The New York City Blackouts of 1977 and 2003
The City that Never Sleeps is famous for its well-lit thoroughfares; no matter what time of day you walk Times Square, the Jumbotrons and neon compete with the brightness of the Sun. If you look at nighttime pictures of the country from space, you'll see the entire tri-state area bathed in light, thanks to the lights powered by New York electricity flowing to residential and commercial customers like you. Because power plant staff and New York State officials work together to ensure uninterrupted service, the inevitable, occasional blackout causes big news in the City and also results in changes to prevent the same problem from happening again.
There have been several major blackouts in New York City. Perhaps the most interesting came in 1977 and 2003. Both occurred during the summer, often a time of great stress for the public utility system. (All of those humming air conditioners need a lot of juice after all.) Due to the fact that they darkened the biggest city in the country, the blackouts have become part of the colorful history of the Big Apple.
On the evening of July 13, 1977, a power substation on the Hudson River was struck by lightning. This happens all the time, of course, and electrical utilities have plans to accommodate the strain on the system. Unfortunately, no system is perfect. According to Jack Feinstein, here is the technical diagnosis of what happened in New York City: "Under-frequency load shedding operated as designed, but due to extremely high transmission system voltage Ravenswood 3 became unstable and tripped off-line. The frequency declined to 57.5 Hz and this resulted in the generating units to begin to cascade off-line since they are not designed to operate stable at this low frequency. At 21:34 the system blacked-out." In other words, the City's electrical system attempted to shift power around, changing its frequency and adapting to the stress. At 9:34, a wave of system failures shut out the lights.
While most New Yorkers went about their business, switching on flashlights and lighting candles while municipal authorities went to work restoring power, some people decided to take advantage of the disabled security system and general confusion. Looting was reported across the City, but most people, keeping a previous blackout in 1965 in mind, assisted friends and neighbors in need. In addition to the need for enhanced police presence during blackouts, revised procedures for dealing with the electrical system resulted. United Press International, a worldwide news organization, reports that the Carter Administration subsequently sent the City 11 million dollars to help cover the losses incurred by citizens and the city government.
On the warm afternoon of August 14, 2003, a much larger cascading blackout cut power to much of the Northeastern United States and even some parts of Canada. This time, the problem started with an unexpected source: trees. The utility responsible for power in Ohio neglected to trim the trees around power lines in the state. Due to contact with the trees and falling limbs, the efficient flow of electricity was interrupted. With the system in Ohio powered down, authorities tried to draw power from other states, which overwhelmed system by system as each tried to compensate.
Unfortunately, the stress was too much. Within hours, millions of people from Ohio to Massachusetts were searching for batteries and candles for the coming evening. This time, there was no looting to speak of in New York City. Just as they had on September 11, 2001, New Yorkers dealt with the blackout as best they could, maintaining order. While no one wants to experience a night without electricity, there are some positives; the stars don't often come out over New York City so brightly.
The lesson this time is a common one at this point in American history. One of the primary conclusions was that American infrastructure needed a boost. While no one likes being taxed, it is worthwhile when receiving great benefits in return. The Blackout of 2003 motivated private and public agencies to forge a stronger, more resilient power grid that will accommodate residential and industrial needs well into the twenty-first century.
In many ways, the blackouts of 1977 and 2003 stand as a symbol of the resiliency of New Yorkers. It's important, of course, to note the way most citizens kept their wits about them and came together to work through the problem. Most significant was the way New Yorkers recovered after the fact, doing what they could to prevent large-scale electric New York blackouts in the future.