Blackout of 2003: New York City

¡°You just can¡¯t get away from that, you are bringing trouble to New York again!!¡± My friend Bonnie happily announced so in an email to me on Friday morning 9am. This morning I was back in the office, my boss leisurely walked by, and with a big grin he said, ¡°next time when I hear something big happened in New York, I would know where Jean is.¡±

I myself start to believe maybe they are right. Earlier this year, when that ¡°Blizzard of 2003¡± shut down New York City with the largest snowstorm in the past 30 some years, I happened to be there that weekend and had to delay my return since all airports were shutdown, too. Then there was a smaller but rather strong snow storm came in April. Even Mi was incredulous when we sat there watching evening news and the forecast guy was predicting snow the next day, ¡°It is April! New York doesn¡¯t snow in April!¡± and it did. Now this¡­

1:30pm Thursday afternoon, I was about to leave for SFO when Mi called, ¡°Entire Manhattan is blacked out. We are locked in the office since all the doors were shut. Someone said the entire Northeast was blackout, including Canada. My cell phone doesn¡¯t work.¡± ¡°Is it terrorist?¡± ¡°Not sure, I saw a building on fire close by.¡± His office is in East Village, Astor place. ¡°United website still says my plane is on-time.¡± ¡°Are you sure? All three airports here are shut down.¡±

I decided to go to SFO anyways, and see what the airline will say. By the time I drove on the highway, Mi¡¯s company has sent them all home. The subway system was completely shutdown. He said he would walk to Chinatown with his co-workers and see if he could catch a mini-bus back to Queens. It was reminiscent of 911, when he had to walk across Brooklyn Bridge to get out of Manhattan. I said I would try to call and update him with my flight information. But he might not be able to get the messages if the power didn¡¯t come back.

I met up with Gui at her place and she dropped me off at the airport. The monitor said my flight (scheduled to depart at 4pm) was delayed but no definite schedule was given. I talked to an elderly man worked at United, he told me JFK was completely grounded, they weren¡¯t sure when it would be back in service. Check-in was still in process. The flight hadn¡¯t been cancelled. I walked to the curb and sent Gui home. Promised I would call if I were to be stranded.

Somehow, I was optimistic. It was a large-scale blackout, which meant it would attract large scale of attention. I have always had confidence in the power system here in the US. Flight from SFO to JFK is close to five hours, I was sure everything would be okay if it was nothing but a blackout. Was it?

While waiting in line outside of the security check point, I heard lots of excited discussions and exchanges of information. It sounded like various cities were affected: Detroit, Toledo, New York City, Toronto, and Ottawa. Almost everyone was on cell phones. There was a TV crew in the check-in area interviewing some passengers. No one mentioned the word ¡°Terrorist¡±. But everyone was thinking it. It was a little tense.

At the gate, people were calm and quiet. I didn¡¯t hear one person complain to the front desk throughout the entire wait. Almost all of us decided to ¡°wait it out¡±, as the friendly and helpful service crew put it. When the original boarding time came and went, service crew updated us that powers for all runways in JFK had been restored, so were terminal 1 and 6. Unfortunately our terminal (7) remained dark. There would be another update at 5pm. Some people went to change flights to tomorrow. Some people were quietly talking on their cell phones. An old couple sitting behind me was laughing occasionally, treating this fiasco as some kind of adventure. I looked around, some passengers held my gaze, there was some kind of mutual understanding in the air: let¡¯s hope it is just a blackout.

4:50pm, came the happy announcement, we are going! Everyone cheered! Relieves were felt by all. We took off at 5:20pm. 80 minutes delay. Not bad, not bad at all!

As we were approaching JFK, our Capitan¡¯s voice (a woman! I was amazed!) came on the inter-com. Our terminal still didn¡¯t have power, so they would provide a ladder and we would be walked to the luggage area by ground crew. It was 1:40am on Friday, New York time. We stood in the narrow hall way in the cabin for another 40 minutes before the ladder came. Again, no one complained. Everyone waited, chatting to friends on cell phones, reporting our safe arrival, and arranging ground transportation. I didn¡¯t sit by the window, so I didn¡¯t see the famous New York skyline, but I did have a glimpse of the ocean of light spreading beneath us when we descended, so I thought, all is well.

My cell phone worked, I called Mi¡¯s cellphone, but only got his voice mail. I called his home phone, it simply rang and rang, and no one answered the phone. I got a little worried, was he able to get home? I tried to call the car-service I always used, again, no answer. I tried a second car-service. No luck. By then I had walked out to the humid night of New York, and realized it was exceptionally dark because the darkness of the surrounding terminals. There was a long line of people waiting under the taxi sign. The headlights of the stream of taxis were providing some hope in the sea of darkness. I joined the hundred or so people. Again, I noticed the quietness. People were orderly, patiently waiting for their turn for a taxi, the only means of public transportation out of JFK at the moment.

The line moved slowly despite the continued stream of taxis that was coming in. A couple of Italian-looking limo drivers walked up to the crowd and started eyeing us. Somehow they decided on me as their target, ¡°Where are you going, Miss?¡± ¡°Rego park.¡± ¡°Where in Rego park?¡± I gave them the intersection. They started talking among themselves and as if ready to do me a favor, one guy turned to me, ¡°Okay I can take you.¡± ¡°For how much?¡± He ignored my question and started talking to another guy about the route, and mentioned a few highway numbers. I insisted, ¡°For how much?¡± ¡°95.¡± ¡°95 dollars?!¡± I thought I heard it wrong. ¡°Yeah.¡± ¡°Forget it.¡± I barked sharply and turned my back. I heard their laugher to each other, ¡°It is all your fault, [whisper]¡± ¡°[whisper] how would I know she would know the road?¡± I smiled. My usual car service costs between 19-21 dollars depends on the condition. Under the special situation, I was ready to cave in if they didn¡¯t ask for more than $50.

An hour later, I finally made to the front of the line. Some people were going to Connecticut and such. Because all the ATM machines in the airport still had no power, people were having cash-flow problems. The taxi drivers that were willing to take credit cards were popular. An old couple in front of me only had Canadian dollars, they offered to pay double the premium and found a happy taxi driver that was willing to take them to La¡¯ Guadia. Most people are going to Manhattan. So I felt sorry for whoever would take me since Mi¡¯s place is less than 20 miles away. Then, there weren¡¯t any taxis! People started to get worried, staring into the darkness, stringing to see a taxi light. A guy behind me tried to comfort everyone, ¡°Don¡¯t worry, they would come.¡±

And they did. People signed a relieved sigh in unison. I was led to a taxi whose driver had a wearied face with middle-eastern features, a thin man in his late thirties or early forties. I told him my destination, he asked if I would mind that he picked up more people who would go further, but he would drop me off first. I said sure. He went to the line and immediately found two takers who were going to Manhattan.

I sat in the passenger seat and asked for the price. Braced myself for a hefty price hike. He said I could decide on how much I wanted to pay. I asked for his usual price, he said $15-$16. For the two guys going to Manhattan he was charging the normal $35 flat fee. Happy to be finally on my way and knowing it won’t cost me an arm or a leg, uncharacteristicly, I struck up a conversation with the driver. He said Manhattan was awful, no traffic lights was working, so the traffic jam was horrific. Worst for him was gas since most gas stations were out of power. He had to go all the way to Bronx just now to fill up. Most places were still in the dark. It would be a long night. As I asked for more news, he turned on the radio and we learned that Canadian and US were doing their finger pointing dance, each blaming the other for triggering the blackout. Former report on lightning on power plant in Niagara Fall was said to be false. Just like every taxi I had ever taken in New York, he didn¡¯t know how to get to where I was going. I guided him based on my memory and was miraculously found Mi¡¯s place in first try.

Thus, I walked to Mi¡¯s doorstep at 3am on Friday morning. His neighborhood was all in the dark. I knocked on his window and gave him a big surprise!

He didn¡¯t get any of my messages since both of his phone services were unreachable. He had been listening to his battery-powered radio and learned JFK had restored partial power. He thought the earliest I could get in might be 6 or 7am, provided I could get in at all. He told me that he didn¡¯t get home till 11pm. After seeing the hundreds of people waiting for normal mini-bus going from Chinatown to Flushing, he opted to walk out of Manhattan just like on 911. On the bridge he saw a subway train stuck on the bridge deck right below him. He watched people broke open the train window and helped each other out of the motionless couch. People climbed down the train and then climbed down the track to the lower level where they could continue on foot. ¡°It was worse than 911, because on 911 there were subway and buses running normal services once I got out of the city. This time, I waited in Brooklyn for a bus across town to Queens. Bus after bus passed but none of them stopped because they were full. I was there for close to 5 hours, everyone was sitting on the sidewalk, there were many elderlies and children. People tried to wave down any taxi that was zooming by. No one goes to Queens. Finally I got lucky. An elderly taxi driver stopped his car and announced that he was running out of gas and he was only going home. So I asked him where is home. ¡®Queens.¡¯ He said. He took me and another couple back. He asked me to pay whatever I feel like. His meter said $26, but since there were another two passengers, I gave him $20.¡± He thought up his ideal escape route for next time, ¡°I would pick a bridge that reach Queens, and I would always bring water, flashlight, and battery-powered radio with me at all time.¡± His friends laughed, “you think there would be a next time?”

On Friday morning, power returned to Queens. Subway system would take another 6-8 hours to restore. So the entire city was listening to Mayor Bloomberg and didn¡¯t go to work. Mi was happy to come upon an extra holiday and spent it with me.

On retrospect, he said the worst off people were the ones stuck on subway trains happened to be moving in the underwater tunnel. ¡°It would be completely dark. And you would have no idea what had happened¡­¡±

On a different note, during the first humid night in Mi’s place when there was no power, I thought at least we still had water, the shower worked, we had hot warter, we could even cook. We were much better off than those Iraqis who had been living without either power or water for so long, and of course there was no riots in the streets, either…

5 thoughts on “Blackout of 2003: New York City

  1. So you are there… 🙂
    I just wondered how about there when I heard the big news. Now eventually, I get someone who are in that accindent.

    Let me read on…

  2. So nice to see what happened in the other side of world. They react so calmly and decently. Admire.

  3. The fact was during the first few hours, people didn’t know what really happened. Everywhere I’ve read, everyone I’ve talked to all said the same thing, they all thought it was another 911. Everyone was prepared to face the worst. Everyone was filled with dread and fear. When the worst didn’t come, when people realized finally it was just a blackout, can you imagine the relief people felt? It was borderline happiness.

    The impact of 911 is beyond words. I’m not sure whether it is hard for people in China to imagine what that day was like here. The anniversary is coming up. I would have to write a long article on it.

    I didn’t really understand what America really was prior to Sep. 11th, 2001.

    It makes it so much more infuriating to see what the Bush Administration has done in the name of the United States.

    It makes me mad to imagine him winning the 2004 election. How could people not see the truth? Is money really that much more powerful than humanity?


  4. Yes, I understand you all were under strain and horrified when it happened. That is why I think you all acted nice. No chaos, no fight for taxi to flee. People act in their true way when in danger.
    I thought while reading. And feel depressed when try to imagine what if such danger hovering on us. Of course blackout won’t terrify us, that is an ordinary event. But something can cause the same fear…
    Just feel we are so narrowed. 🙁

    Your word about Bush reminds me some word from a ex-classmate. We take him as ·ßÇà even on oversea affairs. 🙂 He argued with another guy who lives in US now. Said it will be a totally shit if Bush win the next election. ‘How can he started the war, did all the things, killed so many people, and ended up without a Sorry?’ 🙂

  5. The last such large scale blackout in New York City happened in 1970’s. It was total chaos on the street, many shops were broken into and robbed, streets were very scary places then.

    Many in the US was more shocked by the orderliness on Manhattan streets than by the blackout itself. 🙂 After a city withstood something like 911, it was reborn, in a way.

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