The islandwide blackout on Wednesday night highlighted key security “shortcomings” that are still to be addressed, including in communications.
Following a meeting of the National Security Council yesterday, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart young announced that Cabinet will soon be asked to establish a committee to investigate what led to the electricity shutdown and what can be done to assure it does not reoccur.
So far, though, Minister of Public Utilities Marvin Gonzales gas ruled out sabotage as a cause.
“A preliminary report was presented to the Prime Minister, passed to me through Mr Ramsook. It is quite evident, it is quite clear that there was no sabotage or nothing from a human perspective that would have resulted in that disruption from yesterday, so I want to make that abundantly clear,” Gonzales said.
While the domino effect of the outage involved the shutdown of 107 WASA booster stations, national security personnel said they also see the need to ensure that gaps exposed by it are clogged.
Chief of Defense Staff Darryl Daniel was part of the large Government contingent that met yesterday at a news conference to update the country on Wednesday’s hours-long blackout in Trinidad.
“It highlighted some shortcomings, in terms of communications, because we all have realised challenges with the phones and so on and things would be put in place to make sure that if it happens in the future, we are in a better position to deal with it,” he said.
National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds added, “The public wouldn’t know but it provides an opportunity for terrorists. It provides an opportunity for extreme social disorder and we were able to avoid and avert that last evening.”
He said with so much potential for things to go wrong yesterday, while he was thankful that they did not happen, he is now grateful for the opportunity for an independent investigation to “look at the situation to determine in all of the circumstances whether there is a need to do other things and to do more in order to better prepare ourselves for future eventualities.”
“As in all operations you analyse what went well, what didn’t go well so that if such occurrences happen again, you’d be better at it,” he said.
The three Government Ministers—Gonzales, Hinds and Young —were accompanied by the acting Commissioner of Police and the head of the Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC) at the briefing held at the Ministry of National Security office in Port-of-Spain.
Jacob: Police managed well
Acting Police Commissioner McDonald Jacob said he felt the police had done a good job in protecting the nation, working with the Defence Force.
He said they worked together with the Defence Force, Municipal Police and Transit Police to co-ordinate their operations.
He said they established an operations centre at a Defence Force camp.
“We managed things and there were a lot of co-ordination and communication through our communication system—because we know that the normal cellphone and other things there were some difficulties—and as everything ended, even though we talk about 1.30 am, we continued our vigilance throughout the night,” he said.
We have learnt from it and I want to give the population the assurance that we are prepared for such eventuality again,” he added.
Young, who spoke as the representative of the office of the Prime Minister, said the proposal to appoint an independent investigative team would be drafted to take to Cabinet for approval.
That team would be tasked with an independent investigation into what happened and how to prevent it.
“This event has clearly demonstrated, I think to the public at large and in particular to us in the Government that there are vulnerabilities in the power and generation distribution, there is a breakdown and disruption in the communication system we saw yesterday as a result of what took place,” Young said.
“There was an emergency National Security Council this morning (yesterday), just before we held the weekly Cabinet meeting, both chaired by the Prime Minister and a decision was taken at the National Security Council as follows; there will be a proposal to Cabinet and we expect Cabinet to agree to it, to adopt it to go forward with it for an in-depth, independent investigation. We would put together a small team of independent experts, both with respect to the power generation and distribution side, this is independent of the power producers,” Young said.
The team would be tasked to come up with recommendations to prevent and ensure that the country builds out capacity and redundancy in the local grid system to mitigate against such a blackout.
Young could not give a timeline for the establishment of the team or when their findings would be due but assured that it would happen “in the shortest possible time”.
No assurances from Govt
That was the only assurance the group could give though.
None of the ministers present was able to give the country the assurance that the massive blackout situation would not happen again.
Gonzales also addressed the speculation that the decommissioning of the Powergen towers in Port-of-Spain may have overburdened the system, causing the crash.
“I don’t think it would be any additional burden, what it has done is expose a vulnerability in the system because most of the electricity generation is taking place in Central and South region,” Gonsalves said.
Gonzalves said it was not the “best way” to design an electrical grid but more could be said on the issue after the State appointed team completed its investigation.
He did say that two main transmission lines from Gandhi Village to Union Estate came into contact with another line and caused a major trip on the distribution system around the country.
It was this trip that caused Trinidad Generation Unlimited (TGU) to fail.
“As a result of that major disruption at TGU, the other standby measures that we had in place from Trinity and Powergen did not provide the level sustainability and vulnerability to the distribution system in T&T causing all the machines and plants to go down,” he said.
Young said that the Government is also looking at re-establishing a power plant in Port-of-Spain.
Meanwhile, general manager of T&TEC Kelvin Ramsook was also present at the meeting and gave a brief overview of what it took to get the country back up and running. He described Wednesday night events as a “catastrophic failure” and said that the company has done an investigation into what triggered the “failure”.
He was however unable to say what exactly was being investigated and whether the failure was a result of human error or malfunctioning equipment. Ramsook also ruled out sabotage.
Prime Minister’s position
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley offered little comment on the matter yesterday. He told Guardian Media: “Everything that needs to be said at this time has been said by the relevant authorities. We will now, as announced, engage in greater detailed understanding of the causative factors on the grid.”
Kamla: Blackout no laughing matter
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar noted that when asked about what assurances he had that such a massive failure would not happen again soon, Minister Gonsalves began laughing.
“He even callously stated that the Police Commissioner could not give an assurance there “would not be another murder,” she noted.
“This blackout devastated the perishable stock of businesses already reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also facilitated criminal activity. Yet the government is behaving like it is a joke. I wish to tell these immature Ministers that this is no laughing matter,” she said.
She said that based on the utterances of those present yesterday, Hinds, Young and Gonzales, the Government had no clue about what was happening in the country and worse, had no idea what to do about it.
Griffith: Poor crisis management
Meanwhile, former police commissioner insisted Wednesday’s outage was followed by poor crisis management.
“What is critical, is to ensure that the country is well prepared to provide the immediate action and operational roll-out for proper security and communication, via a well-structured platform,” he said.
He added, “The virtually non-existent communication between arms of the Protective Services and the Public Utilities Service, as well as on-time communication to the population, confirms that we failed miserably, and insult was added to injury to hear a National Security Minister advise a media conference that things went very well and praise himself for what was nothing short of a total crisis management failure.”
Griffith continued: “Minister Hinds misled the country today focusing more on boasting about successes that were not visibly present to any member of the population. No clear means of coordination and communication was visible. Ironic, as the government sees no correlation between what happened yesterday and their dismantling of the national security infrastructure. Petty politics, sadly, deepened yesterday’s disaster.”