Power Outage Strikes Much of Cambridge

As temperatures in Boston flirted with the century mark yesterday, much of Cambridge and Harvard lost power early yesterday afternoon for a little over an hour and a half because of a malfunction in two electricity transformers.

According to NSTAR, Cambridge’s power distributor, the outage affected 20,000 customers mostly in the M.I.T., Central Square, and Harvard Square areas.

The outage forced many Cambridge businesses to close and forced dozens of Cambridge police officers to direct traffic at the city’s major intersections where traffic lights no longer operated.

On Harvard’s campus, power was lost to most buildings south of the Science Center, including the Allston campus. The outage left virtually all summer school dorm rooms without power and forced the closing of Widener and Pusey libraries.

“Of all the days to have your fan not working, today’s the worst,” said Allison C. Smith, a student in Harvard Summer School’s Secondary School Program.

However, according to Thomas E. Vautin, Harvard’s vice president for facilities and environment services, the loss of power mainly just caused a nuisance for the University—primarily setting off a number of fire alarms.

Another nuisance from the power outage was a flood of old e-mail sent out to undergraduates by the Undergraduate Council’s automated voting system. The UC Vote computer server sent out thousands of messages confirming votes that students had cast in last-year’s council elections.

Council webmaster Jared S. Morgenstern ’03 wrote in an e-mail that when the UC Vote computer rebooted after the outage it caused the delivery of thousands of e-mails which it had previously been unable to send due to a lack of memory.

Vautin said the University was spared from severe problems because power was not lost on the north part of campus that houses the bulk of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ science labs.

Likewise, the city of Cambridge experienced no severe problems from the loss of electricity. Emergency management officials knew of only one injury related to the outage—a head laceration to a postal employee who fell in a darkened stairwell.

The loss of power was caused by a malfunction of two electricity transformers on Putnam Avenue, near its intersection with River Street and behind the Bread and Circus supermarket.

Jonathan Carey, an NSTAR spokesperson, said crews quickly arrived at the transformer substation after the malfunction, but because of safety precautions and the complexity of the problem it took nearly two hours to get power back on.

While Carey said power crews were still unsure of what caused the transformers to malfunction, he said that heat likely was a factor in the outage.

“Obviously, the heat is putting strain on all of our equipment,” he said.

The company yesterday afternoon went to its highest state of emergency alert and is bringing additional crews into the area to deal with any potential problems.

Carey noted that yesterday’s outage was unrelated to yesterday’s call for electricity conservation by the operator of New England’s power grid. With the hot weather, New England’s power demand yesterday forced power companies to dip into their reserve supplies.

—David H. Gellis and Katherine E. McCormack contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Garrett M. Graff can be reached at ggraff@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Daniel P. Mosteller can be reached at dmostell@fas.harvard.edu.