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CNN BREAKING NEWS

White House Reaction to Blackout

Aired August 15, 2003 - 07:08   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's check in at the White House right now. CNN's John King was on the air for hours yesterday afternoon.
John -- what do you have there? Good morning.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, of course, the urgent focus here at the White House and across the federal government is to find out exactly what happened -- that is still a mystery this morning after the cascading blackout -- and to find out what can be done next.

The president was in California raising money and some other appearances out in California. He was briefed throughout the day. He did come out last evening to speak to reporters. The president saying, No. 1, the most important thing he wanted to say was that by all accounts from his sources across the government this was not a terrorist attack. That was perhaps the statement that brought the most relief from the president of the United States.

He also says the federal government will do everything it can to help. And we understand there was a call with utility companies orchestrated by the White House after midnight last night, another one planned this morning, to try to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and what can be done to get the power back up as quickly as possible.

One of the big policy questions here in Washington will be: Was this because of an antiquated electricity grid, especially in the Northeast? The president says his early hunch is that it is, and that the federal government is going to have to help modernize the system.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll have time to look at it and determine whether or not our grid needs to be modernized. I happen to think it does and have said so all along. But this is going to be an interesting lesson for our country, and we'll have to respond to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So, look in the weeks and months ahead for a major policy debate over how this happened -- whether deregulation was to blame, whether the federal government, state governments, the utility companies are to blame. The urgent focus, of course, on this morning hour is restoring power to those who need it the most. And, Bill, this was not a terrorist attack, the government says, but it was a major test to post-9/11 of how the government responds to a major episode and a major potential terrorist attack, as they thought it was in the early minutes.

Across the federal government officials are saying they believe the response was actually handled quite well. They will learn some lessons from this, just as they did from September 11.

Look for a major debate now over just how this happened and whether the federal government needs to step in to make sure there are more firewalls, more redundancies, more precautions and protections, so that when you have one plant go out, as is suspected here, it cannot cascade and put tens of millions of people in the United States and neighboring Canada in the dark -- Bill.

HEMMER: Yes, John, I think that last point you make is very well taken.

Just to follow it up a bit more. What did you learn about Homeland Security and how it responded yesterday in the early hours of this crisis?

KING: Well, had this happened before 9/11, you would have had the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one part of the federal government. You would have had other law enforcement agencies, another part of the federal government. This is all now coordinated, and many of these agencies are now actually part of the new Department of Homeland Security.

The new systems, the new protocols immediately kicked in. A video conference, led by the Department of Homeland Security, including the White House and other federal agencies. The FBI kicked in. All of the other agencies kicked in.

White House officials say they are very satisfied with both the federal and the local response.

And we are told that the Federal Emergency Preparedness people were ready to step in and help. They say one of the most remarkable things here -- and we saw the pictures on our air throughout the day in New York yesterday. Officials say the situation is much the same in Cleveland, Toledo, other cities affected by this. They say local officials responded almost perfectly, they believe, in terms of security and law enforcement. And they say the citizens handled this quite calmly, no requests at all for federal assistance in terms of emergency management or emergency preparedness, at least not yet. And that's quite remarkable.

HEMMER: John, thanks -- our senior White House correspondent on the Front Lawn this morning. We'll check in a bit later.

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