August 18, 2003


"WHEN THE LIGHTS GO DOWN IN THE CITY," OR: NOTES ON THE BLACKOUT OF '03: As I write now it's been nearly 72 hours since power was restored in Hoboken, after 11 hours, due to the Blackout of '03. Here, in no particular order, are my reflections in this, the largest mass power outage in U.S. history:
- The blackout began at 4:18 p.m. on Thursday the 14th, right after I had left work early, and was on my couch, typing up the Bill O'Reilly/Al Franken post that can be found below. I was about to press "publish" when the lights went out; I first figured it was just my building, or perhaps just my block, so I figured it would come back on moments later and I could publish then (with my laptop switching to battery power). Unfortunately, the lights stayed out long enough that my computer ran out of power too, with my router of course not working either; by then I'd heard people outside yelling "the power's out!" With no computer or TV working I figured I'd take a nap; after an hour down I heard my cell phone beep that I had a message, but couldn't get my messages, leading me to think maybe something was up region-wide. That's when I turned on my portable radio, heard the phrase "Blackout of '03" for the first time, and realized that it wasn't just my building or my block or Hoboken- but rather much of the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
- Soon after that I went outside, and (minus the crying and panic), it was an eerie echo of 9/11- about five times the normal number of people on the street in Hoboken, wandering aimlessly from all directions, wondering how they'd get home. I walked over to Pier A in order to watch the sun go down on Manhattan without light and- much like September 2001- there were next to no lights on in the city, with the exception of conspicuous floodlights, downtown. I was also stuck in Hoboken for the entire ordeal, much like 9/11, though once again a part of me wishes I had been somewhere in the city, experienced the event along with the rest of New York and come out with stories to tell for the rest of my life.
- I was hoping to see all the lights of Manhattan come back on at once- which would have unquestionably been one of the most amazing sights of my life. Alas, it wasn't to be, although Lileks last Friday expressed a similar wish.
- I listened to about two hours of radio, and one of the first things I heard was WABC's Sean Hannity introducing a Republican congressman guest with the half-kidding proclamation that "we've gotta find a way to blame this on Clinton." I later heard callers, of course, throwing blame Bush's way. FM radio was more enjoyable; seeking to emulate radio legend Scott Muni, who famously climbed to the top of the Empire State Building in order to broadcast with a microphone and portable radio during the 1977 blackout, Q104.3's Ian O'Malley did a similar thing, playing such blackout-applicable tunes as Journey's "Lights" and Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" while broadcasting from his Discman.
- At around 8:00 I met up with some friends who live down the street, and after hanging out at their apartment for awhile we went to try to pick up our other friend, who had waited hours to be ferried from Manhattan to Weehawken and was meeting us at an uptown diner. Due to traffic gridlock and the hundreds of other people waiting there- as well as the lack of cell phone service, we missed her the first time- and the second too- until we finally reached her about 3 hours later.
- After nightfall, auxilary power remained on in much of Hoboken, including a majority of the streetlights on sidestreets. But the main street in town, Washington Street, had no lights whatsoever- it really looked not unlike the apocalypse. You know how a street you know well can look completely different in daylight from how it appears at night? On Thursday Washington St. was like a third way- I honestly felt like I didn't know where I was, even blocks from my apartment.
- Now for the meta part of the story: as some of you know, I make my living as a reporter for a news service that covers the energy industry. And due to an early morning report that we put out daily, I am often required to be in the office in the wee, wee hours. Now I know many people, in NYC and elsewhere, had the day off from work Friday. But for my company that wasn't exactly an option- especially since this was the biggest national energy story since the Enron collapse, and possibly even bigger than that.
I fell asleep on my living room couch at about 1 AM, thinking that either the power would come back on and wake me up, or that it wouldn't come back on at all, in which case I wouldn't be able to go to work anyway. Come on it did, at 3:02 AM EDT, and I headed into the office two hours later. Without breaking any confidentiality agreements, I can say that it now appears the outage began in Ohio; my boss appeared on CNBC Friday morning to discuss the situation. Though I really wish our original impulse ("Blame Canada") had in fact been accurate.
-Yes, I know it's a cliche that "New Yorkers come together" in a time of crisis. And Lord knows I'm always the first one to point out New York elitism and/or condescension to the rest of America and Canada. But I notice that New York seemed to handle the crisis much better than, say, Cleveland; and there was indeed a welcome lack of looting, in contrast to '77.
Mayor Bloomberg, after bumbling like an idiot and showing no leadership whatsoever during such previous calamities as the near-transit strike, the February blizzard, and the James Davis murder, really stepped up this time and showed that he may just be growing into the job. Now if he could just do something about that stupid smoking ban...
So that's the story of the blackout- on the one hand an historical night that I'll never forget, but on the other- just other night at the office.

Posted by Stephen Silver at August 18, 2003 12:06 AM
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