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August 15, 2003
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
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?
In 1965 I was 9 years old and we were living in a house in the suburbs of Long Island. I was watching television on our big old console in the "playroom" when the screen suddenly went black. The picture disappeared, swallowed up into that little white dot of light in the center that then itself faded away. I ran upstairs into the kitchen, where my mother had been cooking. I remember seeing the blue glow of the gas jets on the stove in the darkness. I realized for the first time how pervasive electrical appliances and lights were in our lives.
In 1977 I was 21 and was home on Long Island for my summer vacation before my last year of college. I had spent some time with my first boyfriend that day, as I recall. I remember the most wonderful dramatic thunderstorm with many-branched lightning strikes, which created a brief purplish flicker in the sky. My cousin Wendy, who was visiting our elderly Aunt Anna in an apartment building Manhattan, later said she had been about to leave Anna and enter the elevator to go down to the lobby when Anna stopped her to say just one more thing... and then the electricity went out. Wendy was grateful to our Aunt for "saving" her from being stuck for hours in the lift.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
I believe in both cases they were triggered by natural phenomena (lightning in one case), and the systems were overtaxed by heavy use of air conditioning. In addition, the systems are bottle-necked, so that if a key area fails, there is a "cascade" effect.
I currently live in Europe where there is far less reliance on air conditioning. During our current heat wave, the only talk of possible power outages has been because of the possibility that power plants might not be able to cool their systems adequately, as it is illegal to discharge water above a certain temperature into the rivers.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
My opnion is that we are far too dependent on electricity and take its availability for granted. We do not build in enough back-up systems.
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?
They brought out the best and the worst in people and showed us how dependent we were on something few people understand.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
Not much in the practical sense.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
In 1977 recall being deeply disappointed by the looting that occurred then, because I saw the blackout as something rather romantic, forcing us back into times when one had to rely on friends and on trust and ingenuity.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
They reduce people across a vast area to their common denominators, and have the possibility to bond people as do huge blizzards or hurricanes. Small power failures or brownouts (or heavy rainstorms) don't have the same impact.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
hard to say. I was too young.
If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
It was I who was different. In 1965 I was impressed by the sensory aspect -- the darkness, the candles.
In 1977 those things still affected me, but the looting disappointed me. I had lost my innocence.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)
If yes, please explain:
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:
Yes, see above.
Story #230, The Blackout History Project, 15 August 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/230/>.
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