Southern Brooklyn

City’s Spirit Shone Brightly Throughout ’03 Blackout

A customer buys ice cream from a Mister Softee truck — one of the very few options New Yorkers had to try and keep cool during the sweltering Northeast Blackout of 2003. Source: StructuresNYC / Flickr

BETWEEN THE LINESWhere were you when the lights went out on August 14, 2003?

A recent partial power outage in my apartment jogged my memory to that night. When the power went out and the air-conditioner stopped shortly after 7:00 p.m., I was annoyed, thinking it was gonna be a repeat of that long, hot night nine years ago. But, when I went out to the hallway, I realized it wasn’t a total blackout. Most of the hallway ceiling lights were still on and the elevators were operating. I looked out my window and saw most apartments had lights.

I called an emergency number and was informed the super was “working on it.” The next day I learned that a building fuse overloaded, causing an outage in more than a dozen apartments, but until power was restored, less than two hours later, I sat on the couch in my still cool apartment and recalled that stifling Thursday night in 2003.

For a city still a little on edge almost two years after the World Trade Center attacks, most New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief to learn that it wasn’t terrorists, but a sudden upstate power surge that caused the northeast power grid failure. Since the outage occurred in late afternoon on a sunny summer day, any suspicions of an attack had vanished by nightfall.

About an hour before the end of the work day, the power went out in the Canarsie Courier office where I worked. The staff immediately assumed it was another sporadic internal break down. Moments later, I went outside and learned neighboring businesses had also lost power. It soon dawned on us that the entire vicinity was also without electricity. I walked to Flatlands Avenue and saw the traffic lights weren’t functioning as far as I was able to see in either direction. After my editor heard reports on his car radio, he told us an all-news station reported power was out in Manhattan, too.

The widespread outage left about 50 million people in New York and seven other states — as far west as Michigan and as far north as Ontario, Canada’s most populated province — without power.

For New York City it was the third massive power failure in 38 years (the first in 1965, and another 12 years later in 1977), but in sharp contrast to July 13, 1977, when several neighborhoods endured a long, frightful night of looting, fires and riots, this time New Yorkers remained calm.

Perhaps one encouraging consequence from the terrorist attacks was the kinder, gentler manners displayed by New Yorkers in its aftermath and during the 2003 blackout. New Yorkers again demonstrated that, in the face of a calamity, we were capable of remaining composed and compassionate, contrary to the exaggerated gruff and grumpy exteriors, negative stereotypes and clichés routinely depicted in movies or monologues by comedians and talk show hosts.

Though some circumstances were far from ideal — such as tens of thousands of rush hour commuters trapped underground in sweltering subway cars — composure and cooperation generally prevailed. (One surprising anecdote that later came out was about the absence of one New York’s most common sounds — persistently honking car horns — particularly since traffic lights weren’t working citywide. Apparently, drivers’ usual aggressiveness transformed into civility and respect, as, more often than not, they yielded to other drivers at intersections, which was also familiar in the weeks after 9/11.)

There was no repeat of the onslaught of criminal activity, like in ’77, but some looting did take place. On the other hand, there were reports of price gouging — flashlights, batteries, water, some food — by contemptible individuals, who tend to turn up to make a buck in emergency situations.

After sunrise on Friday morning, weary New Yorkers awoke from an uncomfortable night’s sleep and many heeded Mayor Bloomberg’s advice to stay home and take a “snow day.” After all, many areas still lacked electricity and the subway system — the commuter lifeline — remained at a standstill, though public bus service was free.

No sooner had power been restored in all five boroughs by Friday evening, despite a few isolated pockets, than it seemed New Yorkers responded more maturely than the finger-pointing American and Canadian government officials engaged in a blame game over what went wrong and who was responsible for the massive power outage.

New Yorkers showed their capacity to cope and willingness to help each other in a crisis — distributing water and refreshments, offering rides to stranded strangers — but Democrats and Republicans resorted to customary political tactics. The fragility of the nation’s power grids had gotten their attention, but instead of an all-out effort to fix the glitch, our leaders looked more comfortable assigning blame.

This blackout wasn’t supposed to happen after the one in 1965 or the one that left nine million New Yorkers without electricity for 25 hours 12 years later. But it did. September 11th wasn’t supposed to happen either after the failed attempt to topple the World Trade Center’s twin towers more than a decade earlier. But it did. Our free, open society puts us directly in the cross hairs of vulnerability.

Though we haven’t had an extensive blackout in nine years, I wonder what our leaders — who, from time to time, remind us they’re doing everything possible to prevent another terrorist attack — have done to avert another power outage.

What really hit home for tens of millions of Americans without electricity that summer day was that the energy that powers our cities, offices and homes, like our water supplies, is indispensable.

In the blackout of 2003, inadequate transmission grids failed, but New Yorkers’ determination didn’t. Despite enduring the nation’s worst power outage, we generally remained composed, law-abiding citizens. Moreover, the acclaimed spirit of cooperation and resilience that symbolized us after September 11, 2001 was duplicated too, to serve as a beacon of light two years later in the face of another unexpected emergency.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  1. I was sitting in my house waiting to go into Manhattan to meet up with friends and go see the INDIGO GIRLS show in Central Park that night when the lights went out but NOT in my house.  We lived in a complex that makes its own power so while the rest of the area went dark I wasn’t even aware of it UNTIL a friend called to tell me.  Funny thing is….even though we were in the worst blackout the east coast has ever had, that Indigo Girls show went on AS scheduled using generators for power. I never got there but heard that those who did make it to the concert were treated to a mighty nice time, complete with LIGHTS.  It was one of the only shows that happened in the east coast on the night of the blackout so Kudo’s have to go out to whoever handled the tech and tied it into generators so the show could go on.

  2. I Will Glady like to not remember that day……. kthxbai.

    Reason: I got my Brand new Phone stolen by a couple of jerk off Mexicans (about 8 of them beating my ass), i had a bird take a dump on me (mostly diarrhea) , and my PC wasn’t working so i couldn’t even watch porn……


  3. I was sitting in my car at the corner of Flatbush and Ave S. I was on my way over to Mill Basin Day camp to pick up my kids.

  4. I didn’t know the usual stupid political squabbles broke out even for a blackout. Why don’t we just shut down both damned parties, fire them all, and start again. And choose randomly. I think chances are, a random selection would be an improvement over the idiots we have now (and obviously in 2003).

    It was the 2nd time in 2 years I had to walk over a bridge from lower Manhattan int Brooklyn. Everyone’s 1st thought was terrorism, but I remember by the time I left, it seemed to be ruled out, which made us breathe a lot easier.

     On 9/11 I had to walk up to the Manhattan Bridge (they closed the Brooklyn Bridge due to some threat), making my walk even longer. This one (2003) I went over the Brooklyn Bridge, so that was better.    When I got into downtown Brooklyn, I saw some incredible sights. A homeless person jumped into a pretty major intersection to direct traffic. And he did a great job!  Other intersections were similarly directed by ordinary citizens.  It was quite moving.    I walked to Bartel-Prichard Square, where the trusty but crowded 68 once again took me close enough home. At least this time I remember the ride. 9/11 I was traumatized, I don’t remember much about the bus ride except it was really crowded, and somehow, I got a seat, even though I’m never the aggressive one to get a seat.   I’m old enough to remember all 3 blackouts. 1965, I was home reading a comic book. I thought the lights were getting dimmer due to eye strain, but no…. My dad was caught in the city. Don’t know how he got home but he did. Rumors have it that UFO’s were seen over the power plant shortly before the blackout.   1977, I was on my parents terrace, and I saw Manhattan go dark first. Incredible sight. A couple of seconds later, it happened to us. I went down with a flashlight to help people up the stairs. I was 21 years old, weighed like 100 pounds, so I could go up and down those stairs all night!  Next day I had an interview for a job on like the 80th floor of WTC, of course that didn’t happen.   And, 2003….   let’s hope another one doesn’t happen!   

  5. There also was the Astoria blackout in July 2006 I believe. While not extensive as the others, it took three weeks to get power fully restored, not a day or two.

  6. I wonder if Neil was inspired by the recent outages in the Homecrest area over the last couple of weeks. They have cost tenants and homeowners many perishables as of late…myself included.

  7. August 14, 2003 was nine days shy of my 14th birthday. I was at home relaxing with the A/C when the power suddenly went out. I thought it was a minor wire problem as part of my home lost power because of that two months earlier, but it was not. soon my neighbors starting coming out asking each other if they had electricity. no one did. That is when we realized this was a blackout. My family used candles for light and spent the evening outside watching the sun set. It was so hot, no one could sleep that night, but thankfully, everything was restored by the next afternoon.

  8. I was in midtown and walked home with my partner.  We crossed the Brooklyn bridge right at sundown and was treated to the once in a lifetime picture of the dark skyline against an amber sky.  I will never forget Smarty Marty on a platform handing out water and shouting “welcome home Brooklyn!”

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