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This Day in History, 2003: The Great Northeast Blackout

Nine 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 VHS 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.


The curious thing the dog did in the blackout

One of the interesting things about the blackout was there was no major looting or other anti-social behavior as there was in the NYC blackout of 1977.

I note this because growing up, there was a common belief, based on the '77 looting and a handful of other incidents that human beings were essentially nasty wild animals with a thin veneer of civilization. Shut out the lights, remove the social constraints, and we revert to savages. Subsequent experience suggests otherwise.
I was shocked at how calm things were. I think that the Blackout of '77, coming during a bad heat wave, at a bad moment in the history of NYC - two years after bankruptcy and with the Son of Sam on the loose - was the aberration. And that NYC, for all its faults and all the faults of subsequent mayors, was a better place to be in 2003 (and today) than in 1977.
I was at work, at a staff farewell party. I was pretty sure something was amiss, and called my mom to learn that the lights were out in Queens, too. I walked two miles downtown and spent the night by a friend, and took a bus home in the morning. Batya slept over near her office of that era in NJ.
I was in the last neighborhood in NYC to get power back. It was kind of fun the first night, then subsequently more and more difficult to deal with.
I was at work. I blinked as my monitor powered off as well as the ceiling lights. 30 seconds later, I hit the computer room at a dead run to makes sure the systems for which I was responsible were safely running off the UPS. There was a smell of kerosene from the basement generators, and free ice cream in the cafeteria. I could have walked home, but it was over 90 degrees and I was 5 months pregnant, so I elected to stay at work and nominally oversee our infrastructure systems.

My husband had not been able to get on a bus, and I was eventually able to sign him into my building.

We tried to see the stars in Manhattan from the roof, but while the streets were dark, the surrounding buildings were brightly lit, all powered by enormous generators, and I could see little difference from every other night.

We wore worried about our toddler at home - while I could call my mother on her POTS line, our POTS line went through the SLC in the apartment, which failed of UPS. We could only presume our sitter would spend the night in our apartment with her, which is what happened and all was well when we eventually got home at lunchtime.
I was at Pennsic -- that is, camping out in the Current Middle Ages. I think I heard about it on day 2 or 3.
I was alone at my office. We had had a tripped circuit breaker not long before, so I didn't think much at first of the lights going out, till I checked the hallway, and then across the street.

I waited till the servers seemed to shut themselves down, then went out into the street to see it was a much bigger thing, big enough that I couldn't subway home. After waiting fruitlessly on Lex for two hours for a bus with room for me, I walked downtown and over the Brooklyn Bridge to my mother's apartment. Took three hours or so. Borough President for life Marty Markowitz was on the bridge with a bullhorn welcoming folks back home to Brooklyn.
I was at work, but I'd just gone out to pick up a late lunch. The power went out during my walk back from the store, so I arrived at the office to find, to my great surprise, all the lights out and folks gathering in the hallway. Whereupon followed the usual frantic scurrying as the temperature climbed in our server room (we have a generator for the servers; we don't have anything like what we'd need to be able to run the HVAC) and it became clear that power wasn't going to come back on any time soon, so we had to bring everything down in a controlled manner before the boxes started overheating.

Elizabeth came into Hoboken to pick me up, and I remember how surreal it was driving through town without any traffic lights. Happily, everyone was calm and courteous, and there were no mishaps (for us, that is, though my understanding is that this state of affairs was widespread).
The lights went out just as the kids and I had gone out to pick up copies of the local newspaper, in which was printed an interview with me on the occasion of the publication of my first sf short story. The lights went out precisely as I said to my kids, "See? Daddy's famous." (God likes to keep me humble.)

Amy was out of reach at her office in Manhattan until nearly 7:30 pm when she finally got a cell call through to me. Ultimately, she and a co-worker walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and on through miles of Brooklyn until she got to an uncongested area where my dad was able to pick her up, since I had the kids.

Using my Palm device as a flashlight, I found a decent flashlight, a battery-operated TV/radio combo, and just enough D-cells to run it. I also had a myriad of giant scented candles from which to choose, thanks to my mother and my aunt.

After a dinner of cold cereal and the last of the open carton of milk, the kids had baths and bunked down on the living room sofabed (much cooler downstairs than up). We read a semi-scary monster story by flashlight. I sat out on the porch for a bit, watching the neighbors go from house to house with various lightsources, and kids running up and down the street with sparklers. The stars were more bright and numerous than I'd seen them in years over NYC, and I lost myself staring into space for a time.

Finally, I went back inside, and settled on the rocker with my battery-op booklight and the final book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Amy made it home around 9:30, whereupon she told me the story of her hike, downed some hot Rice-A-Roni sent over by our neighbor, bathed herself and her aching feet, and promptly passed out on the mattress I'd brought downstairs.

I stayed up for a few more hours, hoping the power would come back, writing on my Palm. I always wrote my best stuff at night, but who knew my muse liked it REALLY dark.

The next day, there was power in most of the area, right up to the corner of our block. My parents live about 5 minutes away, and they did have power. We packed up and went to their ceiling fan/air-conditioner/swimming pool equipped house. I also took along a cooler of freezer items that were liquifying. We had a nice cool visit there with a BBQ and a dip. Finally, late on the 17th, we heard from our nephew that our neighborhood finally had power.

Some August days, I honestly hope to wake up to another blackout of that sort.
That's probably the best story I've heard about the blackout.
Thanks. I had to take full, but non-financial, non-punitive, responsibility for the Blackout of 2003. Over in certain sff.net circles, this led to the use of the following phrase whenever there was an event of this sort: "It's Sean's fault."

December 2016

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