2003 August 16
 John Pazmino
 2003 August 16
    I, along with some 50 million other souls, was caught in the 
multistate electric power outage on Thursday 14 August 2003. While my 
own experience was pretty tame, with no great agony or perils, I did 
make some curious observations of the sky. 
Power collapse
    I was at work near Herald Square when the lights snapped out at 
16:10 EDST. They, with all other electric apparatus, just shut off 
instantly. There was no dimming, slowing, flickering. Just a quick 
poof! from full power to none. 
    The office was then illuminated by daylight from windows and 
emergency lights operating from batteries on drop relays. All phones 
were out of service because the new digital system we got is powered 
from the wall mains, altho the voice signals run thru the LAN. 
    It took only a couple minutes to verify that this blackout was a 
major one covering at least all of New York City. After a few more 
minutes, by battery radios and calls via dedicated emergency phones, 
we learned that several states were in the dark (altho it was still 
daylight). We secured the office and let everyone out for the day. 
Some did leave; other lingered, including me. 
Walk around the 'hood
    By 17h it was obvious that the power would be out for some time to 
come. Such a large area of outage will not be restored at once. I left 
for the day and took in the scene around my office. I made a spiral 
traverse around the 'hood reaching east to Norman Thomas High School, 
west to Penn Station. To the north and south I skirted but didn't 
enter, Times and Madison Squares. 
    As part of the response to emergencies, I packed my CD whistle and 
flashlight. If you're wondering what good these are for a computer 
compact disc, 'CD' means 'Civil Defense', a civilian corps exercised 
to handle some police and rescue functions in times of war. This was 
long ago disbanded with the end of the Cold War, but I kept my kit, 
including the armband. No, I didn't try wearing that; people probably 
now wouldn't understand it.
    The streets were rapidly filling up with walkers, so many that 
they spilled into the curb vehicular lanes of the wider streets. The 
hordes  were neatly divided into two grand flocks. One was a milling 
crowd at bus stops. These folk were seeking either their normal bus or 
trying for a bus as alternative to electric rail or transit. 
    The other flock was streams or rivers walking swiftly and 
purposefully in both directions on every street. They continued in 
torrents all during my circuit. 
    All traffic signals were extinguished; store signs were dark; 
subways and rails were turned off. Despite the sudden loss of signals 
in the streets, cars seemed to procede with care, taking turns at the 
corners. Police were set up at the major corners and at some other 
there were civilians stepping into the traffic to guide it. For the 
most part, there was no gridlock or excessive horn-blowing.
Buses to City Hall 
    By 18h I turned homeward. The air was cooler than most previous 
days, with a light moist breeze. I didn't sweat up from the walking. 
    I will not bore you with the details of the buses I ended up 
taking, but to merely note that I got a bus from the mid 30s to 
Greenwich Village, where it ended its run. The ride was no more 
comfortable or not for any normal rush hour. The AC was quite welcome 
and everyone on board was in a cheery mode. The ride was slow, stop 
and go, with no long dwells. I got to Greenwich Village in about a 
half hour.
    In the Village I fished for a continuing bus, which came along in 
a few minutes, and rode it to City Hall. I got a seat! Good thing, 
because this trip took a full hour! Along the way the Sun sank into 
horizon haze and twilight was creeping in when I got off. 
Crossing Brooklyn Bridge
    From City Hall I walked over Brooklyn Bridge with a gazillion 
other people converging on the entry ramps from all directions. By now 
traffic into Manhattan was shut off, leaving the inbound vehicular 
lanes open to the flood of walkers. I wanted to walk on the footpath 
but was vectored by barriers and police to the inbound car lanes. The 
crowd moved briskly, at a pace that would leave most foreigners in the 
dust. Twilight was closing in rapidly with sunlight stifled behind 
the thick haze layer over the City. 
    I never had to use the whistle, like for help if I got injured or 
saw an accident. The flashlight was essential in the falling light. It 
was truly a survival item! It looks like a cheap flashlight, but the 
bulb and reflector are set to throw a solid beam of light with a 
'paenumbra' of much wider cone angle around it. Flashlights typicly 
emit a wretched blob or ring of light of almost no use to see your way 
in the dark. My lamp was perfect to read signs and warn of 
irregularities in the roaddeck. 
River of light
    The approach road from City Hall to the Manhattan tower passes 
over the FDR Drive, a highway hugging the east flank of Manhattan 
island. It was at first hidden behind waterfront buildings as I began 
my trek. Then, wham!, I was whacked from the left by this dazzling 
    It was the highway, packed with cars like in the usual rushhour. 
The headlights, seen from some 25 meters above them, were amazingly 
brilliant! Their brilliance was enhanced by the black surrounds. Under 
the Bridge the FDR Drive enters an interchange. The river of light, 
looking so much like fresh volcano lava, split into three prongs, like 
that lava flowing over hilly ground!
    I saw this before many times under quite adverse circumstances. 
The view I had until now was from Manhattan Bridge, from my train on 
the way home. I see the road thru a crazed window, dulled by interior 
lights of the train, with bridge girders flitting past, and only a 
moment of perfect alignment. Now I was standing at the crash wall 
looking between the girders in clear air and all that. The effect was, 
uh, illuminating. 
    There is now a new to-do item. Go back to Brooklyn Bridge in the 
fall, when darkness comes earlier, and photograph this river of light 
as an example of automobile-induced luminous graffiti. I could also do 
the same from the newish footpath on Manhattan Bridge.
Continuing on the Bridge 
    Enough of that. I marched on. The entire mood was rather festive 
with impromptu convos igniting along the way to compare previous 
blackouts, World Trade Center, and other major calamities. It was 
weird to relate the 1965 blackout to the younger folk, who likely were 
born after the Apollo flights ended! On the other hand, it was 
fascinating to hear of power cuts from other places as told by 
visitors or newcomers to the City. 
    About a hundred meters farther onto the Bridge I stopped at the 
crash wall to gaze at the East River in the uptown direction. My view 
downtown was blocked by the bridge structure and outbound vehicular 
traffic. Yes, all of the City in view was dark, except for isolated 
individual lamps here and there, perhaps a dozen at the most. The 
gross lighting came from the FDR Drive and cars on Manhattan Bridge, 
the next one uptown on East River. Now the headlights were flickering 
or winking or blinking as they were interrupted by trees, poles, 
fences, structure. 
Sky over East River
    By now it was getting to full night. I looked up at the night sky. 
    No stars.
    Now it was a summer day with a thick deck of haze over all the 
sky. And the Sun set into this blanket earlier this evening. At first, 
then, I wasn't surprised to find no stars. But! The sky was NOT inky 
black. Not even plain very black. 
    It was filled with a luminous graffiti all over. The Manhattan 
Bridge and city skyline were outlined against it. Overall the sky was 
a blue-gray tint, reminding me of a very dark solar eclipse sky. There 
was actually enough light from the sky, by now my eyes were getting 
dark adapted, to walk about confidently! 
    What's more, the texture on the masonry towers of the Bridge and 
the lacework of its cables were plainly discernible. You do know the 
Brooklyn Bridge is a masonry structure, yes? There is NO steel 
internal framework faced with stone decoration. The whole effing 
towers are stone block placed atop stone block, like mediaeval 
    Where was this stuff coming from? There seemed to be no hotspots; 
the Moon hadn't risen yet. Two days later I learned that New Jersey 
was only partially blacked out. Yet, now even accounting for that, and 
I didn't see any light dome over Jersey, the sky was still pucky 
Into Brooklyn
    I continued walking, stopping every hundred meters or so to 
inspect the scene and sky. I deliberately made some flow counts, too. 
The rate of pedestrians in the car lanes, not including the footpath, 
ranged from 50 to 150 per minute. The mean was 100 to 120 per minute. 
People tended to form clumps with sizable gaps between them. 
    At the landfall we were greeted by Brooklyn police welcoming us to 
their happy habitat. We cheered them, shook their hands, waved 
flashlights at them. My own trek took about an hour, with all the 
stops along the way. The road turned southward toward Boro Hall, where 
I split off to get buses home. 
Buses to home
    It took about a half hour in stygian darkness to find my proper 
bus stop. The flashlight was vital for reading signs and picking out 
obstructions in the street. Two packed buses passed by without 
stopping, so I fixed to take other routes that connect to one reaching 
my house. 
    I hopped onto one, loosely filled, no seats, but with good AC. The 
driver called out the stops being that you couldn't recognize anything 
out the windows and there were many foreign riders. 
    This bus connected with a second one that went to my nabe. This 
one offered me a seat! While waiting for this bus, I scanned the sky. 
Same eerie bluish luminance. Now I could make out Vega and Mars. A 
hotspot creeped up in the east; the Moon by now rose. Mars came and 
went at the threshold of my sight. This was likely due to denser and 
rarer parts of the haze drifting over him. 
    The combined ride on these buses was about an hour and a half, 
taking in heavy traffic near Boro Hall and the wait between buses. From 
the second bus, I walked in familiar streets to my house. On my block, 
now about 22:30 EDST, I saw the same bright sky, only Vega and Mars. 
The Moon was dulled by haze with her markings fully discernible. 
At home
    There was nothing doing at home. Father and sister were listening 
to battery radios. Sister set out candles here and there. I showered 
and went to sleep. If the trains were running in the morning, Friday, 
I go to work, If not, I stay home. As luck had it, there was no 
transit on Friday. My block still had no electric yet, altho 
restoration in other parts of the City was proceding steadily. 
    There was never a threat to the water supply. New York water is 
pure mountain rain water reaching the City by gravity and siphon. It 
needs very little sanitary treatment. My house and other places in the 
low-elevation parts of the City never lost pressure. Those on high 
ground and high rise towers have internal pumping. This was dead from 
the lack of electric and such places then had only what water happened 
to be stored in their internal tanks. 
    Friday was drier and clearer than Thursday. The sky was actually 
blue, The Sun was a blazing disc. I passed most of the day reading in 
daylight on the stoop. Lighting thru the windows within the house was 
too erratic. By late afternoon, the Sun waned substantially into a 
yellow-white disc, remaining that way thru a geometric sunset. We took 
supper in twilight, while there was still natural light to work in the 
    Bingo!, at 19:25 EDST on Friday 15 August 2003, the electric 
turned on. I cautioned against resuming a full electric use for the 
rest of the night. Leave a couple lamps on for area lighting and turn 
on one television. 
    The sky that night was more or less a normal summer sky. By 
nightfall probably all of Brooklyn regained the electric and the sky 
was illuminated more or less normally. I guess the real better clarity 
of the air, compared to the dismally hazy nights so far this summer, 
and the fact that many businesses closed from Thursday hadn't reopened 
yet, the transparency was a better than normal. Not much, 3rd 
magnitude versus 2nd or 2-1/2. At least the Moon was farther east and 
didn't interfere so much. 
    For sure, there was NOT the spectacularly star-filled sky of the 
nights following World Trade Center or the 1977 ConEd blackout. 
Work on Saturday 
    On Saturday the 16th of August 2003 I awoke in early morning with 
no plans for the day. I wasn't even sure if transit was running yet. 
It takes six or more hours after power is turned on to let trains 
operate again. At about 09:30 my boss called me at home. I figured he 
was home in Connecticut, which suffered the blackout in its western 
half. No, he was at the office! He came in to prepare for a business 
trip he planned to get ready for on Friday. He was leaving on Monday 
so he had to get some work done. But! The LAN and telephones were out 
of service. He was working with the head office, talking thru his 
cellphone, to get it started. The task got too technically involved 
for him. 
    He noted that the subways were running; he saw them from Grand 
Central. I then offered, if the trains were in service in Brooklyn, to 
come to the office and fix the LAN. 
    I freshened up and scooted to my subway station; trains were 
running on a weekend schedule. The ride to work was pleasant with nice 
AC, roomy coach, and thinned crowd of riders.  
    Cranking up the LAN was a tricky technical process I'll leave out 
here. It took an hour with help from my head office. Boss and I stayed 
at work for the rest of the day. 
    Because so many of my friends know me from the old Federal Power 
Commission and my work with the 1977 blackout investigation, I'm 
getting inundated with questions about this present episode. First 
off, my office's scope is now confined to hydroelectric power, which 
is, in the northeast, characterized by small facilities clipped onto a 
nearby mid-voltage transmission line. Once the electric gets to that 
line, we lose control of it. 
    However, we still have many of the electrical maps and diagrams 
for utilities. Since our office always covered only the northeast, we 
treated Quebec, Canada, the Midwest as 'blackboxes', even representing 
the humongous James Bay project of Quebec as a small dot on the maps. 
Yet there was enough for me to examine on Saturday at work after 
getting the phones and LAN humming. 
    A massive complication is my review of the power system was the 
recent deregulation of the industry. The most visible aspect was the 
segregation of the generation function from the transmission and 
retail function. Consolidated Edison Company of New York, for example, 
no longer runs its power plants. They were sold off or retired thruout 
the 1990s. Keyspan Energy, never an electric power company, now owns 
the Ravenswood station in Long Island City. This was the pride and joy 
of Con Edison, home of the largest generating machine in the world 
when built in the early 1960s. 
    Con Edison now buys electric from the new owners of the power 
plants and then only retails it to the customers. Its bills show the 
separate charges for its purchase of electric and its own [minor] 
distribution. What many customers miss is that only the distribution 
part remains under state regulation. The purchase part is a free-
market deal. 
    Right away the convolution of the restoration process is evident. 
Con Edison, sticking with the New York example, has to work with 
perhaps ten other separate firms at its former plants, in the stead of 
sending its own crews with its own orders to them. There must surely 
have been a stretch out of the power restoration from such multiparty 
Lakes power flow 
    By way of background, the elephant-in-the-bedroom of the North 
American power system is Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. They forced the 
power grid to grow around them and carry a circulating current. The 
two loops, around each lake, meet at the Niagara Falls complex, where 
Lake Erie empties into Lake Ontario thru Niagara Falls. The normal 
flow around each lake is counterclockwise; west to east on the 
American side, east to west on the Quebec and Canada side. There are 
exceptions, like the north-to-south flow from the James Bay project to 
the United States. All the utiltiy names I mention below are legacy 
names. Name changes and mergers may well have altered them since ny 
office worked with these firms. 
    Because in history the power companies grew up independently of 
each other, with joint construction becoming routine in the late 20th 
century, the strength of the transmission grid varies widely around 
the lakes. In New York state are Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation and 
New York Power Authority. The latter operates the Niagara Falls 
project, in coordination with a similar one, Beck, on the Canada side 
of the falls. Both systems operate extensive 345 kilovolt power lines, 
which together move power across most of the state. 
    Con Edison, serving most of New York City and much of Westchester 
county, is not part of the lakes circulation. It does conduct power 
between New Jersey and Pennsylvania to its west and New England to its 
    In Pennsylvania are Pennsylvania Electric Company and West Penn 
Power Company, both working 230 and 500 kilovolt transmission lines. 
    The Ohio lakefront has Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, 
Toledo Edison Company, and Ohio Edison Company. They work 345 kilovolt 
lines. The southern part of the state, served by Ohio Power Company 
and Columbus & Southern Ohio Edison Company, has several lines working 
at 765 kilovolts, the highest AC voltage in the country. They were 
built in the 1960s and 1970s. 
    Farther west was always beyond my office territory, so I have 
little knowledge of the power grid there. 
    Since the 1970s there was only minor expansion of the transmission 
network on the American side of Lakes Ontario and Erie. This slowdown 
in growth results from many factors. Among them are the fiscal crisis 
of the 1970s in the industry, the high rate of interest for 
construction bonds in the early 1980s, a moderated growth in power 
demand thruout the 1980s, and increasing public involvement in power 
facility siting in the 1990s. 
What happened? 
    The instant cause of the power cut is as at nightfall on August 
16th still a matter of speculation. None of the electric utility 
representatives offered a competent postulate during news interviews 
and commentary. The only preliminary notion is that the initial 
interruption occurred near Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, and percolated 
east and west to disrupt the lakes current. This idea could well be 
replaced by others in the weeks to come. 
    At least in New York State, the power grid was deliberately shut 
down to prevent propagation of surges or dips into it. There was, as 
far as is known now, no collateral incidents within the state to 
compound the collapse. Con Edison, for one, reported no physical 
damage to its properties. A report of a fire at its East River 
station (now used for street steam production) was withdrawn. 
Witnesses mistook a smokestack plume during the wind down of the plant  
for that issuing from a fire. 
    What kinds of accident could happen? There are two main ones: loss 
of generation or of transmission. The typical loss of generation is a 
machine at a power station that breaks down and stops producing 
electric. Loss of transmission usually is the cut off of a particular 
power line from a drop or rise in voltage or phase. Either loss can 
impose a sudden imbalance of electric flow, which could then result in 
over or under current elsewhere on the grid. 
    Power companies routinely postulate such accidents and do 
simulations of their effects. Responses include shutting off certain 
customers, buying emergency power from neighboring sources, isolating 
the trouble spot (by opening circuit breakers around it), increasing 
generation at other stations, reducing voltage on the grid, increasing 
power load on other lines. The proactive anticipation of accidents is 
a normal part of the cotidian work of the electric power industry. 
    Why such an accident, in this instance, led within seconds or even 
cycles to the crash of the entire lakes circulation is for me entirely 
unfathomable as at now. So far there is just too scanty information to 
work with. 
    This was the third major blackout I experienced. The others were 
in 1965 and 1977, both engulfing the City or more. In all three cases 
I went thru some nuisance and inconvenience but never was in danager 
or felt vulnerable. 
    The key to riding out a blackout is to set aside any need or want 
of electric service and to acclimate to the surrounding situation. For 
one thing, it it no longer required to 'get home' as quickly as 
possible, the exception being if there is a household member that 
absolutely needs attention by a clock schedule. 
    In 1965 and 1977 there was no remote communication on the move 
with others but by coin-op telephone. By the 2003 incident, cellphones 
were coming into wide use as prices and size of units were on the 
downward slide. In 1965 and 1977 we had chemophoto cameras and limited 
number of shots in them. 2003 saw the beginning of digital cameras, as 
yet bulky and clumsy to operate. 
    Oh, what about stars on Saturday, the 16th?  No stars on Saturday 
night. The sky was all clouded over.