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August 21, 2003
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
Other (please specify)
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 in the Empire State Building with another couple about to go up on the elevator to the observation deck. We were going to be the next and last people in the elevator before the doors closed. My husband was waiting downstairs in the lobby. The air conditioning was out in the Empire State Building and there were fans everywhere. The lights kind of flickered and dimmed, then went out totally. It was August 14th, 2003 around 4:00. The workers advised everyone to sit tight and not go anywhere. They asked that we just sit down on the floor and wait. In the meantime I figured I should call my husband on the cell phone to let him know we might be awhile. He was having a hard time hearing me and had already been evacuated from the building. He told me that he couldn't hear me, but he would be waiting outside near McDonald's. We waited briefly then decided that the lights weren't coming on anytime soon. We found him in the crowd outside only because my friend's husband was 6'7'' and could see above the crowd. By this time cell phone lines began to jam, rendering our cell phone useless. Traffic came to a standstill. We soon found that it wasn't just the building but throughout all of New York as well as through various states in the Northeast as well as Canada. We didn't know what to do, so we made our way to our hotel in the Times Square area. By the time we got to Times Square the crowds overfilled the sidewalk and people were walking in the streets. We stopped at a bank of payphones to try to call home. There were long lines and most of the payphones weren't working either. Workers were dumped immediately out on the streets. All the buildings evacuated. No one knew what was going on or the full extent of the power outage. There were reports that there were blackouts as far south as Georgia. A young Asian woman stopped us in Times Square to ask us what was going on. We told her we didn't know except for the fact that power was out in multiple states in the Northeast as well as Canada. She asked how long would the power be out, if phones would work and what should she do. Unfortunately we didn't have any answers for her. We decided that we should go to our hotel and see if they would let us in. They were letting in only guests that could show a room key. They set up a conference area with ice water since the temperatures were near 100 that day. We stayed in that area as long as we could. My friend's husband walked the 16 flights of stairs to make sure that we could get into our rooms. When he returned he and my husband went in search of food and supplies. They returned with food, flashlights and a radio. They had found a pizza joint that had gas ovens. At the pizza place there were two women that had on suits and high heels they couldn't get ahold of their families. At that point all bridges and tunnels had been closed to vehicles and were open to foot traffic only. They said they lived too far to walk home. They were going to just sit in the restaurant until they made them leave. After we ate it was beginning to get dark and we figured that we should go on up to our room before it was totally dark. We climbed the 16 flights and were able to remove the screws from our hotel room windows that wouldn't allow you to fully open the window. Remarkably we found that our hotel still had running water and it was hot too. We showered and went to our friend's room where we spent the evening passing the radio headsets around and occassionally looking out the windows. From the window we could hear people screaming and cussing in the streets. They obviously had been drinking. The mayor asked that no more liquor be served after 8:00pm that evening, but people had already had plenty to drink. We decided to go ahead and call it a night around 11:00pm. There was no indication when the power might come back on. After a night of restless sleep and running to the window to look out every hour on the hour, we got up and got dressed. We went out to find something to eat in a powerless city. As we left our hotel we found that people had slept in the lobby as well as all along the sidewalks. Most were workers that had nowhere to go.We found that for whatever reason, whether by generator or luck that there was power at some places on Broadway, but only on one side of the street. McDonald's had a line that ran down the street and around the block, so we made our way to a deli a few blocks down. Luckily they had a few seats, air conditioning, were cooking breakfast sandwiches, and had an assortment of baked goods. After we ate we thought we would take a bus to Chinatown. We managed to get on one after about 3 fully loaded buses came by. The mayor had declared a state of emergency which meant buses ran for free. Unfortunately Chinatown was more like Ghost Town as was Little Italy. So, we took a taxi to the Stanton Island Ferry to take a ride and allow our friends to see the Statue of Liberty. The ferry was running as usual and thankfully was serving drinks and snacks. We had decided to call the hotel and see if power had come back on. It did come back on around 1:00pm, so we decided that we would get packed and get out of New York City. Much of the city still had no power. When we checked out there were about 100 people in the lobby of our hotel checking in. It was hot and people were agitated. The hotel computers were down and the lobby was just chaos. We usually love New York, but this was one time that we were eager to get out.
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
The news said originally that it originated in Canada, but they later said that the problem started in Detroit. The explanation was simply that the power grid was overloaded.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
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 2003 Blackout was significant, because it happened so soon after 9-11-01. Everyone immediately thought that it was an act of terrorism because of events in Iraq and Afghanistan.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
It cut our trip from 4 days to 2. Left us feeling helpless and confused in a strange city amid chaos.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
We just felt overwhelmed and stranded.
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
It was not even close to being able to compare it. When you are at home you feel safe even during a blackout. When you are in a strange place, surrounded by strangers, and cut off from communicating with the outside world you just feel helpless. Normally you can use phones even in a blackout. Due to the full scope of the blackout phone lines were jammed everywhere.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)
If yes, please explain:
Yes, they let us know just how vulnerable and spoiled we are as Americans. Everything came to a screeching hald in a city of 7 million.
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:
Story #294, The Blackout History Project, 21 August 2003, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/294/>.
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