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Remembering New York City's Third Major Blackout (August 14, 2003)




August 14, 2003 was sunny and hot Thursday in New York.  In the middle of the afternoon I noticed that my laptop wasn’t working, so I mentioned it to my administrative assistant, Terri, who came to my office to take a look.  She was fiddling around with the cables under my desk, but to no avail.  Shortly thereafter, word came that the power was out.  Most of us weren’t aware of it since the company I worked for (media agency Carat USA) was situated high up on the 36th floor (at 34th St. & Park Ave., pictured below), so our offices were bathed in sunlight, thus there was no need to have the lights on.  I immediately looked out my window to see if anything looked amiss (a knee-jerk reaction ever since 9/11), and noticed smoke pouring out of the big Con Edison plant nearby, but it turned out there was no connection.




After congregating on the floor with co-workers, we broke into two camps - those who were unnerved and left immediately (again, memories of 9/11 still fresh in their minds) and those who hung around thinking the power might come on in a short while - I was in the second group.  After 15 minutes or so even those of us who waited decided to leave. 


I didn’t expect it would be a big deal, but soon learned otherwise as it took 30 minutes to walk down the stairs since all of the floors below were emptying out as well.  And was the air ever stuffy!  A further hindrance was a lack of working emergency lights in the stairwell, so we used light cast from each of our cell phones to guide us.  Slowly making our way down the stairwell made me think of what a challenge it must have been for those in the Twin Towers on 9/11 who had to evacuate from much higher floors.



Eventually, I made it to the lobby and walked downtown with my boss, Joanne, who lived in Chelsea.  I was among the lucky ones, since my walk home was only about two miles (down to West 4th St.).  When I arrived at my apartment building I found my friend Nina, who couldn't get home to Long Island, waiting at my doorstep.  (She had walked up from the the Financial District where her office was.)  After freshening up a bit, we walked to the pier/park at the end of Christopher St.  On the way there we bumped into my friend Tom, who lived in the apartment building next to mine. 


We hung out on the pier with a throng of other "powerless" Village residents for an hour or so until it got dark, and then the police instructed us to leave (normally the pier remained open until 1 AM).  Surprisingly, looking across the Hudson we could see that lights were on in the building in Jersey City and Hoboken.




Walking back to my apartment was a challenge because there were no street or store lights, yet the lights from cars were blindingly bright, much more so than when the power was on.  Along the way we bought slices of pizza from a pizzeria that was serving in the dark from its takeout window.  After finishing our meal back at my place there wasn’t anything else to do but talk and it became uncomfortably warm (eating hot pizza didn't help). 


The discomfort I experienced was more of a challenge for me than on 9/11 because, although there was a lot more mental anguish on that day, I didn't experience the physical discomfort I did on this night.  (It was a relief to wash dishes in cold water!)  Also, I was feeling vulnerable because my cell phone had run out of juice, and I was running low on money - and ATMs weren't working.  And despite Mayor Bloomberg's earlier assurances that power would be restored by 11 PM, it was not to be.




The next day, shortly before noon, Nina found a bus to take her back to Long Island (the trip took five hours).  Meanwhile, l went over to Tom's apartment to savor his great cross-ventilation.  I was dozing on the living room floor when the power finally returned at about 2 PM.  I shouted "Hallelujah!" and immediately dashed out to get cash from the ATM.  However, each neighborhood had a different schedule and some didn't get their power back until close to midnight.











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Finally, a time when I am alive and in the presence of said event.
I personally loved the blackout. No one went crazy and there were a lot of people helping others (ie get home/food/ etc. etc.). which goes to show that New Yorkers aren't 'that' bad.
I was somewhere in Midtown and ended up rollerblading to a friends on 92nd, who lived on 17th floor. We managed to scrounge some food, and watched the streets. Kinda great, reminds me of that Gilligan's Island song ...no train, no car, no television not a single luxury.


Even though I am from Kansas, it was not only fascinating to hear about the blackout in NYC in 2003, but later, how it all started. Even with all of the "checks and balances" within the U.S. electrical grid, this blackout did indeed occur and it mystified the experts for weeks with it stretching from Toronto to New York. I am sure many a New Yorker was going into a room, and without thinking, tried flipping the light switch, only to reminded of the blackout. This human behavior occurs always when we have our ice storms in Kansas. This blackout reminded me of the worst "blackout" that I experienced in Kansas around 1970. The power was off for three days during the winter with the night temperatures lingering at 10 degrees and the wind chill at -5 degrees. And when the power was restored, it was time to celebrate.


Ah yes, I remember it well. I left my office and just started walking, not sure where I was going to go. I tried calling you Rob, but the cell phone circuits were busy and I couldn't get through to anyone. I thought about walking over the Brooklyn Bridge (since it was close to my office) but I didn't know what I was going to do once I got over to the other side. So I decided to walk to your apartment and prayed that you didn't go over to a friend's place and would come home at some point.

I think I was sitting on the steps to your building for just 1/2 an hour before I saw you walking up the street. Needless to say, I was relieved that you had not decided to spend the night somewhere else. I enjoyed going to the Pier with you and Tom, and of course very happy when we were able to find a place still selling food.

It was so hot, I remember lying on your couch with a wet towel on my head, trying to fall asleep. The next morning, you graciously lent me a pair of your Calvin Klein briefs (black), boxer shorts (I believe they were polka-dots) and a t-shirt. I was quite the sight on the 5-hour bus ride home to Long Island!

Several weeks later, we met for lunch and I handed you your boxers and t-shirt in a manila envelope (like it was work related), but I must have forgotten the black Calvin Klein's. Every once in a while as I am searching through my underwear drawer I come across your Calvin's and flash back to our blackout adventure. Please don't ask for them back!


Nina, although I remember the polka-dot boxer shorts (orange w/white polka-dots) I don't remember the black Calvin Klein briefs! Funny, after you returned the boxers to me in the manila envelope it sat in my office for the next 3 years!

Ann K.

When the blackout occurred, I was in Martha's Vineyard with my boyfriend, and my daughter (then aged 15) was with her dad in upstate New York. My brother was here in New York.

Martha's Vineyard was just off the affected grid, and we had power. And, the odd thing is, we were "up" island, where it's dry as in no booze (and lots of alcoholics bringing their own booze to every meal you can think of), but we were at a cocktail party. So we had electricity an liquor we had not carted with us. It was cool and pretty there by the water. Chatter started up among the guests. I'm not sure with whom it originated. The word was New York had no juice. I thought, eh, who care? My kid is safe with her dad in the country. They may also have no electricity, but they won't be trapped in the city without it. Too bad I'll have to throw out all my food when I get home. Good thing there's not much in the fridge.

The end. Okay, not the end. My brother tells a funny story that there was so much noise on his corner that he called the cops. He lives on 25th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. So, the cops say this doesn't constitute an emergency, and they're not responding. He said, "How about if I throw bricks off my roof on to them? Would it THEN be an emergency?" The detective says, "No, sir, then it would be a felony." So, my brother threw plums, and it dispersed the crowd.

My friend Jill lived on the 20th floor of a big apartment building. She walked home with a coworker who was stranded in the city, and they walked upstairs and then immediately took showers because the water tower would soon be empty, they knew, and, as has been pointed out it was very hot that night. Jill and her friend then washed down Ambien CRs with wine and didn't wake up until late the next morning, though it was still a little while before power returned.

Many people in my building slept by the river along the Hudson River Park. It was just so hot, they said.

Meanwhile, you may not recall, but there was a mini blackout later that summer that just affected an area south of 14th Street on the west side. I live on 16th, but my mom lives on 12th and my boyfriend lived on 14th itself. I went to my mom's to bring her water so she could have a dinner party. I carried up four gallons of water. She's on the 12 floor. It was tiring. On the way back, and enroute to see if my boyfriend (who had a cold and was asleep it turns out) was okay...I saw that Emack and Bolio ice cream (which isn't there any more) was giving away its entire inventory. You could eat as much ice cream as you wanted...before it would all melt and be gone forever.


I've said it before but I'll say it again, your life provides perfect fodder for a great blog! Or perhaps it's just that you know how to write about it. Either way, very entertaining.

I remember that on the day the power was restored for most of us I decided to walki up to Splash that evening around 8:00. However, as I got up to 14th St. I noticed that the neighborhood north of 14th St. was dark - Chelsea's lights were still out! I turned around and ended up at the Monster instead. Someone I had a fling with the previous year was there and being very friendly but I think it was only because he didn't want to go back to his apartment which still had no power.

Alexis C.

I'd been wondering where your blog moved to! I remember this day well. I was watiressing at a restaurant in Soho that morning and stayed behind to chat with the dinner shift that was coming in. Had I not done that, I would've been trapped underground in the subway. The Spring St train was down so I decided to walk to W4. That was out too. By that time, everyone had started to come out onto the streets and people with cars were blasting the news and little by little, word about the blackout was getting out. I made it back to my apartment near Hell's Kitchen. No way to reach friends, family or boyfriend. For a while there was water and then it slowed to a little trickle. That night we drank at the Irish pub underneath our apartment and ended up coming home with a slew of new wine glasses. No one noticed or cared that we were squirreling them away in my bag.

The next day I heard from a friend that sneaker stores in the LES had been looted. Friends had been hit over heads with bricks in order to acquire hard to find and limited edition shoes. Only in NYC.

Juan Carlos Rojas

Wow...I remember, Times Square was beautiful without power...

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