(First published on August 21, 2003)
In the seconds immediately after the lights went out in the office last week, the staff of the Canarsie Courier thought it was merely an internal problem. We soon learned our next door business neighbor had lost power, too. Shortly thereafter, it dawned on us that the entire block and immediate vicinity were without electricity.
Then I walked to Flatlands Avenue and noticed there were no working traffic lights in either direction as far I could see. After the editor listened to his car radio, he told us the all-news station was reporting power was out in Manhattan, too.
We subsequently learned New York State, and seven other states — west to Michigan and north to Ontario, Canada’s most populated province — were also enveloped by the blackout.
For the third time in 38 years, New York City endured a massive power failure and New Yorkers reacted admirably. It was in sharp contrast to the hot, humid night of July 13, 1977, when quite a few neighborhoods endured a long, dreadful night of looting, fires and riots.
Perhaps the single positive consequence from the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks is the kinder, gentler manner that flourished and resurfaced during the day-long 2003 blackout. New Yorkers once more demonstrated that when the going gets rough, a temperate, supportive manner outshines the gruff, grumpy exterior perpetuated with clichés and negative stereo-types in Hollywood movies or monologues by comedians and talk show hosts.
Things were far from ideal, with tens of thousands trapped underground in sweltering subway cars, but calm and cooperation generally ruled. (One story that trickled into media reports after the onset of the blackout was about the absence of car horns honking, particularly since traffic lights were out of service citywide. When the electricity failed, New York drivers transformed their aggressiveness into courtesy and respect, similar to the atmosphere weeks after 9/11.)
There was no onslaught of criminal activity. There were, however, scattered reports of looting and price gouging — flashlights, batteries, water, some food. Unscrupulous individuals undoubtedly anticipate such emergency situations to take advantage.
When the sun came up Friday morning, rumpled and weary New Yorkers awoke from an uncomfortable night’s sleep without air-conditioning. Most presumably heeded Mayor Bloomberg’s prudent advice and opted to take a "snow day." After all, electricity was still lacking in most areas and the subway system — the commuter lifeline — remained at a standstill, though public bus service was free.
As a matter of fact, New Yorkers acted more responsibly than finger-pointing politicians and government officials who displayed knee-jerk urges to place the blame for the massive power outage that cloaked an area populated by 50 million people.
While New Yorkers again showed their resilience, the ability to cope and willingness to help each other in a crisis — distributing water and refreshments, offering rides to stranded strangers — some politicians and government officials continued their time-honored bipartisan tactics. Across the nation, Democrats and Republicans are strategizing for another time-honored round of assigning blame. The fragility of the nation’s power grids has been spotlighted. Stop pointing fingers, work together and fix the damn problem.
This blackout wasn’t supposed to happen after the one in 1965 or the one in 1977, but it did. September 11 wasn’t supposed to happen after the failed terrorist attempt to topple the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers a decade ago, but it did. Our free, open society puts us directly in the crosshairs of vulnerability. Just as they’ve tried to prevent another domestic terrorist disaster, our leaders must stop the petty arguing and do what’s necessary to avert future, widespread power outages.
We now realize — like never before — that the electricity that powers our cities, offices and homes, like the blood that surges through our bodies, is indispensable. Though the transmission grids failed, New Yorkers didn’t during the worst power failure in the nation’s history. The response was nothing less than a testament to our underestimated resilience that has become a beacon of light since September 11, 2001.