August 14

Northeast Blackout of 2003 (northeast US and Ontario)


“Imagine being in Times Square when the lights went out.

“Broad daylight when it first happened — so not so scary, right?  Turns out it started at some power station in Ohio, then some domino effect tripped stations across the grid, until over 50 million people were affected.  It happened fast, like the spread of rumor in a Times Square crowd.

“Because even then, we worried about terrorism.  We also worried about patients dying if hospitals lost power to their equipment.  We worried about electronic data erased from Stock Exchange computers.  We worried about subway trains missing their signals and crashing into each other — and the same thing happening with cars at above-ground intersections.

“We worried about the sound system at the show we had tickets for that night.

“At the same time, there was something wondrous about it.  The city always seemed to glow from within, competing with the Sun — and always winning the battle with the Moon and the night sky.  Those marquees and electronic billboards and bright storefronts turned off all at once that afternoon.

“Yes, I think there was a kind of snap, now that you ask.  Startling, like that moment you flip a switch and the light bulb flashes and pops in the socket, and it’s just dark when you expected the opposite.  The world seems wrong for a split second.

“But with a dead light bulb, you realize pretty quickly what happened.  That moment in New York, we were a huge crowd of tourists looking at each other, looking up the lengths of tall buildings that used to flash colors and slogans, looking up at the sky as if to find answers there.

“Some folks had battery operated radios, and the news reports warned us to stay calm.  Easier said than done, but the message got through eventually.

“You don’t ever get over the strangeness of a city during a blackout.  There’s people all around, but it’s like you’re in a place that’s empty.  Haunted.

“We had a room on 43rd, so it was a short walk back to the hotel.  A long climb to our 20th story room, though, with the elevators out of commission.  There wasn’t much to do in the room, anyway, with the power gone.

“After dark, we decided to trek back to Times Square to see how everyone else reacted to the blackout.  Streetside vendors had jacked up prices on their limited stock of flashlights and batteries, and it was like following fireflies behind the lucky few who made the purchase.

“When we got back to Times Square, dark except for those waving flashlight dots in the crowd, I noticed how many people were still looking up.  I wanted to say, ‘The buildings are dark.  The billboards are off.  There’s nothing to see.’  But I followed their gaze, too.  Up at the sky.

“That’s when I saw a miracle.  The stars.  The brightest stars I’d even seen, in a city where they’d been mostly invisible — washed out by the flashing Times Square glitz and glamour.  ‘Light pollution,’ they used to call it, and it affected every city to some degree, but New York City the most.

“But for that wondrous night, the night sky won its battle with Times Square.  Literally, a glowing silver lining in the cloud of that great Northeast Blackout of 2003.

“So I know it’s hard to think of now, with all our cities gone dark, but maybe we can recapture that moment if we wish for it hard enough.  We’ve lost our electrical power, but maybe nature will compensate us in some beautiful way, like it always has in the past.

“I’d like to think so.  Tonight, let’s look up.  Maybe the light of the stars will return.”