Thursday, August 14, 2008

Five Years

As many blogs and news articles have noted, it's the five year anniversary of the blackout of 2003.  I'm not going to check my old site to see if I posted about it when it happened, but even if I did, I thought it might be a good idea to write about where I was and what it was like living through the blackout of 2003.
I was working in downtown Manhattan that summer, near the Staten Island ferry terminal.  We were about 20 floors up, and I was in my (windowless) office when the power went out.  I remember not thinking it was serious at the time, just a power outage in the middle of a hot August.  But everyone was evacuating the building, and we had started hearing that it wasn't just our building.  I thought about just leaving with my keycard, but my instincts kicked in and I grabbed my whole bag, including my cell phone off the charger, and left with everyone else.
Outside we started getting reports.  The power in Midtown was out!  The power in Brooklyn was out!  No one was getting any cell service.  People were milling around in the streets and trying to figure out why no one downtown had power.  I tried calling on my cell phone but got nothing.  Eventually I hit on a good idea.  I would try a pay phone (like everyone else).  I called Alvin, since he wasn't in NYC and he had an 800 number I could call.  He looked on CNN for me, and I was shocked when he started telling me the blackout had hit multiple states and even Canada!  Of course, I dutifully reported this news to all the people standing near me at the pay phone, and we all started talking about it.  Naturally, when you're in downtown Manhattan, the talk started to turn to speculation about whether it was terrorism.  But mostly people just wanted to go home.  Some people thought about sticking around, but it was already late in the day so most people went home.
I first went to the ferry terminal.  But then I wondered, if I took the ferry across, how was I going to get on a train?  Didn't the train need electricity to run?  In any event, I thought that if I got on the ferry, at least I would be closer to home than I was in downtown Manhattan.
Only one problem.  The ferry terminal was jam packed.  Hundreds and hundreds of people waiting for the next ferry.  A couple of us decided that it looked like it wasn't happening, and tried to take the express bus.  But no express bus came.  We went back to the ferry terminal.  Eventually with all the pushing and shoving, we were herded onto a boat.  I was so relieved to be moving somewhere.  I kept trying my cell phone, and every so often, was able to get in 5 seconds of a call home before it died.  What a mess.  How was I going to get home from the ferry?  I could get a ride, but I couldn't get through to anyone.  Everyone was doing the same thing.  It was easy meeting neighbors that day.  The whole shared experience thing.
Luckily there was a bus waiting outside the ferry terminal, one that would take me not that far from the house.  I started just hoping that I would get there before it got dark, because how was I going to walk home when I couldn't see the sidewalks, cars, anything.  The idea of traveling in complete darkness was a foreign concept.  There's always some light in the city.  Whether it's street lights or house lights, it's never dark walking around at night.  This was new.  On the bus, I remembered that my cell phone had radio.  I plugged in my headphones and just started listening to the news.  The stories that were already coming in to the radio stations about what was going on... this thing was huge.
I stopped at the deli about 4 blocks from the house when I got off the bus, and decided to pick up some food.  I got some potato salad and some plain white bread, and then walked home.  I was surprised to find my uncle at our house.  He was out there for a doctor's appointment, and then found out his place in the city had no water pressure and you couldn't use the toilet.  So he stayed with us.  We had no a/c but we kept all the shades closed.  We didn't open the fridge.  At least we had running water and a working toilet.  And a land line.  We heard that so many people in the city had nothing.  My mom and uncle had gone to a deli closer to our house, but the guy was completely price gouging, and charging outrageous amounts for just bread.  People need food, but the storeowners should also want to clear out their stock, since it's going to go bad! I don't see the point of price gouging people in an emergency.
We made it through the night.  I seem to remember at some point in the night, the power kicking on for a short time.  We tried to get the tv on to watch the news, and get the a/c on.  Everyone else probably did the same.  The power was gone quickly.  Later, I think we heard that some places in the city had gotten power back on the next day, but we certainly didn't have any.  It was a long blackout.  And no one knew if they were supposed to go into work on that Friday, since no one knew if the offices had power.  I didn't go in.  We didn't have power at home, so I stayed put.  How was I going to be sure I could get home if I did go in? Or that our building would even have power? 
The best part for me was that the next day, Friday, I was supposed to be flying to Chicago.  Luckily, Newark Airport had gotten their power back on.  But the other airports in the area had not, so lots of flights were cancelled and the airport was mobbed.  I had my seat on the flight, but it was a nightmare just being able to check in and get to the gate.  I was relieved to finally get to Chicago.  In addition to being able to visit Alvin in Chicago for the first time that summer, I had reliable power, air conditioning, a working computer so I could do my research and pick my slots for on-campus interviewing and just a break from the blackout. 
Looking back on it, I think I was pretty lucky in the whole blackout.  I got home before it got dark.  It wasn't massively uncomfortable.  We had food, we had running water, we had a place to stay.  We didn't have to walk up 20 flights just to get home.  I was able to get on my flight to Chicago that weekend, even if it was painful.  I didn't get stranded.  But that afternoon... that uncertainty, confusion, chaos is something I won't forget.  It also just reminds me of how dependent on technologies we are, and just how helpless we are with no electricity.  More than anything during the entire travel home, I just felt helpless and anxious at not being able to be in touch with anyone.  I also can't believe it's been 5 years.

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