo, disabling five electrical supply lines. The explanation was given by Mines and
    Energy Minister Rodolpho Tourinho who insisted: "A lightning bolt is an exceptional
    fact, there is no reason for doubting the reliability of the Brazilian electrical
    system."

    More than anything Brasília’s authorities wanted to dispel the notion that the
    blackout had anything to do with the privatization of the power system in the country. The
    sale of these state companies is an essential part of an agreement signed between Brazil
    and the International Monetary Fund to secure fresh _ and much needed _ loans for the
    country. Coincidentally, it was at the beginning of March that the private company
    Operadora Nacional de Sistemas de Energia took over government control of the country’s
    transmission lines. "No, the privatization is not at fault," guaranteed the
    government. Au contraire, they explained, the accident proves that the privatization was
    necessary. The country is in need of more transmission lines and only the private sector
    has the money today for such an investment.

    In Rio the military police placed 1,200 men in the streets to avoid looting. In São
    Paulo, traffic authorities announced they closed the city’s tunnels to prevent assaults.
    In Botucatu, in the interior of São Paulo, obstetrician Émerson Domingos da Costa was in
    the middle of a cesarean delivery when the lights went out. Everything worked out fine,
    but everybody in the delivery room was very scared. "At that moment I imagined what
    the President would have done if it were his daughter," said da Costa later.

    Seven thousand Cariocas (Rio residents) called Light, the company that provides
    electricity in the city, to complain about TV sets and other electrical devices that were
    damaged by the mishap. Not to worry. Firmino Sampaio, the president of Eletrobrás (the
    federal body in charge of energy and power) left it clear the next day that nobody would
    be reimbursed for their losses.

    There were reports of robberies in almost every big city without electricity, but in
    São Paulo the number of murders fell by one third (from the average 15 to 5). That’s
    because the bars were closed, explained the police. More than 60,000 people were on Rio’s
    subway when lights went out. The evacuation operation required 200 Metro workers and
    lasted until 2:30 in the morning. Dozens of passenger, however, afraid of being assaulted
    in the dark streets refused to abandon the stations Estácio and Del Castilho, forcing
    transit authorities to take them home or to safer places in their vans.

    Commenting on the blackout, Rio’s daily Jornal do Brasil editorialized:

    "Brazil left it clear that authorities are entirely unprepared to face a grave
    emergency situation. During the episode there was no coherent mobilization by the
    government. When the crisis was more acute the newspapers had a hard time finding the
    Mines and Energy minister Rodolfo Tourinho and nobody knew what had happened to President
    Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

    Until Friday afternoon, no one seemed able to find a reasonable explanation for what
    had happened, although the government rushed to declare that the episode would not happen
    again. How they could guarantee that, before knowing the cause, is a mystery that should
    be investigated by the regulating body, the Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica
    (National Agency for Electrical Energy)."

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