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This Day in History, 2003: Blackout

Two years ago today was the Great Blackout of 2003, which hit much of the northeast United States and parts of Canada. Where were you?

I was at home (in Brookline, Massachusetts, which did not lose power) on the computer when the phone rang at 4:33 PM. It was my younger brother, Josh, in New York City, calling to ask me if I knew what was going on. As I had left the TV news on in the living room, and the TiVo was recording its buffer, I was able to start describing the news to him and I learned of the blackout as I told him what was going on.

I served as the point person for my younger brother, my sister-in-law, and my mother for the next few hours. Josh had to sleep overnight in Manhattan. Rachel had to care for their new baby daughter, and I gave her information on New York City emergency lines and hospitals. And my Mom stayed home.

I recorded NBC Nightly News that evening and the Today show the next day, and a few months later I gave the tape to Josh so he could see what he missed.


I was working phone tech support at a job I don't lament losing.
We didn't lose power, but the caller's power went out during the call. I gave him some advice for when the power returned (didn't know how long that would be) and then checked the situation online.
Phones were really slow the rest of the afternoon. :)
I remember you calling me while I was waiting for the bus at Dawes Landing and your telling me about the outage. I poked my head into various shops in Harvard Square, and they all had power, so I was pretty confident we weren't losing power, but I remember wondering what the cause was.

And then I checked my friends list and found out just how wide the outage was.
And then I checked my friends list and found out just how wide the outage was.

For some reason that strikes me as funny. Not that I haven't done the exact same thing before. (Probably also during the same event, but I don't remember specifically.) I guess "word of mouth" these days is actually "word of screen?"

My friend Chloe called me up freaking out that they had shut off her power (she was living in a tiny run-down apartment in Brooklyn and had been late with bill payment) and was in fear that her life had got that bad. I re-assured her and got off the phone. A few minutes later my mom or grandmother called me asking if I had power (their news reports said that Boston was out, which it wasn't) and I asked why they were asking and then I turned on the TV and, low and behold, much of the North East had no power! I tried calling Chloe back (took me a while, the cell "lines" seemed to be over-loaded) and had to re-assure her that the city wasn't being attacked again. I also had friends at Pennsic who called me saying "we heard a rumor that the North East doesn't have power, and we ourselves have elected not to have power, so what gives?" It was certainly an interesting event.

Something that came up for discussion at the time amongst some people I knew was the possibility of this being planned. That the administration or someone was trying to test how the public would react to a crisis situation with new crisis measures in place. Part of what was fueling this conspiracy theory was the fact that many new outlets were reporting that Eastern Mass was out when it wasn't actually the case.
I had just moved to Louisville. Manny was still in Cleveland -- or, to be more precise, he had just hit the road to get from Cleveland to Louisville. He was a few days behind me, because I had to arrive ahead of the moving truck and also because I wanted to fly rather than drive, being still terrified of highways at that point.

When we found out that the problem had begun in/very near Cleveland, about half an hour before Manny left town, I told him, "I know I always tell you to turn off the lights before you leave a place, but this wasn't *exactly* what I meant..."
(Actually, to be technical, I was in Mexico, having gone on a trip there as soon as I'd finished my part of the moving process. But I was *living* in Louisville, albeit sorta not very well yet.)
At home, on the edge of it. We had a battery-operated radio that was our first clue to the extent. I think we were out for about 24 hours.
In NYC, on a subway train crossing the Manhattan Bridge, with mud_puppy. We were stranded for a few hours, thankfully with sunlight streaming in the windows, before we were evacuated over a makeshift ramp onto the adjacent traffic lanes.
I was in my doctor's office. He'd just done a BMI on me and was about to show me how I'd improved when the lights went off.

At first, we thought it was just the office, which has heavy computer use and old wiring. Then we thought it was the building. And then we walked outside.

Okay. The block. Maybe the city. But someone had a car radio on, and, no. It was far more than that.

At which point there were two thoughts in my head. 1. Thank goodness that Jonathan had decided to work from home that day and 2. How was I going to get home myself?

The subways were, of course, out. You could see the passengers leaving the stations, calmly and quietly. The buses. Oh, my goodness, the buses. They were packed. The drivers weren't taking fares and they were letting people in both doors, and there was no room.

So. I went to a convenience store and bought a couple of protein bars and some water, and began to walk. I got to the part of Flatbush Avenue where it intersects the park, and, lo and behold, a nearly empty bus going in the direction I needed pulled up.

Blessed, blessed air conditioning.

It took me to the next stop I needed, which was the beginning of the line. I had to stand, but who cared? I was definitely going home. The bus was so packed that the driver, part way through, started stopping in the middle of blocks just to let people off. When the pressure eased, he'd pick up more passengers (again, no fares collected.) Jonathan was talkiing with our neighbors, unworried.

We got our power back an hour before Shabbat, which gave us time to get dinner up, and we were very grateful. Some people didn't get power until after Shabbat, and one couple I knew couldn't even get home - she's in a wheelchair and there was no elevator. They had to stay with friends. We were lucky in so many ways.
It was a warm day in Pittsburgh during the blackout.

We, luckily, avoided it (somehow - due to some quick-thinking engineers at
Duquesne Light, we were led to believe). We watched about the blackout on TV, had dinner, then I went over to the town pool for an evening swim.
Wow, I do remember that. I was at home (in brightly-lit Virginia) and turned on the news that night (hours after it happened) to see a map of the outages. My first thought was "I wonder if it was terrorists? Nah...maybe a hacker. Or probably crappy infrastructure."
I was at home in Ann Arbor, at the end of a teacher's summer vacation, thinking I needed to get groceries because the fridge/freezer was looking bare. The wife was 35 miles away (close to where I worked), living in a flat that belong to Beaumont Hospital, where she was working a med school rotation.

Power went down around 4:30 pm, but since we'd had three other freak power outages in the past year, I didn't think much of it. The low voltage we had for a bit was odd though. I tried phoning the power company after an hour, but it just rang and rang -- no voice mail menu or anything. Very odd. I eventually dug up an old radio and found out the truth. Cell lines were wonky, so I called my mother (in Colorado) by land line to find out more.

We had a gas range in our flat, so I cooked some soup and ate some things from the fridge before they would spoil. Sadly, I was a bit low on nonperishables, so I figured I'd have to find an open grocery the next day and sort this out.

My wife finished her shift at the hospital, popped back to her flat for a change of clothes and returned to the hospital until about 10 pm, to run errands and generally help out in the crisis. She ferried flashlights to nursing stations, emptied the cafteria ice machine so that people waiting in the sweltering ER could have a cool drink before the ice was all gone, etc. Sadly, because of the temporary living situation, she didn't have much food stored and by the time she thought about trying to hit any shops, they'd all been raided by people on their way home from work hours before.

I did my best to keep our pets (and myself) cool overnight, without AC, and listened to some radio and some Dr. Who stories on CD on battery-powered devices by candlelight and lantern. (Fortunately, due to our previous weird power outages, I had bought a nice D-cell lantern which I had lots of extra backup batteries for.) I quickly learned that I was just miles from the western edge of the outage, and that Jackson (about an hour to the west) had never lost power, and that Brighton (less than an hour to the north) still had power and everyone from Detroit seemed to be going there to a) fuel up their SUVs and generators and b) get a meal.

My hybrid Insight only had about a half-tank of gas, but I could drive to Chicago on that, so I wasn't worried. :) Sleeping was a bigger concern -- too hot and my medical device wouldn't work without power, so I had four snoring hours of bad sleep, waking around 6 am. By then, Chelsea (20 minutes to the west) had power back. I decided to head out at 10 to find an open grocery to the west, stock up and get a good meal while I was there, in case this thing lasted a bit.

Chelsea's gas stations were crammed with people filling up their SUVs, but Jackson looked normal. They had never lost power - just 45 seconds of flickering before the network went down. I topped off the tank, filled up a basket at Meijer with water jugs, batteries and non-perishables and had a nice lunch at a restaurant across the street. As I was driving home, the power was restored in Ann Arbor (as I could tell from the clocks on arrival).

The wife's power returned as she was leaving the flat on Sat morning, heading to the hospital for a 30-hour on-call shift. They were under a water advisory (pumps out too long) too. I headed back to Jackson Meijer on Saturday for perishables (wasn't going to trust the Ann Arbor groceries for awhile after the power was back on) and filled up the fridge. On Monday, when I reported back to school, I brought the wife a trunkload of water bottles and other supplies, just as their water restriction was lifted! Fortunately, hospital workers who lived just outside the Blackout zone had been bringing in meals (trays of sandwiches, etc.) for everyone all along.

Power outage on Thursday/Friday really screwed up registrations for students though, and they were still sorting that out the first few days of school.

And the Blackout marks the beginning of my Year of Hell (so, gee, Michael, thanks for reminding me! :p). The rest is a whole 'nother story.
I was at work, and decided to remain there until after dark, thinking that perhaps power would be back by then, and if not then at least the streets would be cooler. By 10 pm I decided to start walking home. I managed to get a bus from about 20th St to Canal, and then another from about Flatbush & 4th Ave to home (actually a bit further than home, since without street lights I didn't recognise my street when we passed it, and had to walk back a bit). Walking over the Manhattan Bridge I saw what I thought must be a light on the bridge that had power, until I realised it was Mars. I had a great view of it the whole way.

The biggest problem, though, was that I had planned to leave the next day for Detroit, to spend the weekend with Levi and Leah. My plane was to leave at 7am, and if I was to make it I had to leave home by 5:30. Of course, I assumed that the plane would be delayed, but at 4am I got a page on my mobile that the plane would be on time. At about 4:30 my power came back on, and I checked the airline's web site, which insisted that the plane would be on time. My phone wasn't working, though, so I went out, checked that a car service was available to take me, and then went to a pay phone to call the airline and confirm that if I made it to the airport I would be able to fly, since I couldn't believe it. The person at the airline may have been in an unaffected part of the country, and not have realised quite what was going on, because she insisted that the flight was showing as "on time", and that meant that I had better get myself to the airport or I would lose my ticket. Of course, this was nonsense; I went home and packed, and just as I was about to leave and get the car service, I checked the airline's web site once again, and found that my flight, and all other flights that morning, had changed to "delayed". This was at about 5:45, by the way; a few more minutes delay in updating the web site, and I'd have been on my way to the airport.

As it turned out, even if the airline had been telling the truth, and I'd made it to the airport and on to the plane, I'd have arrived in Detroit to an empty house. Detroit was even worse hit, and Levi & Leah decided to drive to Cleveland for Shabbat, since they at least had water.

Meanwhile, I had no idea that my brother Yossi from Denver had been in town for the day (for a meeting in NJ, IIRC), and was meant to fly back Thursday night, and was stuck at the airport. He did manage to get out of NY on Friday afternoon, early enough to make it back to Denver before Shabbat (thanks to the time difference, and to long summer Fridays). His account of what the airport was like made me very glad that I didn't make it there...

I was at work in Manhattan. My boss tried to convince me to stay (on the 16th floor) until the whole thing was over, but the secretary and I went down to the ground level to check about a possible ride from a limosine service we had a contract with. We discovered all the limosines had gone freelance for the afternoon, selling their services to the highest bidder. We then returned to our building to find management had locked the doors.

The (60+ year old female) secretary promptly suggested hitching. Astonishingly, we go a lift within 10 minutes, and somehow managed to get allowed into the Midtown tunnel (supposedly reserved for emergency vehicles only). I then had a unique experience - the only time I have ever driven on the Van Wyck expressway without traffic. In fact every highway we traveled was deserted.

Our driver wanted to take his wife and baby home first, then offered to give us a lift back to our hometowns. But first he wanted to stop at his beach club for a drink. So after about 1/2 an hour enjoying the sights of the beach, I got to my car just before dark and cautiously drove home.

We were fortunate to be among the earliest communities to get power back - around 10PM that evening.

I was en route from Boston to Ft. Bragg, NC to visit my sister-in-law and new niece...and was on the ground at Newark (EWR) between flights when the power died. My outgoing flight did get out, though.
I was off the coast of Labrador, sailing with my dad. A day or two after the blackout, we put into one of the only reasonably inhabited harbors in the area (Battle Harbor), and two small boys came down to check out the boat. Sailboats - or non-working craft of any kind - don't come up there very often. When they saw that our port of call was Boston, they began excitedly telling us how the entire east coast had blacked out and it was probably terrorists and no one knew what was going on. (I should point out that while there was a sketchy phone line available in the general store, there were no local radio stations or television, no newspapers - what's the point when the boat only comes in once a week? - and certainly no cable or internet.)

So I spent the better part of an hour trying to make a long distance call with a credit card on a touch tone phone that apparently was on a rotary-only-capable line. Of course, it turned out that the reports of the apocalypse had been greatly exaggerated.

December 2016

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