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Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the northeast blackout of 2003, when some tree branches in Ohio caused 60 million people to lose power.
We were on a jetBlue flight from Florida to NYC with our two-year-old son, our only child at the time. We’d been visiting my husband parents. All of a sudden people on the plane started murmuring about something, and I saw a few seatback TVs turn to CNN, where there was breaking news. Now, try to get into my mindset here: I’m on an airplane with my family, it’s barely two years after the September 11th attacks, and there’s news so big that I could hear it spreading around the cabin. My stomach dropped as I tried to find CNN on my TV. I was incredibly relieved when it was “just” a massive blackout!
Of course, we were supposed to land in that blackout, at JFK. I wondered out loud if we’d be able to. Surely the airport had generators, right?
We were allowed to land, but that was really all the airport had backup power for. No power for the jetway, no power for the luggage carousels, no power for the bathrooms. We had to wait on the plane for a while, but eventually, they got some stairs to us. By that time, I really had to pee.
There was dim emergency lighting in the hallways inside the airport. It was still bright outside, but there were no windows in that part of the airport. The bathroom was pitch dark. And this was long before smartphones with flashlights! I did have a flip phone, and I was able to get just enough light from the screen to find both the toilet and the toilet paper. Changing a diaper was harder, because I couldn’t hold the phone at the same time.
We waited a while for our luggage to come out. It was basically dumped into a big pile, with nobody really knowing which flight it was for. We waded through and found ours eventually.Where were you during the Blackout of 2003? Today is the 15th anniversary!Click To Tweet
We’d reserved a car service to pick us up, but of course, they said that wasn’t going to happen: no power for their dispatch systems. Plus, all of the cars were probably backed up in traffic. We waited in a super-long taxi line, in the swampy August heat, with our cranky toddler. I remember it taking a really long time to get home. The trip from the airport in Queens to our house in Brooklyn takes about forty minutes under the best of circumstances, and this time it took almost two hours. There were no working traffic lights, of course, and not nearly enough police officers and traffic cops to keep things running smoothly. But we made it home eventually.
With not much food in the house and no place open to order from, I lit the gas stove by hand, boiling up some capellini, and tossing it with a couple cans of petite-cut diced tomatoes and garlic. I remember being unreasonably proud of myself for putting a delicious dinner on the table with no electricity after a long trip. But we were home, and safe, and tired, and went to bed early after listening to a hand-crank radio I kept for emergencies.
This contemporaneous NY Times article has some interesting tidbits, like restaurants giving out free ice cream (that was going to melt anyway), and people in cars with radios telling crowds of people what was going on. The police also reported less crime than usual, very different from the blackout in 1977, which gave a kick to the evolution and popularization of hip-hop.
They eventually figured out what caused that particular blackout, and I hope they really have things fixed this time, because it wasn’t supposed to be able to happen that way in 2003.
Huffington Post has a fantastic collection of pictures from that day and night in 2003, showing what it was like. Gothamist has to really good ones too. And here are some more from The Daily Mail. If my husband had been at work that day, he would have been one of the throngs walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge, just like he’s done during snowstorms and strikes. Heck, he does it a couple times a week just for exercise, but it doesn’t usually look like this. Even on the nicest tourist-filled summer day, it’s not usually that bad.
What I notice the most in those pictures, though, is that once night fell, a lot of the buildings had light. That’s in stark contrast to the picture at the top of this post, from 1965, when another blackout caused the entire NYC skyline to go dark. I guess emergency lighting had evolved a lot by 2003 (although not at JFK).
I’ve been unprepared in a couple of disasters, notably Hurricane Fran in North Carolina in 1996 (we lost power for nine long, hot days). So now I make sure I always have some supplies on hand just in case, most importantly a solar/hand-crank radio that can also charge cell phones, and things to entertain ourselves, like board games and cards. We always have plenty of canned food because I suck at not buying too much of everything, and our can opener does not run on electricity. I wrote a post a while back about preparing for disasters that has some good tips and links in it if you want to make sure you’re ready for whatever is in store next, whether it’s a blackout, a natural disaster, or something else.