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August 15, 2003
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?
It was already pretty much dark out at 5:27 pm when all the light bulbs in the Bronx apartment where I lived brightened, and then slowly -- very slowly -- got dimmer and dimmer until they finally glimmered out. I'd lost electricity before, but I'd never seen the lights behave like this, and it made me uneasy. I felt around nervously until I found a flashlight, and opened the door to find out if anyone else in the building had lost power, only to find the hall as dark as my apartment. Other neighbors came out, and we realized the whole building must be out. It wasn't until I looked out the window that I realized the whole neighborhood was out!
It was eerie. The normal sounds were missing and it was deathly silent there in the darkness. Still unaware of the magnitude of the situation, I got my transistor radio, and finally realized the enormous scope of the power failure. I began to feel really scared. I was 18, and it was the height of the cold war, when the threat of nuclear annihilation was an ever-present fact of life. President Kennedy's had called for "a fallout shelter for everyone as rapidly as possible" and all through school I had been drilled to instantly "duck and cover."
All this was in my mind as I sat there in the blackness, listening to the stories of hundreds of thousands of people trapped high above and deep below the ground in lightless elevators and subways and commuter trains that had ground to a stop at 5:27; of thousands more trudging down dozens of flights of pitch dark stairs and walking miles through the blacked-out city trying to get home; of massive gridlock on darkened streets that had neither traffic lights nor street lights for guidance and were filled with pedestrians the drivers could not see; of hundreds of airplanes stuck in the sky with no runway lights to show them where to land; of people stranded in airports and subway stations and train stations with no way to get home and nowhere to sleep; of hardware stores that sold every flashlight and battery they had and turned throngs of hopeful purchasers away, and shoe stores completely sold out of low-heeled shoes.
And always the announcer would return to the speculation about what had caused the disaster. "We cannot rule out sabotage," he intoned -- and as he said the last word I heard the drone of a plane flying low overhead. Without even thinking about it I instantly dived under the kitchen table!
But as the time ticked by, and the cause seemed more and more likely to be some kind of mechanical failure, I began to feel pretty foolish. Of course the airplane had been flying low -- it had probably been about to land at LaGuardia Airport just across the bay, and hadn't gained much altitude yet as it headed out to an airport somewhere that had lights. After 20 minutes I crawled back out feeling sheepish.
After awhile my boyfriend stopped by, and finding me okay he went on to check on his own family, leaving me listening to stories of besieged hotels bedding people down on lobby sofas and meeting room carpets; of residents taking in people who were stranded with no way to get home to their homes in the suburbs; of people with flashlights who bravely stepped into jammed intersections to direct traffic; of restaurants opening their larders and providing food to the temporarily homeless; of people helping one another in many, many ways. It began to be kind of exciting, being involved in an event of historic proportions -- especially since I was safe and comfortable at home. But I was deeply aware of how lucky I was not to have been out on the streets in the blackness, or even worse, trapped in blackness in midair in an elevator shaft, deep underground in an airless subway tunnel, or, perhaps most frightening of all, high above the street on a narrow elevated line.
Eventually the repetitive coverage on the radio got boring and I went to bed, but left the ceiling light on in the bedroom so I would know as soon as the electricity came back on! About 11:30 I was awakened by bright lights and felt a surge of relief. I snapped off the wall switch, and got back into bed by the illumination of the stray beams from the streetlights coming through the blinds.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
I know a relay malfunctioned, tripping a breaker and taking a Niagara Mohawk power station near Niagara Falls offline. The resulting power drain overloaded the next station down the line, and they all tripped off in a long cascade. I vividly remember feeling angry that Maine, Pennsylvania and Maryland had quickly dropped out from the northeast grid before the blackout could reach them -- I believed that surely in the whole country there would be enough power to share with us, but we couldn't get it because they'd disconnected from us!
I have no idea if the outage could have been prevented by better planning or better maintenance, or if it was just a random malfunction that the power companies could not have predicted or prevented. I suspect the former, but I don't know for sure.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
Large-scale failures are likely caused by poor planning and/or poor maintenance. I think many more localized failures are caused by poor maintenance, especially in areas with underground wiring where worn insulation causes short circuits when the ground becomes wet enough. Overhead wiring is obviously subject to damage from storms and cars crashing into power poles, neither of which is preventable.
Did either blackout seem significant or shocking at the time?
Why did you consider the blackout(s) to be significant or insignificant?
Thirty million people were without power, some for as long as several days. New York City was completely paralyzed, and nearly a million of people were stuck in packed, inoperable elevators, subways and commuter trains. More than a million were atop skyscrapers, on the streets and in cars, unable to get home. It was a vivid demonstration of how totally dependent on electricity our society had already become by 1965.
In addition, everyone's first thought was Soviet sabotage, and I'm sure the president's finger was on the button. World War III could have started if they hadn't tracked down the cause when they did.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
I pretty much answered that in question 1. I was very frightened until the cause was determined to be a mechanical failure. Once I settled down, having had the great good fortune to be at home when it happened, I was free to listen to the excitement on the radio and be caught up in the drama of living through what seemed to be an important historical event.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
I answered this in question 1.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
It was much more frightening than any localized power failure. One reason was the possibility of attack, another was that the magnitude was such that it was obvious it wasn't going to be fixed in an hour or two like the usual power failures.
It was also exhilarating rather than annoying, because so many people were affected and so much was going on.
And it was heartening, because of the helpfulness and camaraderie that resulted.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
I had always thought little of Con Ed. This made my opinion of them even lower.
If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
I moved to the Washington, DC, area in 1976, so I missed the 1977 blackout.
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?
Other (please specify)
If other, please specify:
To this day, I always make sure I have a battery-operated radio that works, at least one flashlight on each floor, and once power failure lights became affordable, I put them in every area of the house. I wish I could say that I had learned not to take electrical power for granted, but although for awhile I was grateful every time I turned something on, the appreciation faded pretty quickly.
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:
I know it's true. I remember the cooperation and camaraderie in 1965, and I read with horror of the destruction in 1977. I think the city was in a funk in the mid- to late 1970s. Services from the city were poor, if I remember correctly, and the mood of the people was bad. I moved in 1976, and was delighted to get out of NYC and live in a place where people were civil to one another.
Story #262, The Blackout History Project, 15 August 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/262/>.
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