<< Return to prior page
December 20, 2000
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1965 (Great Northeast Blackout)
In your own words, tell the story of your experience in the blackout(s). Try to recall specific events and the people, places, and things involved; also include more general reactions, images adn last impressions?
I was working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency at 580 Fifth Avenue in New York City when the 1965 blackout hit during rush hour. Nobody knew what was going on, and my boss sent a bunch of us down to the men's room to fill wastebaskets with water in case we were stuck in the building for the duration. He also gave money to the mailroom staff and dispatched them to buy flashlights and food at outrageous prices.
There was a lot of wild speculation on why the street lights, etc. were off--including rumors that the Soviets were invading.
I quickly discovered that the phones were working (even if the lights in the buttons on the phones weren't), so I called my girl friend (now my wife) in New Jersey to learn if she'd heard anything on the radio.
When it became obvious that the subway wasn't going to be running for a while, I walked from 5th and 47th to my apartment on West 88th street near Riverside Drive with two co-workers who needed a place to spend the night. The mood on the street was festive as thousands of people walked home with flashlights to illuminate the way.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
As I recall, there was a failure in the power grid that caused a domino effect.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Sometimes they're simply caused by a temporary imbalance in supply and demand--for example, when there's a heat wave and millions of people turn on their air conditioners. At other times, they may be caused by component failures or other technical problems that happen too quickly for the utilities to work around. On the whole, I think the U.S. power network works remarkably well.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Both were significant
Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
The 1965 blackout was unprecedented (at least on that scale), and the 1977 blackout was surprising because the public obviously assumed that the earlier problems had been fixed. I don't think either blackout was "shocking," though; if anything, the opposite, due to the lack of electricity. :-)
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
It caused only mild inconvenience and was an interesting experience.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
I was impressed, but I wasn't especially concerned.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
It was unexpected because of its scope and the fact that it happened in New York City. I can't think of any other time when I ever saw all the traffic lights out in Manhattan.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
I didn't think much about Con Ed. At the time, I had the impression that the problem went beyond Con Ed's network.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
No effect / same reliance
This is how the story goes: In November of 1965 the lights went out in New York and crime rates temporarily dropped; there were widespread reports of extraordinary cooperation and trust between strangers caught together in the power failure. In July of 1977, little more than a decade later, the lights went out again in New York. This time, a devastating wave of looting and arson broke out. Does this story ring true to you? Explain why or why not:
The description of the 1965 blackout sounds accurate (although it ignores the price-gouging that went on in many shops that sold flashlights, food, bottled drinks, etc.). I wasn't in New York for the 1977 blackout and don't remember anything about it.
Story #125, The Blackout History Project, 20 December 2000, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/125/>.
<< Return to prior page