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This Day in History, 2003: The Great Northeast Blackout

Can you believe it has been exactly five years since the Great Blackout of 2003? The blackout 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 in real time. 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.

As I mentioned above, Massachusetts (and pretty much most of New England) didn't lose power. After one of the major blackouts a few decades ago, the people in charge in New England had decided to set up a series of switches that could be opened should there be a power surge that might lead to a shutdown. Thanks to their foresight, I was able to help out my family as I described.

And as for today, the AP is reporting that the problems which led to the blackout have been resolved, but that increased electricity demand may lead to blackouts in the future unless the infrastructure is upgraded. (cf. 5 years after a giant blackout, are we better off?)


I was at home with my husband, and we ended up with a houseguest, as one of my friends couldn't get home from the Bronx and ended up on our doorstep.

The first night was fun -- someone in our building had been planning a dinner party, so he went around soliciting neighbors to take the places of his guests. However, my neighborhood was one of the last places to get the power back, and it started to really stretch on. We and our houseguest ended up at a restaurant in the Village, which had power, when one of the waiters came running out all excited saying "they've got power back in Chelsea!" And we looked up the avenue and all the streetlights were back on.

I was grateful that our six-story building doesn't have an electric water pump -- we had water throughout and some of my friends in taller buildings didn't. I do remember a friend with an infant telling me she had to walk down eight flights, baby in her arms, to be rescued by her parents driving in from New Jersey, because without power and water, she just couldn't manage.
We (Husband and I) were home ... in SE Michigan. Yes, we lost power on what was to be the hottest week of the summer. When we lose power we lose water. We work at home, so the loss of our computers didn't help much either.

Husband had decided that it was time to buy a generator when all of them showed up on sale after the Y2K panic subsided. So, we could have water, fridge or freezer ... any two of the three. A/C was out of the question.

We get power outages frequently around here, although rarely do they last longer than 6 hours. We had another one from an ice storm one winter. I was without heat, water, light ... for 3 days, as Husband was out of town on business and I couldn't get the generator started. He came home just before the inside temp hit freezing, so we could keep the pipes alive. It took a full week for them to get to us.

It is our deep hope that we can clear enough of the mortgage on the new house quickly, so we can get a whole-house generator!
I was at home, painting my son's room. It was maddening not being able to get any news. As I recall, at first cell phone service was out, as the airwaves were jammed with people callng each other. It went on for 4 days, I think. As above, hottest week of the summer here in SE michigan. Then again, we didn't have AC. I think power outages are kind of neat, actually. People emerge from their homes, bleary eyed, squinting, and actually socialize. Kids play outside. People go for walks. With electricity, we are all kind of isolated. Then there are the people running generators. The damn thigns are so noisy. Ruining the peace and quiet we might otherwise enjoy.

It's no fun, of course, having your freezer thaw, etc. I was glad when it finally came back on. I never thought of what the news might look like with a major portion of the viewership blacked out.
I was in MA and was supposed to meet up with Larry at a friends in the bronx for shabbos. Instead I stayed home alone for shabbos and Larry and his friend went to his mom's for shabbos. LOL, and now Larry and I know when we moved to NJ as it was that year. Thanks we may sound less foolish answering questions.
As malkaesther mentioned, I was in Manhattan when it hit. The first thing my boss did was call the data center to see how long backup power would last for our computers, which service a world wide client base 24 x 7. They had 3 days worth of battery back, and 90 days worth of fuel oil for the generator. They started to tell us what their next backup was and I said "If the power isn't back on in 90 days I'll be too busy dodging the cannibal gangs and looking for Snake Pliskin to care whether the computers are up." To my disappointment, no one told me Snake Pliskin was supposed to be dead.

Ignoring the advice of my boss to wait it out in the office, the office secretary and I walked down from the 15th(*) floor and out onto the street. We discovered that Verizon cell phones still worked intermittently, but all the other carriers were down. It quickly became clear our promised cab wasn't coming(**). We wound up hitching a ride from a passing SUV. We made it through the closed tunnel (a cop waved us through, I have no idea why) to the LIE. Then the biggest miracle happened. Between the 4 of us in the SUV we had an aggregate of over 90 years experience traveling NY roads and for the first time in any of our lives we drove on the Van Wyck Expressway without hitting a traffic tie up.

That evening and the next day I monitored the computers remotely over the verizon cellphone, turning on the laptop and the cell phone for just a few minutes at a time. By evening the next day we had our power back.

(*) The floor number was 16, but there was no 13th floor.
(**) Apparently a significant percentage of the cabs in NYC instantly went gypsy the moment power was out ignoring both their own dispatcher and the normal rate schedule.
I dodged the bullet. My part of Ohio didn't lose power, but I had been in Manhattan the previous 4 days for a training course for work, and I had just gotten home. My first thought was about the people who had stayed for the add-on class that was running that day. There were several people in the group who lived and worked in Conneticut and were taking the train in every day for the class, plus people who had flown or driven from farther away. I'm sure none of the people who stayed for the extra day made it home that day. I was very glad I opted not to take the extra class.

The news was especially surreal, seeing parts of Manhattan I had been in only 24 hours earlier now completely transformed.
I was taking a nap, and woke up when I realized the AC was no longer on. I figured we just blew a fuse, but was quickly disabused of that notion.

I had to plug in the only phone we had that wasn't electronic, a novelty Enterprise phone, which we'd never used as a phone before. When my mother called, it scared the crap out of me, because I'd never heard it ring, and the ring was the red alert sound -- I thought a fire alarm was going off....
Ah yes, I rememberit well(ish). It hit about ten minutes after four, just after the close of a really bad day of day-trading (why couldn't it have struck like 15 minutes earlier, potentially wiping out a day's worth of mistakes?). I was in my first day-trading firm, 30 or 40 floors above Wall Street, so it was a nice walk down a darkened fire staircase. Happily for me, I was day-trading, so wearing shorts to the office was a matter of course. I made it to the street, walked up town to the Brooklyn Bridge, over said bridge, and another 8 or 9 miles home. Oddest sight on that walk was the fellow wearing a suit, with his jacket still on and his tie still tied. Mind you, this was on Flatbush Avenue, about midway between Grand Army Plaza and the Prospect Park subway station. In other words, he was half a mile from any conceivable place of work (or probably significantly farther from where he'd started), and I still have no idea why he hadn't thought to shed the jacket and tie because it was, remember like a hundred and fifty seven degrees.

Anyway, I arrived home about 20 minutes after full dark. Then, of course, came the semi-comic attempts to make contact with Kit (no cell phones): I calling my sister in Massachusetts (who had power), she calling her parents in Ohio (who had power), neither thinking to call the other's phone contact. And Kit had only been in Manhattan to meet me to see an exhibit at Rockefeller Center (rocketry, I think).

Eventually, her parents got hold of me, I discovered she was going to spend the night in Bryant Park, and I went to sleep. It was unpleasant from that point on, but nothing more.

For Kit, on the other hand, the macabre continued. She settled down at a table with a few other folks (and apparently the rest of the park was full), made a not-so-quick trip to the sandwich store across the street (which had working bathrooms), and 'round about midnight, got comfortable(ish) for some sleep... which lasted a scant two or three hours.

Then the klieg lights came on, the generators started running, and one of the morning show's crews started setting up the stage for a morning concert. Mind you, those lights and generators were powered by the trucks, with nothing to share except bright light and loud noise while hundreds of people tried to sleep. Ah, the show must go on (jerks).

Eventually, she managed to hop on a bus which took her to a bridge, walked into Brooklyn, found another bus, and wended her way home.

If it had been like 20 degrees cooler, it would have been a nice adventure. As it was, it was a hot adventure. My parents, on the other hand, were blissfully enjoying their cruise to Alaska.
I was plugging in an extra lamp at my work desk that might have had too much wattage for the outlet, and at that moment the lights and computers all went out - so at first I thought I caused the blackout.

When we realized it wasn't just our office, I thought this was it, the terrorists had won. Work was let out. I walked home through Central Park and then up CPW, scared all the way, and then hunkered down with a battery-operated radio and learned it was just a power problem.
I was in Louisville, Kentucky, in our new apartment, waiting for Manny to drive down from Cleveland, where we'd lived till that week. I'd gone ahead to get things ready and receive the moving truck when it arrived; he was bringing the car and the dog last thing. Cleveland, of course, was where the blackout started. Right around the time he left town. My mother told Manny, "I know I always tell you to turn out the lights when you're leaving a place, but this is ridiculous!"

December 2016

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