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 LINES: Where 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.

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