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February 4, 2004
Which blackout(s) did you experience?
1977 (New York City 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 lived in Brooklyn, under the El, which meant it was always noisy. You could scream at the top of your lungs when a train went by overhead, and nobody could hear you. I was living in a six story walk-up - on the top floor. Taking out the garbage was more than just a chore, you had to make a packed lunch.
Our neighborhood was mainly Italian, and in the summer, when we slept out on the balcony, we would be serenaded by, "Yo! Frankie"'s from the street below, people to lazy to walk up and ring Frankie's door. Sometimes in the summer the kids palyed in the fire hydrants.
The night of "The Big Blackout" brought our neighborhood together. It was the first time I'd seen people who never talked before kind of hang out. Of course since then I lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake in California, where our house fell off it's foundation, and 911. But this was my first disaster.
There is an unexplainable phenomenon whereby humans love to see trajedy, whether it's a wreck at the races, a clobbering in the ring, a natural disaster, or a blackout. We were afraid, but it broke the monotony. Actually, we weren't afraid until our otherwise upstanding neighbors started hurling rocks into neighborhood store windows. There were so many alarms ringing that you couldn't even tell where they were coming from, and then it stopped being fun anymore.
People seem to party during a disaster, and I remember people bringing beer and drinks into the street. Shop keepers were handing out free ice cream and other frozen delictibles. And then there was the sex. For some reason all my friends had sex that night. It was funny to see nine months later how many more babies were born. At least it seemed that way. There was nothing else to do in the dark.
I remember gearing up for Y2K, thinking that it would be an eternal blackout.
I remember the Loma Prieta earthquake in California - I lived 4 miles from the epicenter. Santa Cruz was destroyed. My boyfriend was a c5 quadriplegic, and by the grace of God he didn't fly out of his wheelchair. When I finally made it home, he was sitting in the middle of the kitchen totally surrounded by stuff. I looked at the broken window and he simply said, "The chicken flew out of the freezer." I'd never had to stand on line for 2 hours to get my 2 gallons of rationed water. The freeways collapsed and gee, we couldn't drive everywhere anymore. Of course in some countries they do quite well without cars. But we are products of our environments.
The earthquake plunged us into darkness as well. Also, the water treatment plants shut down and the gas company had to turn off the gas, which heated our homes and powered our stoves. We were not allowed onto our street and people were sleeping in the high school gym. I remember the Jehovah's witnesses, and how they came to the aid of their people faster than any others. The rest of us slept in the gym.
Years after the blackout I became a misisonary and lived in Africa and Papua New Guinea. I lived in areas where there were no utilities. Women carried water from the river in buckets on their heads. You cooked over charcoal or in a pit on hot rocks in the ground. People didn't loot or riot, although it does seem that people have many more children in such countries.
I've often thought about our culture, and how we can't seem to function without the amenities we've grown accustomed to. When I was in Africa I met a boy in a village. I took him to "town" for the first time and I asked him if he wanted some ice cream. He was 14. He didn't know what ice cream was. Of course, he never knew electricity and cows never got that cold on their own. It's many years later, and I've taken that young man out of his village to see part of the world. It wasn't hard for him to adapt to the lightswitch.
A blackout is not really a disaster on all levels (well, maybe for somebody on life support). It's just a disaster because we don't have alternative coping skills. We are spoiled. The funny thing about the Y2K sacre is, when it started, I was in Africa, living deep in the bush. When I left and we landed at Heathrow airport, all the newspapers shouted headlines about Y2K. I hadn't a clue what it was all about, and I was too embarassed to ask, so of course I bought a paper and was amazed. If I would have stayed in Africa at that time (I eventually did go back), and Y2K became a reality, I never would have even known it. Life would have gone on without a wrinkle. There's no electricity in many places, but it's not considered a blackout, it's just life. Isn't in funny?
Why did the blackouts happen, in your opinion?
The one in New York, I have no idea. I assume it was the fault of the utility company, but we're never really told.
The black out of all utilites after the earthquake was a natural occurance. Utilities are not - earthquates are.
What is your opinion regarding the general causes of power failures (blackouts)?
The utility companies need to get it together, the states need to have the same rules and standards.
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?
Because we had no coping skills.
Because many people acted like animals.
Because it brought out the worst in people.
Because the idea that we could mess up so badly was mind boggling.
How did the blackout(s) affect you?
I don't have so much trust in the utility companies or the engineers who run them.
After my 5 years in third world countries though, I think we should learn to cope with less than we are accustomed to, and be more thankful for what we do have.
What happened to your perception of the blackout(s) when you heard the news about the full scope of the event(s)?
I lost confidence in the engineers and authorities
How would you compare the blackout(s) to "normal" power failures you have experienced at other times?
Normal power failures don't last so long, there's not as much damage, not as much looting, and groceries at home or in stores are not always totally lost.
What affect, if any, did the blackout(s) have on your opinion of Consolidated Edison Company?
Like I said, I think there should be more regulations that are consistant across the states.
If you experienced both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts, please compare them (describe the ways in which they were similar/different):
I did experience the 1965 blackout, but I was only ten years old, so I can't really say.
Did the blackout(s) have any larger meaning in your mind?
Yes (please explain)
If yes, please explain:
We should not be so totally reliant on things external to what we can do on our own. Like I said, in other countries, people can survive without utilities. It's not convenient, but it's not a disaster either.
Did the blackout(s) cause any profound crisis?
If yes, please explain:
Perhaps in the government regulations or utiltiy companies, but I wouldn't really know about that. I would hope so though.
How did the blackout(s) affect your daily reliance on electricity?
Other (please specify)
If other, please specify:
After the blackout, but before my experiences abrout, I was a little frightened, but not anymore. I can do without quite well. I put a windmill on my property, a hand pump and a solar panel.
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:
As I said, I was only ten during the first one, but I don't remember anything like the crime during the second one. I remember in the second one references made to it being reacted to differently.
Story #308, The Blackout History Project, 4 February 2004, <http://blackout.gmu.edu/details/308/>.
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