The 2003 Northeast Power Blackout

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Those who were there that hot, humid Friday still remember clearly what they were doing when the power failed on August 14th, 2003.  Especially those in the big cities.  Big cities such as New York City.   Affecting over 45 million people in the Northeast United States and over 10 million in areas of Canada, it was the second worst power outage in history.


While some back up generators worked effectively, nearly all of New York City was without power—over 14 million people were affected.  Hard for those of us outside a big city to imagine what those hours must have been like.

It was a strange set of small events that cascaded into a huge outage.  First it was a very hot day, with temps between 88 and 92 degrees.  The humidity that time of year is terrible. Second, sagging power lines caused a ‘flashover’ that increased currents.

Did You Know?

Did you know that power lines actually sag as they are more heavily used? The current passing through causes more and more heat in the line.  That heat makes the metal conductors lengthen, which then leads to sagging.  As hot as it was that day, with so many people using the power, it would definitely have been stressed.

Perhaps the trees below the lines were trimmed to what would normally be a sufficient height to avoid touching, but on this day, it was insufficient.  With the miles of lines and the thousands of trees, it must be hard to keep it from happening periodically.  Indeed, safety precautions are set up to avoid any reaction from spreading to other power grids.

Which brings us to the next contributor. Operators are there to watch and listen for alarms that announce a problem on one grid so that adjustments can be made to use other sections, thus avoiding outages and cascades.  That day a software bug stopped the system alarm from working for an hour or so.  A man fixed a problem issue, but then doesn’t restart the monitors.  From there it got worse.  One outage caused power to spike so that a line sagged into a tree…Alarm failures, weather problems, power surges, more sagging lines….The estimated total affected:  55,000,000.

We Find It in Fiction

When I was reading about the outage again it reminded me very much of a favorite book,  Power Down, by Ben Coes.   In the book, one of the disasters is an explosion at a huge damn that provides a vast area with power.  It occurred to me in the book, and then again when researching the 2003 outage, that we don’t realize how far the trouble would extend.  In another book,  Tomorrow War,    a power outage more like a solar flare takes out not only the power grids, but all electronics including those in our cars and cell phones.  That’s why the real outage is of even more interest to me.  What we might learn from the event might help us consider how to prepare for any next time that may occur.

Consider The Widespread Effects

We get that it takes out our electricity.  Our fridges, freezers, air conditioners are perhaps our first concerns.

But lack of power affects nearly all aspects of our lives now.  But for those of us who live outside the city, in single family or one or two store homes, we might not realize the difficulties a city faces.  Some of the  14,000,000 people in NYC rely on elevators to get them up and down their high rise homes.  Many live a distance from  the island of Manhattan.  Computes became difficult if not impossible.  Many faced long walks to their homes, some faced a night sleeping on the street, all in the 88 degree high humidity there.


On that day without power pumps wouldn’t work, or at least not as well.  That brought lower water pressure. Low water pressure brought possible contamination.

As a result the population was advised to boil water before using. A nuisance in our own homes, but imagine how that would affect restaurants for days after the outage.  If you had an electric stove, you would not be able to do even that while the power was down.

Sewage pumps failed as well, causing several sewage spills.  Anyone in the contaminated water could be sickened.


Does that make you think of air traffic controllers?  Well, you would be right on that.  Not only were flights cancelled for that, but also because electronic tickets were inaccessible.  The screening machines used on airline passengers did not work.  Many major cross country flights were among those cancelled.  Naturally, the residual effect of that took days to fix.  Rebooking flights, re-routing, refunding, all were required once power was up and stabilized.

Trains were shut down as well, though some were brought back online fairly soon. Again, when you think of the computer control of much of the scheduling and track safety, without power it would be a risky ride.

One I wouldn’t have thought of was the effects on trucking.  Many gas stations rely on power to run and track fuel.  As a result, trucks in some areas were stalled until fuel was available.  That easily would throw off delivery schedules, connections, and cause spoilage to food products being shipped.

Plus, some people drove their vehicles until they simply ran out of gas, so you would find cars abandoned along the road.   Freeway congestion is so common in big cities to begin with.  Hard to imagine what it would have been like during this time.

Then you have the refineries that shut down.  Gas prices rose when they weren’t brought quickly back to work.  Gas rationing was a consideration.  Border crossings slowed without electronic border checks.

If you think of our everyday travels and lives, consider that traffic lights were out as well.  That brought gridlock.  More than 800 high rise elevators had to be evacuated.  Same with multitudes stuck underground in subways.


Just think how much we use our cell phones and computers today to communicate.  It is a little frightening to think of doing without that connection.  Yet with the outage, much was unavailable.  Cable was out, so news couldn’t be found that way.  A large percentage of the population uses cable for their internet provider, so they lost that as well.

What wasn’t lost from the power outage was still impacted.  Telephone lines were still working, but millions use cordless phones, which of course won’t operate without power.  Cell phone lines worked as well, but both had so much additional usage that it overpowered the system.

The other problem was battery power.  Without power to recharge, many went off line eventually.  Good reminder to have a car charger for your devices!  Ham radio operators were invaluable during the outage.

The power production itself was affected as well, since the variants in the power caused the system to go into safe mode.  That meant all nuclear plants were basically shut down until they could be gradually be brought back on line.  Each aspect of the power system had to be restarted and watched carefully so more damage was avoided.

Much of New York had power restored by the morning of the 15th.  It was restored nearly everywhere by the 16th.  Still, several more days were needed in some areas before the mass transit systems were back to normal.  The same for fuel production and the nuclear plants.

Some areas have seen more severe outages if on a much smaller scale.  Winter weather often causes outages that can last for several days.  Either condition should make each of us consider what we should have available for times like that.  It’s an easy matter to have a few water containers on hand, extra batteries, that car charger for your phone or a back up charger.  Even a good pair of walking shoes kept at the office or in the car.  Give it some thought.  Things happen.  Much easier to handle when you are prepared.

Emergency Water Back Up

We should all have back up water stored in our homes.  Whether you fill a container or two like these with tap water or from a machine, you will know you have enough for the basics or drinking cooking, coffee.  Depending on the size of your family you may want several.  This brand is BPA free and available in three or five gallon capacity.

Back Up Charger

Never a bad idea to have a back up charger for your phone.  Keep it charged up, or use a solar model, and you will know you have extra power to get you by in most emergencies.  This one will charge a cell phone 3 to 6 times.  That should be sufficient for most power outages.  You can see how compact it is to keep handy.



Merry Citarella, often writing as Merrci, writes on a wide range of topics. Recently relocated to the Oregon Coast in the northwest United States, she frequently writes travel features on the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She specializes in health and aging, Alzheimer’s Disease, food, lifestyle, and book reviews. For more information you can see her on The Writers’Door. You can read more articles here or at her websites Mystery Suspense Reviews .

Author: Merry Citarella

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