The following column appeared in The Boston Globe on Tuesday.
It was not — repeat, not — Beyonce's fault. It turns out that the Super Bowl's half-time performer brought her own generator to the Superdome in New Orleans. She was not to blame for the 34-minute blackout that followed soon after her performance, plunging half the stadium into darkness and contributing, perhaps, to the San Francisco 49ers' short-lived surge against the Baltimore Ravens.
A few days and many press conferences later, there is no definitive answer to what happened. The Ravens eventually won the game, making the blackout seem less of a decisive episode. But the rampant speculation that Beyonce's electric performance may have literally knocked the lights out is a sad comment on how people respond to unexpected events. Someone must be at fault; a single source of failure must explain it all.
Not so. The blackout should be examined not merely to cast blame, but to learn about how systems work (and don't work) and how people respond (and don't respond) when there is a Big Fail. The bad news was that half the stadium went dark; the good news was that the other half remained lit, and staff responded calmly. Thus, the Blackout Bowl turned out to be more of a tie than people think.
We know now that this wasn't an act of terrorism, mayhem, or Internet hacking. A piece of equipment meant to monitor the electrical load sensed an abnormality in delivery, triggering a break in energy flow. Pre-positioned backup generators went into action. It is still unclear what caused the abnormality; city leaders, the National Football League, utility provider Entergy, and the Superdome's management have all promised thorough, independent reviews.
Extra credit goes to the control room workers who, as seen on an internal video feed, calmly assessed the problem and began seeking solutions. Superdome officials quickly notified ticket holders to stay put; ATMs and vendors' lights were turned off to relieve additional stress on the grid. At the moment of failure, Doug Thornton, a Superdome manager, invoked the ”Houston, we've had a problem” mantra by calmly telling his colleague, with 108 million viewers waiting, ”Frank, we lost the A feed.”
But their calmness may be attributable to the fact that Doug, Frank, and just about anybody involved with the Superdome management had been preparing for a potential power outage for months. An early assessment by an electrical consulting firm had held that the Superdome's main electrical feed was ”not sufficiently reliable to support the high profile event scheduled.” Emergency repairs were conducted, but apparently were not enough to prevent the blackout.
That the potential glitch was anticipated is not, in itself, a sign of negligence. A large structure like the Superdome, especially one that was built back in 1975 and extensively damaged during Hurricane Katrina, is a web of complicated systems, all dependent on each other. They are exceedingly difficult to coordinate, but designed to limit any damage if one part fails, a precaution called ”safe failure.” Thus, the Superdome remained half lit.
The most obvious public deficiency had less to do with electricity, and more with communication. The immediate responses by those in charge were hardly satisfying: The NFL pointed fingers at the Superdome management; Entergy said the problem was on the ”customer's” end; and the city, hoping to host a Super Bowl again, urged everyone to put it in perspective. The main culprit was the CBS network, which quickly assured its paying commercial clients that their ads would still be running, even before reporting on the problem.
When a high-profile event is cast in darkness with the whole world watching, a little real-time education is in order, especially by the media. The public deserves it. New Orleans deserves it.
Those who saw the Superdome as half-dark may feel the main priority should be finding who is to blame, but that won't necessarily prevent problems in the future. Those who saw the Superdome as half-lit risk minimizing the significance of such a global embarrassment, and thus losing the impetus to examine procedures and responsibilities.
On Sunday, there was a glitch. The glitch was isolated. Some responses were professional; others were lacking. There is much to learn from those 34 minutes, because something like it will almost certainly happen in the future.
Just as Beyonce is sure to electrify again.