The Great Northeast Blackout

The Great Northeast Blackout

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At dusk, the biggest power failure in U.S. history occurs as all of New York state, portions of seven neighboring states, and parts of eastern Canada are plunged into darkness. The Great Northeast Blackout began at the height of rush hour, delaying millions of commuters, trapping 800,000 people in New York’s subways, and stranding thousands more in office buildings, elevators, and trains. Ten thousand National Guardsmen and 5,000 off-duty policemen were called into service.

The blackout was caused by the tripping of a 230-kilovolt transmission line near Ontario, Canada, at 5:16 p.m., which caused several other heavily loaded lines also to fail. This precipitated a surge of power that overwhelmed the transmission lines in western New York, causing a “cascading” tripping of additional lines, resulting in the eventual breakup of the entire Northeastern transmission network. All together, 30 million people in eight U.S. states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec were affected by the blackout. During the night, power was gradually restored to the blacked-out areas, and by morning power had been restored throughout the Northeast.

On August 14, 2003 another major blackout occurred which affected most of Eastern Canada as well as most of the Eastern United States.

READ MORE: Photos of the 2003 Blackout: When the Northeast Went Dark

The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965 Remembered Well

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at [email protected]

At 5:27 p.m. on November 9, 1965, something happened to a relay switch at the Niagara Falls generating station, in Queenston, Canada, sending an unexpected surge of power through the lines and most of the northeastern United States was plunged into total darkness. The great blackout, that affected 30 million people, lasted thirteen hours in many places. 800,000 people were trapped on New York City’s subways and traffic lights went out, causing massive automobile backups. The glittering skyline of New York City went dark. The electrical catastrophe scared the whole country.

Kim Rosenstock’s new play, Fly by Night, written with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick, that opened last week, tells the story of several of the people in New York City when the lights went out. What happened at 5:27 p.m. that night was as unexpected as most events in their lives. The writers’ story is low keyed, slow moving, too long and a bit cumbersome, although charming, in act one but just beautiful in act two. That’s when the writers crawl into the minds of the people in their play and pull them away from the dazzling lights of the city and stroll with them out of darkened homes into the open air on city sidewalks. Thousands of tiny stars are scattered on the walls and ceiling of the theater to recreate the night sky, starry and lit by a full moon that historical night.

The play is the story of New York sandwich maker Harold, who falls in love with newly arrived actress Daphne, who shares a small apartment with her sister Miriam. The pair is from South Dakota and mesmerized by Manhattan. Harold‘s problem is that he is as much in love with Miriam as he is with Daphne. Another problem he has is that his life is going nowhere at the tiny deli where he works, day after day, creating dull sandwiches with his boss, whose own dreams were shattered long ago.

Walking through the play from time to time is Mr. McCLam, Harold’s father, whose wife died and left him a ‘La Traviata’ opera record, that he carries all over as his memory of her. He is in desperate shape, stumbling from day to day and week to week in inconsolable grief.

The lives of the characters in the play all seem headed for bad endings and then, suddenly, in a breathless second, the northeast United States went completely dark.

The last twenty minutes of the play, when the lights go out, is marvelous to see. The playwrights skillfully tells their story but, at the same time, recreate the history of the blackout and what it did to the people of New York, and elsewhere, on that strange and starry night, a night that will live in the memories of all who experienced it.

New York City officials fully expected riots and looting and brought in more police, but little happened. They expected panic in the streets, but everybody remained cool. They expected everyone to be disoriented, but everybody was calm. The play, pretty accurately written, relates the many small wonderful vignettes of that night. Millions of people, all over the northeast, left their darkened homes and went out into the streets to talk to neighbors. They chatted al night with friends on the sidewalks and streets. Many cooked dinners on front lawns, drank beer and partied till the lights went back on. Thousands re-united with people with whom they had lost contact. Battery powered flashlights and candles lit up the cities. An eerie, but wonderful, calm was experienced everywhere. There was some apprehension, of course, especially from those stuck in the subways, but, overall, the night passed easily and the world lit up again by dawn

The first act of this look at what happened in 1965 is sluggish and meandering, but there is something utterly delightful about the characters in it. The writers have crated very real, buoyant young people, and old people, stuck in a moment of history. They represent so many of us then, and now, that it is uncanny. New Yorkers, all Americans, were strong and resilient that night.It reminded me of New York and the metropolitan area, and many areas, in the terrible days following Hurricane Sandy, when so many towns lost power and the tunnels and streets were flooded. American came together during and after Sandy, just as they did in the 1965 blackout.

Oh, the blackout of 1965 also gave birth to one of America’s great urban legends. The legend is that, with nothing to do, hundreds of thousands of Americans had sex that night and nine months later the largest mass birth in U.S history took place. Everybody loved that story and grinned from ear to ear when it was told, but researchers later debunked it. The birth rate nine months later was normal.

Director Carolyn Cantor did a fine job with the show, even though it was twenty minutes or so too long. She had wonderful performances by Adam Chanler Berat as Harold, Patti Murin and Allison Case as Daphne and Miriam, Peter Friedman as Mr. McClam, Michael McCormick as the deli owner, Bryce Ryness as a theater director Joey Storms and Henry Stram as the narrator..

PRODUCTION: The play was produced by Playwrights Horizon. Sets David Korins, Costumes: Paloma Young, Lighting: Jeff Croiter, Sound: Ken Travis and Alex Hawthorn, Choreography: Sam Pinkleton. The play was directed by Carolyn Cantor.

10 Years After the Great Blackout, the Grid Is Stronger — but Vulnerable to Extreme Weather

More than 50 million people throughout the Northeast lost power in the great blackout of 2003. Could it happen again to the grid?

New York City was hit by a blackout in 2003. Could it happen again?

It wasn’t the tree’s fault — or least, not just the tree’s fault. Nearly 10 years ago, on Aug. 14, 2003, the electricity grid in the U.S. Northeast was stressed close to the limit. This wasn’t unusual summer is a period of high demand in the Northeast, as air conditioners run overtime to compensate for the heat, and a number of older power plants were already offline for maintenance. As power lines became overloaded, they began sagging because of the high temperatures, until one line south of Cleveland touched an overgrown tree limb and short-circuited. What followed was a cascade of disaster due to a mix of human error and equipment failure, until by 4:10 p.m. E.T. that day more than 50 million people had lost power in parts of Ontario and eight U.S. states. New York City looked like this, and power wasn’t fully restored for two days. At the time it was the second most widespread power blackout in history, after a 1999 disaster in Brazil.

Today the blackout is remembered almost nostalgically, especially in New York. Jittery residents were relieved first to find out that they weren’t victims of a massive terrorist attack (9/11 had happened less than two years before) and then to discover that the power loss wasn’t going to lead to wide-scale looting and crime, as happened during the blackout of 1977. (See this great NPR piece about how the 2003 blackout practically became a civic holiday in New York.) But the blackout was a big deal, leading to at least 11 deaths and costing the economy some $10 billion. More important, the disaster underscored just how rickety our interconnected and jury-rigged electrical grid was — and how vulnerable it could be to disruption, both accidental and malevolent.

So 10 years later, could the lights still go out?

Yes — but on the whole, the electrical grid is tougher and smarter. As Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes in a blog post, the No. 1 lesson from the blackout was simple: make grid-reliability rules mandatory, not just voluntary, as was the case before. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) now has the ability to impose fines of up to $1 million per violation per day for failure to comply with those standards. Beyond that, though, utilities invested real money to make the grid more resilient. In an analysis conducted for the Associated Press, the software and data service firm Ventyx found that utilities spent an average of $21,514 per year on devices and station equipment per mile of transmission line from 2003 to 2012 — nearly three times what they spent from 1994 to 2003. Maintenance spending for overhead lines increased by an average of 8.2% per year from 2003 to 2012, compared with just 3% a year on average from 1994 to 2003. Thanks in part to $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money allocated toward the construction of a smart grid, utilities have been able to add hundreds of advanced grid sensors and millions of smart electrical meters, which help power companies keep near real-time tabs on the state of the grid. And it doesn’t hurt that power demand has remained flat or fallen over the past decade, as devices and appliances became more efficient and economic growth slowed down.

When it comes to performance, the grid’s actually doing quite well. PA Consulting Group notes that U.S. customers only lose power 1.2 times per year, for a total of 112 minutes, not counting disruptions from weather (more on that later). FERC notes that high-voltage transmission lines have been available for normal use 99.6% of the time over the past three years, not including planned outages. Major transmission lines caused power losses only twice in 2012, after averaging nine times a year from 2008 to 2011. Compared with just about anything else offered by business or the government — 911 response times, air travel, voting lines — the grid has been something Americans can count on. And in a world where nearly 2.5 billion people have either no access to electricity or only intermittent access — including well-off citizens of fast-growing countries like India — that’s not a small thing, especially as reliable electricity becomes ever more vital to our connected lives.

But that doesn’t mean the grid is invulnerable. As David Crane of NRG Energy wrote in a blog post yesterday, “The American power industry deploys technology designed in the 1800s to manage a system of wires and wooden poles that is ill suited to the weather challenges of the 21st century.” A new White House report notes that an aging grid (the average power plant is 30 years old, and 70% of the grid’s transmission lines and transformers are at least 25 years old) will be increasingly stressed by extreme weather. We saw that after last year’s Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out power for millions of people, many of them for weeks, as utilities struggled to repair downed power lines and flooded equipment. In its report, the White House estimates that weather-related power outages have cost the U.S. economy an inflation-adjusted annual average of $18 billion to $33 billion over the past decade. That can rise to $40 billion to $75 billion in years with extreme storms — like last year’s. With climate change likely making storms stronger and potentially more frequent — even as we crowd into coastal areas and become more dependent on constant electricity — the vulnerability of the grid will only increase.

The White House report recommends strengthening parts of the grid against extreme weather — transformers, for example, shouldn’t be close to sea level. But it may be impossible to make the grid totally weatherproof. Burying overhead utility wires can cost between $500,000 to $2 million per mile, and those underground wires may end up even more vulnerable to storm-surge flooding close to the coast. The reality is that it’s often cheaper to replace distributed transmission and distribution assets after they’ve been knocked over than it is to harden them against weather. But building more transmission wires and energy-storage units would help in the event of another major storm.

The best bet would be a more distributed grid, with more local generation — chiefly via solar panels — and local storage. Unsurprisingly, diesel-powered generators proved popular in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and solar panels helped as well. Of course, generators are dependent on fuel, and the widespread power outages after Sandy also shut down the Northeast’s fuel-distribution network too. But better batteries in the future could offer utilities, business and residences the chance to store electricity for a (very) rainy day, while cheaper solar will give individuals more independence and create a grid that’s more resilient in the event of a prolonged disruption. As David Crane told me in an interview this past May, there’s a future out there where “our homes will not have to be tethered to aboveground electrical poles.” It’s also one where blackouts — the fun kind and the decidedly less so — would be a thing of the past.

August 14, 2003: Remembering the Great Blackout

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It’s been 5 years to the day since much of the Northeastern United States and the Great Lakes region of Canada lost power during what would quickly become the largest power blackout in North American history. Residents in 8 US States as well as the Province of Ontario lost power for up to four days in the summer heat. In all, roughly 50 million people were impacted when the grid began to go down on the afternoon of August 14, 2003, after a series of failures traced back to Ohio. Have a look at the infamous “7 hours after” picture (courtesy of NASA). Can you see Detroit on the map? Toronto? Me neither.

My blackout experience and more, after the jump.

I was just leaving my company’s downtown Toronto office around 4pm on August 14. Usually my luck is classified as black, at best, but I was clear of the building (and not in an elevator), out of the parking garage and had hit the highway for my home in London, literally as the downtown of Canada’s largest city became paralyzed in gridlock just behind me. Oblivious to what was going on, I continued on my way, noting only that highway traffic seemed lighter than normal while there were increasing traffic back-ups at all the major exits (where the offline traffic lights combined with rush hour were playing havoc with city-bound traffic). Listening to CDs, I never picked up on anything on the radio and even when I pulled into a service station about two hours out of Toronto only to find the gas pumps and restaurant drive-through lanes chained off, I simply wrote that off as an unfortunate fire or maybe a gas leak.

An hour later, I discovered a line of cars stretching for several miles, waiting to exit the highway for London. No offense to London, but nothing here is interesting enough to generate that kind of volume. At this point, something strange was obviously going on, so as I sat in the traffic jam slowly inching my way toward home, I finally turned on the radio.

Theories ran rampant at that point. 9/11 was still fresh in peoples’ minds and the idea of the entire Northeast power grid going down seemed all too likely to be a possible terrorist attack. Reports were coming in from New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Ottawa, Buffalo and Toronto and no-one seemed to have a definitive idea yet as to what had happened and exactly how extensive it was –just that it was “big.”

My cell phone wouldn’t acquire a signal, so I couldn’t call home. My wife and kids (then a 3 year old and 1 year old twins) had no idea whether I was stuck in Toronto or stuck in traffic. Sitting in a car in 90 degree heat, moving forward at a snail’s pace while watching that fuel needle start to move closer to red, stewing about what catastrophe might have happened (or just begun) and worrying about everyone at home was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had.

In the end I made it home. It took me close to 3 hours to cover the final 3 or 4 miles and 4 traffic lights between the highway and my house. The next day and a half were a blur of heat, BBQing every meal (not a bad thing), lots of reading and coloring for my daughter, progressively warmer drinks and the challenge of dealing with baby formula without refrigeration or a microwave. But like many people in the affected areas, I saw many positives as well. We met more people in our neighborhood that first night than I had seen in the two years we had lived in the house people were wandering the street with flashlights and bottles of wine, gathering on front porches for impromptu blackout parties. The skies over the city, free of light pollution, were as star-filled as a northern camping vista. We learned that people step up in times of emergency and people come together at every traffic light I had to pass through, there was someone, usually a person in civilian clothing, standing in the middle of the road, calmly directing traffic. And the drivers were actually following the directions, minimizing the chaos. Neighbors checked on each other and offered to cook food for those who had no BBQs.

Today in History: the great Northeast blackout leaves people in dark

Thought for Today: "We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it." — William Faulkner, American author (1897-1962).

Today is Monday, Nov. 9, the 313th day of 2015. There are 52 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

On Nov. 9, 1965, the great Northeast blackout began as a series of power failures lasting up to 13 1/2 hours left 30 million people in seven states and part of Canada without electricity.

In 1620, the passengers and crew of the Mayflower sighted Cape Cod.

In 1872, fire destroyed nearly 800 buildings in Boston.

In 1918, it was announced that Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II would abdicate he then fled to the Netherlands.

In 1935, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis and other labor leaders formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations).

In 1938, Nazis looted and burned synagogues as well as Jewish-owned stores and houses in Germany and Austria in a pogrom that became known as "Kristallnacht."

In 1953, Welsh author-poet Dylan Thomas died in New York at age 39.

In 1967, a Saturn V rocket carrying an unmanned Apollo spacecraft blasted off from Cape Kennedy on a successful test flight.

In 1970, former French President Charles de Gaulle died at age 79.

In 1976, the U.N. General Assembly approved resolutions condemning apartheid in South Africa, including one characterizing the white-ruled government as "illegitimate."

In 1988, former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, a major figure in the Watergate scandal, died in Washington at age 75.

In 1989, communist East Germany threw open its borders, allowing citizens to travel freely to the West joyous Germans danced atop the Berlin Wall.

In 1999, with fireworks, concerts and a huge party at the landmark Brandenburg Gate, Germany celebrated the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ten years ago: Three suicide bombers carried out nearly simultaneous attacks on three U.S.-based hotels in Amman, Jordan, killing 60 victims, and wounding hundreds. Oil executives testified before Congress that their huge profits were justified, but got a skeptical reaction from lawmakers. Carolina's Erik Cole became the first player in NHL history to be awarded two penalty shots in one game. (Cole scored on the first, helping the Hurricanes defeat Buffalo 5-3.)

Five years ago: Continuing his Asia tour, President Barack Obama flew from India to Indonesia, his home for four years of his youth. Former President George W. Bush officially kicked off the release of his memoir, "Decision Points," with a book-signing in Dallas. A special prosecutor cleared the CIA's former top clandestine officer and others of any charges for destroying agency videotapes showing waterboarding of terror suspects, but continued an investigation into whether the harsh questioning went beyond legal boundaries. Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki won his 10th straight Gold Glove, tying the AL record for Gold Gloves by an outfielder shared by Ken Griffey Jr. and Al Kaline.

One year ago: The citizens of Berlin released almost 7,000 balloons into the night sky, many carrying messages of hope to mark the 25th anniversary since the fall of the wall that had once divided their city.

Today's Birthdays: Baseball Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog is 84. Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson is 80. Actor Charlie Robinson is 70. Movie director Bille August is 67. Actor Robert David Hall is 67. Actor Lou Ferrigno is 64. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is 63. Gospel singer Donnie McClurkin is 56. Rock musician Dee Plakas (L7) is 55. Actress Ion Overman is 46. Rapper Pepa (Salt-N-Pepa) is 46. Rapper Scarface (Geto Boys) is 45. Blues singer Susan Tedeschi (teh-DEHS'-kee) is 45. Actor Jason Antoon is 44. Actor Eric Dane is 43. Singer Nick Lachey (98 Degrees) is 42. Rhythm-and-blues singer Sisqo (Dru Hill) is 37. Country singer Corey Smith is 36. Actress Nikki Blonsky is 27. Actress-model Analeigh (AH'-nuh-lee) Tipton is 27.

Thought for Today: "We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it." &mdash William Faulkner, American author (1897-1962).

The Five Worst Blackouts in U.S. History

No. 1. The Great Northeast Blackout (1965)

On Nov. 9, 1965, one of the worst blackouts in U.S. history occurred when all of New York State and portions of seven neighboring states and eastern Canada were plunged into darkness.

What was later dubbed "The Great Northeast Blackout" began at the height of rush hour. Millions of commuters returning home from work were delayed, and 800,000 people in New York's subway system totally trapped. Thousands more were left stranded in office buildings, elevators, and trains.

The blackout was caused when a 230-kilovolt transmission line near Ontario, Canada, was tripped at 5:16 p.m. This resulted in several other heavily loaded lines to fail. New York City was completely dark by 5:27 p.m.

Altogether, 30 million people were affected by the blackout. Power was gradually restored to the affected areas through the night. By morning, the lights were back on everywhere.

No. 2. New York City Blackout (1977)

On July 13, 1977, a lightning bolt caused a power outage at the Indian Point nuclear generating plant in New York City. The bolt tripped a line and rendered the plant inoperative while a second lightning strike caused two more transmission lines to shut down.

Subsequent power surges, malfunctioning safety equipment, and human error left 9 million residents without electricity for nearly 24 hours.

The power outage sparked mass looting across the city. Rioters destroyed approximately 1,600 stores while arsonists set more than 1,000 fires. It led to the city's biggest mass arrest in history — police took 3,776 people into custody.

No. 3. West Coast Blackout (1982)

On Dec. 22, 1982, more than 5 million people lost power after hurricane-force winds knocked over a major 500-kilovolt transmission tower in Tracy, Calif. More than 2 million homes and businesses in California, Nevada, and Arizona were left without electricity for at least a day. Disneyland was evacuated and the Las Vegas Strip went dark for more an hour.

It turns out the falling 500-kilovolt line tower started a domino effect. It fell into a parallel tower. After that, the electrical failure mechanically cascaded and caused three additional towers to fail on each line.

No. 4. Northeast Blackout (2003)

It wasn't until months after the Aug. 14 Northeast Blackout of 2003 that officials determined the real cause of a catastrophic power loss that caused $6 billion in damage…

Initially, Canadian Defense Minister John McCallum blamed the incident on an outage at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. But plant representatives countered, "Nope, wasn't us."

What really happened was a high-voltage power line in Northern Ohio brushed against a cache of overgrown trees, causing it to shut down. An alarm system that would typically alert first-responding technicians failed, and so the incident was ignored. For 90 minutes, system operators tried to figure out what exactly was going. Meanwhile, three other lines switched off as a consequence of the first line's failure.

As technicians panicked, Cleveland and Detroit went dark. So did Toronto and sections of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Officials in New York City opted to shut off all power to head off a wider blackout.

Eleven people died as the result of this blackout. Emergency rooms across the affected areas were flooded with patients with heat and heart ailments. Several people were reportedly hit by cars because traffic lights were out.

Now here's a look at one of the most devastating power outages in U.S. history. It took 10 days to fix and left nearly two dozen dead…

No. 5. Mid-Atlantic and Midwest Derecho Blackout (2012)

Sunset in New York City just after the derecho passed in June 2012.

On June 29, 2012, the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest fell victim to one of the deadliest, fastest-moving severe thunderstorms in U.S. history – a progressive derecho. Derechos are straight-lined, land-based wind storms that can leave massive damage in their wake. The real problem is, a derecho often produces more natural disasters: tornadoes, flash floods, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rains.

And the 2012 derecho caused the largest non-hurricane blackout in U.S. history.

What punctuated the devastating effects of this thunderstorm was its arrival in the midst of a heat wave. At least 4 million people across 11 states and the District of Columbia lost power. In some areas, power restoration took from 7 to 10 days. Twenty-two people died.

Blackouts can obviously have dire consequences. And while the worst blackouts in U.S. history were caused by natural disasters or human error, governments can also flip the switch…

Just look at what's happening right now in Venezuela. A drought that has depleted hydropower reservoirs, along with failed policies and corruption, has forced the country to endure rolling blackouts to preserve electricity. In other words, the Venezuelan government has effectively pulled the plug on its own economy. Businesses, factories, and even hospitals have been shuttered. State workers have been forced to accept two-day work weeks.

The Cost of Zika: The United States remains woefully underprepared for the onslaught of the Zika virus. So far there have been more than 500 confirmed cases in the states. Over 200 pregnant women have been diagnosed with the disease. And a few babies have even been born with birth defects as a result. Yet currently members of Congress are at loggerheads over how and where to appropriate funds needed to address the cost of the Zika virus. Here's more…

The Great Northeast Blackout - HISTORY

Sometimes, the smallest of actions can create a ripple affecting an extremely large system.

That’s exactly what happened in 2003 when the northeastern United States was hit with a major power outage.

What became known as the Northeast Blackout of 2003 was the largest blackout in North American history to date.

The numbers speak for themselves.

  • 50 million people were without power for up to four days.
  • 11 people died.
  • There was a reported $6 billion in damages.

Though technology has significantly advanced since 2003, we’re still prone to another widespread power grid collapse.

In order to help prepare for inevitable worst-case scenarios, I’m sharing more details surrounding what happened in 2003. If we can learn from how people coped, we’ll be more equipped to handle similar situations in the future.

But first, let’s get clear on the details of what caused the blackout in the first place.

What Happened to the Power in 2003

A little after 3 p.m. on August 14, 2003, a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against overgrown trees, causing the line to shut down.

If operators had been alerted, they could have quickly fixed the situation and avoided a major problem.

However, the alarm system at FirstEnergy Corporation failed, leaving operators unaware of the need to redistribute the power load.

What started initially as a downed power line in Ohio eventually became an entire electrical grid collapse. In fact, 508 generating units at 265 power plants shut down. Southeastern Canada and eight northeastern US states lost power.

As we’ve seen from history, blackouts like these will continue to happen—whether they’re a result of a tropical storm, solar flare, or a system failure.

The US has been hit by many sizable, widespread outages lasting as long as two weeks and affecting tens of millions. Here are some more notable events:

  • 1965: Northeast blackout
  • 1977: New York City blackout
  • 1982: West Coast blackout (parts of San Francisco to San Diego to Las Vegas)
  • 1996: Western North America blackout (Idaho, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona)
  • 1998: North Central US blackout (upper Midwest)
  • 2003: Northeast blackout (Ohio, New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania)
  • 2011: Southwest blackout (California)
  • 2012: Derecho blackout (Ohio Pennsylvania West Virginia Washington, DC Maryland New Jersey)
  • 2012: Hurricane Sandy (Florida, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia)

Considering how many circumstances can disrupt our power grid, we need to pay attention to what people did to deal with the blackout and continue living their lives. Doing so will show us how to prepare for similar situations in the future.

Read on to discover a few preparation lessons from the 2003 blackout.

Prepper Lesson #1: Find Ways to Stay Cool without AC

The temperature on August 14, 2003, was 88 degrees Fahrenheit or so across much of the affected region. That’s not exactly a comfortable temperature to live in without access to air conditioning or fans.

In order to stay as cool as possible, many people cooked their meals and slept outside.

As one woman shared, “I was almost six months pregnant with our first child, and it was certainly not easy to try and keep cool in the August heat. We wheeled our grill across the street to the neighbors' house and cooked all of our meals outside.”

In case you experience a similar crisis during hot summer months, it’s wise to invest in a grill and other outdoor cooking solutions. You can also stock up on battery-powered fans and wear damp bandanas around your head to stay cool.

Prepper Lesson #2: Check In on Neighbors

If your power goes out for an extended period of time, check in on your neighbors. This is especially important if they are elderly. Make sure they are healthy and safe.

Better yet—take the time now to connect with them while things are calm. Discuss your emergency preparedness plans so you know what you can do to work as a team and share resources in case you all lose power.

Prepper Lesson #3: Have an Emergency Overnight Plan

Major cities reliant upon public transportation, such as New York, were greatly affected by the power loss. Commuters couldn’t make their way home by using standard transportation systems.

The New York City subway wasn’t able to operate. Additionally, most of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor service was disabled, stranding tens of thousands. Passengers had to sleep on subway platforms or on street corners. Many people were seen trying to hitch rides heading in the direction of home.

If you commute for work, it’s advisable to identify where and with whom you may be able to arrange alternative sleeping plans. If you have friends or coworkers who live near your work, develop an emergency plan to stay with them in the case of a major blackout.

Don’t forget to create an additional emergency plan for your children. In the case that both parents aren’t able to get to a child’s school or home for an extended period of time, you’ll want to designate someone you can trust who will be able to take care of them.

Prepper Lesson #4: Use Battery-Powered Radios to Stay Updated

Without access to television, people had to rely on less traditional sources to get news on the power outage. One woman shares that they “kept abreast with the news on a battery-powered radio.” It wasn’t uncommon to see people on the streets of New York gathered around communal radios.

If you don’t have one already, stock up on a battery-powered radio now. Look for a model that can recharge the batteries by a hand crank or sunlight.

Prepper Lesson #5: Stock Up on Alternative Light Solutions

Events like this are called a blackout for a reason. Like televisions, traditional light sources were no longer available when the power went out in 2003. Take the time now to stock up on kerosene lanterns, flashlights with batteries, and candles with matches. Many stores quickly ran out of these high-demand items during the blackout.

  • Navigate a darkened house
  • Play games or read in order to stay entertained
  • Prepare meals

. these alternative light sources are sure to come in handy.

Prepper Lesson #6: Order Backup Prescription Meds

As Reuters reported on the 2003 blackout, “Most food sources and pharmacies were closed, which could be a serious problem for someone with diabetes or someone who is low on prescription medicines.”

If you suffer from a chronic condition requiring medication, ask your doctor to write you a prescription for a backup supply in the event that pharmacies are closed or supplies run out.

In case you or your family members experience injuries or illness during a blackout, it’s also important that basic first-aid supplies are handy, such as.

Blackouts aren’t the only situations in which you should heed this advice. These precautions are important for a wide range of events, including blizzards. It’s best to put a plan in place and stock up sooner than later.

Prepper Lesson #7: Have Water Decontamination Supplies on Hand

According to CNN, the mayor of Cleveland at the time “warned residents to boil drinking water because sewage might have contaminated the city's water system” as a result of the blackout.

This can often happen during widespread blackouts that affect water systems.

Aside from boiling water, it’s advisable to have other water purification supplies on hand, such as the Alexapure Pro Water Filter. This unit removes the need to boil water. Requiring no electricity, the filter transforms water from virtually any fresh source into cleaner drinking water.

Energy and utility analysts say that “changes made in the aftermath make a similar outage unlikely today, though shifts in where and how power is generated raise new reliability concerns for the U.S. electric grid system.”

That’s why it’s still important to take the time to prepare for “grid down” scenarios. Have a plan and supplies in place.

Biggest blackout in U.S. history

Power is coming back to some of the 50 million people affected by the blackout which hit Thursday, continued into Friday, and is the biggest power outage in U.S. history.

The outage affected a wide swath of territory in the U.S. and Canada - including New York City, Albany, Hartford, Toronto, Ottawa, Detroit, Cleveland and Ontario - and has officials in the two countries engaging in a blame game as to what went wrong.

In Cleveland, the loss of power also meant a loss of water - as there was no way to continue pumping water to 1.5 million people. The situation left the mayor there, Jane Campbell, angrily denouncing stores she said engaged in price gouging for water and other items, including batteries.

As dawn approached in the New York area, lights were reported flickering back on in Times Square, on Fifth Avenue, much of Staten Island, parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, parts of Westchester County, N.Y., and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

But the New York metropolitan area is still in a major mess, with full power still not back, meaning that subway and train systems are also not back. Transit officials have said even when the power does come back, it will take as much as six hours for trains to start running normally.

But some folks will have to go to work anyway today. And despite today's 90 degree weather forecast, some are facing the inevitable: saddling up in the most comfortable socks and shoes they've got, heading out on the long walk to work.

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One man started out across the Brooklyn bridge shortly after 5 a.m., on his way to his job at a Wall Street area gym, where he figures stranded New Yorkers are bound to take refuge hoping for a shower. Will the gym have water? He hopes so.

And will the opening bell ring on Wall Street as usual? The determination is certainly there: a convoy of emergency generators was spotted overnight on its way down to the financial district, which made a slew of backup plans after Sept. 11 and may today be putting those emergency strategies to the test.

Late Thursday night, before retiring for a short nap, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he expects "everything to be back to business" on Friday. But he also cautioned "I don't want anybody to think that the power is going to be back for everybody in the next hour. It is not going to be."

The power outage affected a broad swath of the Northeast stretching west to Ohio and Michigan and into southern Canada, starting shortly after 4 p.m. EDT. In Toronto, Canada's largest city, workers fled their buildings when the power went off. There also were widespread outages in Ottawa, the capital.

A power transmission problem from Canada was being looked at as the most likely cause for what some are calling the biggest electrical outage in U.S. history, said a spokeswoman for New York Gov. George Pataki.

However, Canadian authorities said it appeared lightning had struck a power plant on the U.S. side of the border in the Niagara Falls region, setting off outages that spread over an area of 9,300 square miles with a population of roughly 50 million people.

President Bush said Thursday evening that people affected by the huge blackout may not see their lives return to normal right away, but "slowly but surely we're coping with this massive, national problem."

The president told reporters in San Diego: "I have been working with federal officials to make sure the response to this situation was quick and thorough, and I believe it has been."

But, Mr. Bush said, state and local officials have not asked the federal government for much help as of yet.

Terrorism is not the cause of the outage, the president said.

Nine nuclear power reactors - six in New York and one each in New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan - were shut down because of the loss of offsite power, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Bethesda, Md.

Flights in and out of Kennedy Airport in New York, as well as airports in Toronto and Ottawa were grounded, leaving passengers stranded. Flights also were halted for more than three hours in and out of New York LaGuardia, Cleveland and Newark, N.J., but those airports had reopened by 8 p.m. EDT.

The blackout closed the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which 27,000 vehicles use daily, and silenced the gambling machines at Detroit's Greektown Casino. Patrons filed into the afternoon heat carrying cups of tokens.

Traffic lights were out throughout downtown Cleveland and other major cities, creating havoc at the beginning of rush hour.

Gov. Pataki said more than half of New York State is without power. He said there are supposed to be backup systems to prevent blackouts from snowballing, and that "there have to be some tough questions asked."

In New York City, subways and elevators lost electricity or resorted to limited backup power. Thousands of people streamed into the streets of lower Manhattan in 90-degree heat, and some subway commuters were still stuck underground hours after the blackout hit.

Amtrak suspended passenger rail service between New Haven, Conn., and Newark. Some northbound trains from Washington, a city that did not lose power, turned around at Newark.

There were outages in northern New Jersey and in several Vermont towns. Lights flickered at state government buildings in Hartford, Conn.

In Massachusetts, Kim Hicks of Baltic, Conn., was on the Cyclone roller coaster at a Six Flags amusement park in Agawam when the power stopped. ``We sat there about 20 minutes and they finally came to walk us off,'' she said. The park regained power a short time later.

In Cleveland, Olga Kropko, a University Hospitals labor and delivery nurse, said the hospital was using its back-up generators and had limited power. "Everyone is very hot because the air conditioning is off," she said. "Our laboring moms are suffering."

John Meehan, 56, walked down 37 stories in the BP Tower in downtown Cleveland, wearing his suit and carrying a briefcase. "It makes you wonder, was this terrorism or what?" he asked.

In Washington, the Health and Human Services Department said the biggest health concern was people getting overheated and dehydrated, something local health systems appeared to be handling, said spokesman Campbell Gardett.

The blackouts easily surpassed those in the West on Aug. 11, 1996, in terms of people affected. Then, heat, sagging power lines and unusually high demand for electricity caused an outage for 4 million customers in nine states.

An outage in New York City in 1977 left 9 million people without electricity for up to 25 hours. In 1965, about 25 million people across New York state and most of New England lost electricity for a day.

On Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg asked the city's more than 8 million people to be calm, go home, open windows and drink water.

"Be sure you don't make an inconvenience into a tragedy," he said.

New Yorkers - and tourists who got caught in the Big Apple when the power went out - took that advice to heart as they struggled through the darkness trying to get home.

Streets usually bathed in light and marquees were instead pitch black, seeming empty - although they weren't. Every few steps revealed someone walking or standing in the darkness, wondering what to do next.

Some people held blackout parties, in restaurants, and on sidewalks, gathered in circles around candles stuck in bottles.

For New York police, the focus was on the ramifications of the blackout rather than its cause.

"We're more concerned about getting the traffic lights running and making sure the city is OK than what caused it," said a spokesman at the department's operations center downtown.

"The good news is that in New York City, while we have lost all the power, Con Ed's facilities have shut down properly, which we have programmed them to do," said Bloomberg.

In Times Square, Giovanna Leonardo, 26, was waiting in a line of 200 people for a bus to Staten Island.

"I'm scared," she said. "It's that unknown 'What's going on?' feeling. Everyone's panicking. The city's shutting down."

Along several blocks near midtown Manhattan, deli owners brought their suddenly unrefrigerated food out on tables, iced in buckets. "Half price on everything," read one sign.

First published on August 15, 2003 / 7:20 AM

© 2003 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Headlines of the Past - Nov. 10, 1965: The Great Northeast Blackout

Weather forecasters charted gusty northwest winds, which would send temperatures along the coastline plummeting into the teens on that crisp early November evening 54 years ago.

Children, waiting for their mothers to prepare supper, were likely huddled around the black and white television set watching 𠇋ozo the Clown,” or “Uncle Gus” or �nnis the Menace.”

In Gardner, an open house was scheduled at Gardner High School to present the American Education Week program. The City Council Public Safety Committee had an informal meeting slated at the City Hall council chambers. And the Orpheum Theater featured the final night run of the twin bill “Woman of Straw” with Gina Lollobrigida and Sean Connery in 𠇊 Rage to Live.”

Then, at precisely 5:21 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, everything went black.

It was Nov. 9, 1965. And suddenly, from Pennsylvania to southern Canada, through parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and northern New England, right up into Ontario, more than 30 million North Americans were without power.

It was the Great Northeast Blackout.

Many people were swept up with the fear that the Russians had attacked and the U.S. was in the throes of World War III. Others felt it was a realistic version of the classic “War of the Worlds,” with alien beings to blame for the widespread power outage upon their arrival on earth.

The hubbub was caused, ironically enough, by a faulty relay estimated by one source as “probably a two-dollar piece of machinery” at the mammoth Niagara-Mohawk Power Plant in upstate New York. Such a minute wrinkle made it sound all the more like H.G. Wells’ fictional “War,” an example of the tiniest of things creating the biggest nuisance.

In New York City, some 800,000 people were stranded in underground subways, while thousands more were trapped for the duration in elevators. Johnny Carson, in his “Tonight Show” monologue, quipped that in nine months, all over the East Coast, mothers would be giving birth and wistfully naming their sons Otis.

For the record, during the week of Aug. 9-15 of 1966 – nine months later – a total of 14 births were registered at Henry Heywood Memorial Hospital.

While many areas – including New York City – were without power for several days, the Greater Gardner area experienced a grand total of two hours and 57 minutes in the dark.

As the blackout hit, emergency generators were pressed into action and continued well past the hour when all power was restored to the area. As the lights went out, on came the candles, kerosene lamps and flashlights.

Most Gardner area residents were arriving home from work at this time and the only inconvenience was likely a crimp in supper plans. However, for members of the Greenwood Memorial swimming team, things were a bit more hectic.

Practice for the swimmers was in full swing when the Greenwood Memorial Pool went dark, sending quick fright into many of the younger children at practice. The older swimmers abruptly took the juniors in tow and were able to quickly change into their street clothes with the benefit of a pair of flashlights – one in the boys’ locker room and one for the girls.

The Gardner Woman’s Club that evening had a guest night planned that went on without interruption. Despite being held in a darkened hall, audience members from Worcester, Lancaster, Lexington and even Windsor, Conn., arrived to enjoy a special program of piano music that went on as scheduled.

Over at Henry Heywood Memorial Hospital, the evening was just a little more memorable for Mrs. Eveline Lavoie Beauregard. Earlier in the day at around noontime, Mrs. Beauregard gave birth to her third daughter, Michele Lavoie, the only baby born at the hospital that day.

“I really wasn’t aware of anything, the hospital was operating on the auxiliary generator and things were going on normally,” said Mrs. Beauregard, recalling that because the hospital didn’t want any extra electricity used, the women in the maternity ward weren’t even allowed to have the televisions on that night.

She did, however, recall hearing a continual fire alarm in the distance and thought “there must have been one heck of a fire” in Gardner.

“There was really nothing to even give us a clue of what was going on outside, the nurses were just as isolated as we were,” she said, adding that it wasn’t until her late husband, Gil, arrived in the evening that she was aware that everyone else was left in the dark.

“My mother just chuckles about it and says that ‘when I was born, it was such a big deal it blew the lights out all over the East Coast,’” said Michele (Lavoie) Cormier, noting that obviously there’s not much else she recalls of one of the darkest days in history, 54 years ago.

“I remember my younger daughters were 5 and 6 at the time and were staying with an elderly grandparent,” said Mrs. Beauregard, 𠇊nd they didn’t know where I kept the candles, so they were really in the dark.”

There was a resumption of service at 6:44 for only 11 short minutes, and then the power went out again. Eventually, the city began to cut back into service on a staggered schedule.

At 7:10 the first feeder was energized at Heywood Hospital and other customers along that line in the Ward 1 area benefited from that service. The feeder control, located at the substation on Park Street, quickly began dispensing service to other parts of Gardner, as well as Ashburnham, Templeton and Phillipston.

Finally, by 8:18 p.m., Gardner could consider itself one of the luckier communities in the Northeast. It had all of its power back.

Apparently the full moon that lit the harvest skies that evening also deterred any unlawful actions, since Gardner police reported nothing out of the ordinary occurring.

It was a night that most people who lived through it will long remember, while others took advantage of the blackout for some financial gain.

The next day, Wood’s Garage took out a front-page ad in The Gardner News that read, 𠇊ll of our bottled gas customers were able to cook their evening meals last night. Why don’t you use dependable BOTTLED GAS?”

Photos: 15 Years Since the 2003 Northeast Blackout

On August 14, 2003, a series of faults caused by tree branches touching power lines in Ohio, which were then complicated by human error, software issues, and equipment failures, led to the most widespread blackout in North American history. More than 50 million people across eight northeastern U.S. states and parts of Canada were left without power for at least 24 hours, and many of them were in the dark for weeks. In New York City, thousands of commuters were stranded when the power cut out late on a Thursday afternoon. Memories of the 9/11 attacks only two years earlier were fresh in people’s minds as scenes of thousands of people evacuating Manhattan on foot were replayed.

People walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City on August 14, 2003, after a blackout hit the city. #

People walk down the Brooklyn Bridge during a massive blackout on August 14, 2003, in New York City. #

Peter Abeles, a professor at Columbia University, directs traffic at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in New York during a power blackout on August 14, 2003. #

People stand in line and wait to use a payphone on Fifth Avenue in New York, during the blackout on August 14, 2003. #

New Yorkers have a drink outside Fiddler's Green on 48th Street while they wait for a way to get home during the power outage on August 14, 2003. #

Passengers wait inside a stranded New York City subway train on August 14, 2013. #

Transit workers escort riders off of a subway car, in background, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on August 14, 2003. #

New York City police direct traffic on August 14, 2003. #

People sell beer on the street during the blackout in New York City on August 14, 2003. #

People line up to buy batteries for their flashlights at a hardware store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on August 14, 2003. #

Commuters walk up the entrance ramp to the Queensboro Bridge in New York, as a police officer directs traffic, on August 14, 2003. #

Commuters catch a ride in the back of a delivery truck as others walk up the entrance ramp to the Queensboro Bridge on August 14, 2003. #

Commuters walk over the Queensboro Bridge with traffic stopped in gridlock on August 14, 2003. #

People try to board the back of a crowded New York bus during the blackout on August 14, 2003. #

The Parliament Buildings of Ottawa, Canada's capital, sit in darkness during the massive blackout. #

The dark Manhattan skyline, seen from Queens, on August 15, 2003. #

Patrons continue to eat and drink at the Rink Bar at Rockefeller Center, in New York, shortly after nightfall on August 14, 2003. #

People move around Times Square without the convenience of electricity on August 14, 2003. #

People walk down the street with candles during the power outage in New York City on August 14, 2003. #

Cars try to navigate their way through New York City during the blackout on August 14, 2003. #

Commuters sleep on the steps of the Central Post Office in New York during the early hours of August 15, 2003, after being stranded following the city's blackout. #

People line up at a hot-dog cart on Yonge Street in Toronto on August 14, 2003. #

People lay stranded outside the Times Square Marriott in the early morning of August 15, 2003. #

A man sits on the sidewalk in a dark Times Square early on August 15, 2003. #

A man buys a newspaper outside of New York's Penn Station on August 15, 2003. #

Improvising in the blackout, the college student Shmuel Aziza powers his laptop computer off of a car battery beside Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, on August 15, 2003, in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. #

Products in the dairy section that went unrefrigerated due to the blackout are marked to be thrown out at a grocery store in New York on August 15, 2003. #

New York residents congregated outside during the second day of the massive blackout. #

Several hundred people wait for buses in New York on August 15, 2003. Most train service was knocked out after the power outage, and the commuters shown here, many of whom spent the night in the city, were boarding buses that would take them to a connection with a diesel-powered train outside the city. #

In the Soho neighborhood, a restaurant cook and his customers make the best of the massive power outage by setting up a barbecue on the street. #

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Watch the video: The Great Northeast Blackout - 1965. Today In History. 9 Nov 17