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History

Lights out! The great Northeast power blackout of 2003.

A decade ago today, on August 14, 2003, the lights went out in the northeastern U.S. and much of eastern Canada, plunging 55 million people into darkness–or at least brownness. The cause of the blackout, the second-largest power failure in world history (following a 1999 blackout in Brazil), was a small glitch in one computer running at one power company’s office in Ohio. This small bug, known in computer lingo as a “race condition,” ultimately cascaded into a disaster that shut down the largest cities in the United States and Canada.

Exactly how the computer glitch led to a massive blackout is extremely complex. The key dynamic of modern power infrastructure is what they call “load”–how much electricity is traveling over power lines at any given instant. Too much load will cause power lines to sag and other disastrous effects. Essentially, power managers are kind of like air traffic controllers, diverting power this way and that, preventing the power equivalent of runway stack-ups. Obviously, if they don’t have accurate information about the state of their system, things can go wrong.

What I find interesting about the great blackout of 2003 is how different it was from the last great power outage to strike New York City–that one occurring in 1977. That famous blackout (incidentally it’s depicted in the movie “Summer of Sam,” which I recently profiled) resulted in widespread looting and anarchy in many parts of the NYC area, with people smashing windows and making off with electronics and other goods before the police could stop them. Like in 2003, the 1977 blackout occurred during the summer, and on a particularly hot day. Unlike 2003, the 1977 blackout began at night. Ten years ago the power went out at 4:13 PM. It was still off for most of the night in many places, but the initial failure occurred during the daytime. I wonder if that was a factor.

But in 2003 there wasn’t much anarchy. Quite the contrary. New Yorkers left their offices on foot, and many migrated to bars and restaurants, who were giving away their perishable foods–especially seafood and ice cream, which would not last very long. Block parties broke out in many parts of the city. (That also happened in 1977). Of course, people had to be pried out of elevators, led up from darkened subway tunnels, and a blackout of any duration is problematic for hospitals and other crucial infrastructure. But you just didn’t see a lot of anarchy.

blackout 2

New Yorkers on foot during the blackout of August 14, 2003.

It was the same in other places. Toronto, the largest city in Canada affected, saw hassle but no violence. Most of the effects related to transportation failures. I’m not sure how likely it is that Canadians would smash windows and make off with TV sets in any condition, but it certainly didn’t happen in 2003.

Why? Was it just the time of day? It can’t be that simple. There must be social factors at work. New York had more police on the force in 2003 than in 1977, but that doesn’t seem to answer it either. Mob psychology is notoriously difficult to figure out. Are we Americans “calmer” or “less prone” to riot today than we were in the 1970s? I don’t know how you’d go about making an argument like that, but there must be something at work there.

I find blackout lore to be very fascinating. Power failures are the catastrophic disaster-but-not-really-disasters of our time. How do we behave during them? Why do we do the things we do? All of these are very interesting questions. Sometime in the future there will be another major blackout. Perhaps conditions then will be very different. While I’m glad the 2003 failure went as “well” as it did, we may not be so lucky the next time around. Time–and darkness–will tell.

Top photo by Brendan Loy. Bottom photo by Glitch010101. Used with attribution CC license and relicensed under same.

1 Comment

  1. It’s kind of funny you should write this as I was about to post a blog about the time I was a teen in Cleveland Ohio talking to my lawyer as I was currently getting sued by a software company (first time in court) when 9/11/ Flight 93 had occurred (Cleveland airport was within eyesight of the law building). Just before Flight 93 was coming there had been a previous bomb threat that day on another airplane at Cleveland airport. It had kind of the same tone as the black out of 2003 and at the time the Cleveland Mayor Michael White had ordered evacuation of major parts of the city.

    Of course evocation notices for Cleveland are not exactly uncommon do to the the high crime rate as instead of calling them evacuations they use much softer terminology calling it strategic planning for sections of the city when crime had gotten really high. Normally Charity organizations institute these strategic warning/plans not the city/officials. I remember walking outside the law building and seeing a sea of vehicles as far as the eye could see.

    I was there in Ohio when the 2003 blackout had occurred many thought it was a terrorist plot. At this time not everybody had cell phones and cell towers were just being built, cells were not as fancy as they are now, therefore the only way to get any accurate info was through the radio. Rumors managed to spread faster than actual concrete facts. Most businesses had backup gas generators for there building or coolers so there was some power some places. I can’t say during the blackout I noticed if more people had guns strapped to them but I can say that it seemed a average amount did like any other day. No business establishment practiced any price gouging as far as I could tell. Passing gas stations I noticed a increase in vehicles getting gas from the usual, as well as their was heavy traffic on the roads and backroads. Also it was a very hot summer when all this happened.

    After that had occurred their seemed to be a emphasis that our power grid was to insecure and that terrorists could attack it anytime they wanted to which would result in total case. Then again your blog would suggest other wise 😀 Thought I’d contribute some information maybe it will help you out and doing more research etc…

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