By now everyone surely knows that, exactly on the 42nd anniversary of the Great Blackout of 1977, much of New York City was plunged into darkness shortly before 7 pm Saturday night. Thankfully, there are no reported deaths or serious injuries attributable to the blackout that lasted for some parts of the Upper West Side until just before midnight. The New York Times reported there were some 900 emergency calls related to the blackout involving some 400 people stuck on elevators.
Our personal story had a good ending. We were sitting in the Walter Reade Theater at 165 West 65th Street, watching the Film Society of Lincoln Center short film program, Dance on Camera 2019 Shorts Program I, not altogether happy with what we were seeing, when the screen and the side lights in the theater with about 200 present suddenly went dark. Having grown up in the age of actual film, our first reaction was that the film had broken, leading to some automatic shutoff of the theater lighting. That, of course, was bad thinking.
There was no panic. The theater staff suggested everyone turn on their cell phone lights and await developments. After a brief delay, we decided to leave and return to our apartment near West 59th and 9th Avenue. On the way out, we heard someone report that the lights-out condition extended to Columbus Circle, not a good sign.
Indeed, our apartment building was dark with some residents wandering around the concierge desk near the front door. The staff was openly distraught as they thought there were residents stuck in the elevators of the two 51-story towers. We later learned that, miraculously, no one was in the elevators when the electricity brought them to a halt.
Since we live on the 50th floor, climbing to our apartment was out of the question. And while the weather was relatively mild for a July evening, our apartment would not have been a good place to be without air conditioning or a fan working. We decided instead to walk to my wife’s office at 50th and Broadway, hoping that the blackout had spared the building and refuge could be found.
Our uncertainty was fueled by the fact, stunning to me, that at least a half hour into the event we had nothing resembling information from the City, particularly the street parameters describing the extent of the blackout. Notify NYC, an app to which we subscribe, had no useful information.
Along the way to my wife’s office, we inched through massive crowds of aspiring, and perspiring, theatre-goers waiting hopefully, and hopelessly as it turned out, for the power to return. Curiously, the Winter Garden, directly across the street from her office, and the adjoining Stardust Diner, were lit up. But there was no hope for an office refuge. The power was out there too. The security staff very kindly let us use their restroom and we returned to the maelstrom on the streets.
Much has been made about the “resilience” of New Yorkers in times of stress and from what I have observed, this is largely accurate. In the midtown madness and what must have been enormous frustration in the defeated ticketholders who would not see their shows nor likely get refunds, the anxiety of tens of thousands of tourists locked out of their hotels with no place to eat or use restrooms and precious little information about what was going on, it is amazing that there were few, if any, incidents arising from this blackout. New Yorkers have seen much worse and, by and large, know what to do and not do. In several cases, entertainers from closed shows entertained people on the street in impromptu concerts. From what we saw, the much-larger-than-normal crowds everywhere in midtown were well-behaved and orderly.
However, and this is a big ‘however,’ the lack of reliable information about the extent of the outage was a real black mark against the City. Thinking of a situation much more threatening than a simple loss of power, the lack of output from the sources that should have known is astonishing and unacceptable. Our building management put out a notice at 7:23 pm, a bit more than a half hour after the incident began, informing us that our building was without power and that we should look to ConEd.com for information. ConEd’s Facebook page reported returns of power by number of customers but not by area of the city, largely useless for the people on the streets. Our building reported by email at 11:59 pm that power had been restored and that systems were being returned to service. Notify NYC never had specific information about the scope of the blackout.
If people on the streets had received alerts on the precise scope of the blackout, recognizing that as time passed, it actually spread further downtown, they might have realized that walking to the east side of town would have helped them find food, restrooms and respite from the heat.
This Monday morning, our building still did not have internal communications from the lobby to the apartments. At about 10:30 am this morning I walked to the Wells Fargo bank at West 56th and Broadway to find that the bank still was without power. The ATMs were not working.
My wife and I did not suffer during this episode. We walked from her building to the Port Authority Bus Terminal at West 41st and 8th Avenue, hoping to catch a bus to Ridgewood, NJ where my daughter lives. Amazingly, the Terminal was virtually empty, fully lit with working air conditioning, toilets and Hudson News’ stands open almost two hours have the blackout began. We bought tickets, caught the bus a short time later and were in Ridgewood before 10 pm. As we left the city, we looked back across the river and saw a stunning sight of lower Manhattan illuminated and upper Manhattan in darkness.
Monday users of the Terminal may not be so lucky, as the Authority reports: “On Sunday afternoon, officials said the Port Authority Bus Terminal was still working to fix equipment outages affecting some escalators, elevators and kiosks. The air conditioning system was also not fully operational.”
Overall, the result was amazing. The emergency responders did their jobs and the public reacted to the situation with patience. We felt bad for the theatre-goers and, more importantly, for the elderly and infirm who were trapped in apartments with no ventilation or meaningful communication. Likely, neighbors looked after these folks but I continue to think the City can and should do better in communicating. In a more serious situation, the level of information available from the City will be critical to the safety of tens of thousands of people. I fully understand that in the Saturday night episode, the complexity of the electronic grid means that the true cause of the disruption may not be known for a while. But the most critical information for the public – the extent of the blackout condition – should have been known sooner and distributed through Twitter/Facebook and other accounts that would have informed most of the people who needed to know.