Brazzil
March 1999
Short and Longer Notes

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.

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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