New York City has had a series of major electric power losses, unplanned blackouts that suddenly and temporarily changed life for millions of people. On November 9, 1965 a 15-hour power loss caused by a human error in the setting of an Ontario, Canada transmission line brought widespread darkness to states and provinces in the Northeast including most of NYC.
New Yorkers remember a city plunged into darkness with limited access to news. An estimated 800,000 commuters were stranded, 4,000 on subways. Tunnels were closed due to lack of ventilation. Two hundred flights were diverted to neighboring airports, and Broadway went dark. Thousands of people were stuck in elevators with strangers. Most television stations were off the air, and about half the FM radio stations, those that shared antennae at the top of the Empire State Building. Information was limited in a pre-internet era but the New York Times was able to put out a 10-page paper by using the printing presses of an unaffected New Jersey press.
The Blackout of 1965 is remembered largely as an occasion of cooperation and even partying as people gathered and shared in the novelty of a life without lights and elevators. According to the New York Times, “The city underwent an epidemic of pluck. People voluntarily directed traffic, handed out candles and settled down at Grand Central Station for a night of sleep, without much of a worry about their wallets.” Citizens settled in together in public places all over the city to wait out the disruption. The event came to be remembered as evidence of resilience and civic pride. New Yorkers celebrated the change in routine with good grace and demographers later noted the bump in babies born nine months later. There were books and movies about the event, celebrations of community and civility.
A Very Different Case
A 25-hour blackout that began 11 years later, on a hot and humid July 13, 1977 came about because lightning strikes damaged power lines that had not been properly maintained. Far fewer people were affected than in 1965 but the fallout was greater by far. Five boroughs were totally darkened, dark only relieved by vehicle headlights and generators where they existed. Rather than civic cooperation poorer neighborhoods turned into ugly scenes of arson and looting in a time of economic decline and rising crime rates. There were 3,800 arrests and more than a billion dollars worth of damage.
When people think about energy today they are likely to consider the gasoline they need for driving, or maybe the electricity that fuels their lighting needs. In some places solar panels might come to mind as a possible addition to their homes.
But energy is far more than the fuel that drives the technologies that modern people employ to get through their day. Energy - reliable, affordable, available, and usually assumed - is what sustains and even creates our ways of life. We don’t think about it because usually we don’t have to.
Blackouts, brownouts, gasoline shortages, cold spells and heat waves are occasional reminders of our energy dependence, normally an unremarkable background factor to life for those who live in developed societies. In fact it is the presence of an energy infrastructure that defines a developed society.
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Davis CA
References and Further Reading
[2 ]David E. Nye 2010 When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.