The Lights Go Out in New York City
On this day in 2003, a major outage knocked out power across the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Beginning at 4:10 p.m. ET, 21 power plants shut down in just three minutes. Fifty million people were affected, including residents of New York, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. Although power companies were able to resume some service in as little as two hours, power remained off in other places for more than a day. The outage stopped trains and elevators, and disrupted everything from cellular telephone service to operations at hospitals to traffic at airports. In New York City, it took more than two hours for passengers to be evacuated from stalled subway trains. Small business owners were affected when they lost expensive refrigerated stock. The loss of use of electric water pumps interrupted water service in many areas. There were even some reports of people being stranded mid-ride on amusement park roller coasters. At the New York Stock Exchange and bond market, though, trading was able to continue thanks to backup generators.
Authorities soon calmed the fears of jittery Americans that terrorists may have been responsible for the blackout, but they were initially unable to determine the cause of the massive outage. American and Canadian representatives pointed figures at each other, while politicians took the opportunity to point out major flaws in the region’s outdated power grid. Finally, an investigation by a joint U.S.-Canada task force traced the problem back to an Ohio company, FirstEnergy Corporation. When the company’s EastLake plant shut down unexpectedly after overgrown trees came into contact with a power line, it triggered a series of problems that led to a chain reaction of outages. FirstEnergy was criticized for poor line maintenance, and more importantly, for failing to notice and address the problem in a timely manner–before it affected other areas.
At the time of this blackout, I was living in Northeast Ohio. I remember distinctly thinking it was linked to terrorism. We rushed to the store to get milk for the kids. I had a fight with a woman over the last gallon, I won. Then we bought the very important supplies – Ding Dongs and Pepsi. As nightfall started coming in, we attempted to light a fire in outside, with very little success. After it really got dark, we realized that we had not gathered up candles or flashlights. We ended up using my son’s light up shoes, banging them together, to get around the house. Luckily our lights were back on the next day but there were several areas that were out for days.
Despite concerns, there were very few reports of looting or other blackout-inspired crime. In New York City, the police department, out in full force, actually recorded about 100 fewer arrests than average. In some places, citizens even took it upon themselves to mitigate the effects of the outage, by assisting elderly neighbors or helping to direct traffic in the absence of working traffic lights.
In New York City alone, the estimated cost of the blackout was more than $500 million.