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10.VI.C

New York City's (NYC)
Blackout of 2003

 
 
2003 Blackout
Photo Credit: The New York Times
 
     
 

One of the largest blackouts in New York City history occurred on a hot Thursday afternoon, August 14, 2003. It is believed to have originated in Ohio, after a bush fire caused a transmission line to go out of service at around 2:00 PM. Within an hour, a second transmission line failed. These two incidents created a domino effect: one by one, overloaded transmission lines began to fail across the Eastern United States. To prevent an even bigger blackout, many power plants shut down voluntarily. By 4:00 pm, 3,700 miles of land affecting parts of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, and Canada were without power. In NYC, all 11,600 traffic signals ceased to work. Policemen and volunteers worked together to direct traffic in major streets, but city streets remained chaotic. The MTA also shut down as a result of the blackout, leaving up to 400,000 people stranded in subway cars. People waited for rescue in stranded elevators. Fortunately, evacuation efforts began within ten minutes of the blackout occurring. Scarcity of cabs and an inoperable subway system forced thousands of people to walk long distances to get to their destinations.

Cell phone service was poor due to heavy use, and the lack of communication made the public anxious. The 9/11 attacks were still fresh on the minds of many and created a lost sense of security. As a result, the initial public reaction to the blackout was fueled by fears of another terrorist attack. However, it was quickly established to be an ordinary blackout and large groups of people tried to make the best of it by hanging out on city streets. Stores were in a mad rush to get rid of melting ice cream, resulting in an exorbitant amount of ice cream being consumed by those trying to manage the heat. Some neighborhoods even celebrated by having spontaneous parades and parties.

As night grew darker, few reports of looting or violence emerged, which was in direct contrast to the 1977 blackout often referred to as the "night of terror." For the most part, streets remained unusually peaceful. The elderly and infirmed required the most assistance during this time; hospitals managed to remain open with the help of backup generators that kept essential machinery functioning properly. Mayor Bloomberg organized the fire department and over 40,000 police officers to maintain peace and order during the 29 hour event. In many neighborhoods, lights were back on the following day, but not until Friday at 9:30 pm was power restored to the entire city. On Saturday morning around 6:00 am, the MTA resumed services throughout the City.

 
     
 

Sources:
FHWA-PublicRoads
CNN.com-2003PowerOutage
NYTimes.com-Blackout-2003