Forty-one years ago today, Gotham City (just kidding—New York City) suffered a massive and prolonged power outage. The weather at the time was very similar to today’s weather in Huntsville—hot, steamy, like walking around in a dog’s mouth.
The event began with a lightning strike at 8:37 pm at Buchanan South–a substation on the Hudson River–that incapacitated the facility. A second lightning strike quickly followed, affecting the nuclear plant at Indian Point. Twenty minutes later, a third lightning strike knocked out the Sprain Brook substation in Yonkers. Consolidated Edison attempted to manually offload a segment of customers but the procedure failed and ‘Big Allis’, the biggest generator in the ConEd system, shutdown from overload.
New York City was already a powder keg. The city had been going through a severe financial crisis that required a bailout from the State of New York in mid 1975. Severe restrictions on the city were enacted, including a wage freeze, a major layoff, a subway fare hike, and the institution of tuition at the City University of New York.
In addition, the city was being terrorized by a mass killer, Son of Sam. The random murders of 6 people and wounding of 7 others had begun in December 1975. The assaults were brutal and violent. The killer left notes at the bodies of victims filled with bizarre threats and intimations of future violence which just further alarmed the city’s inhabitants.
The brutal heat wave was probably the fuse to the bomb that exploded the night of July 13th. The city experienced waves of fires and massive looting. LaGuardia and Kennedy airports were closed down for about 8 hours, stranding passengers at two of the busiest airports in the nation. Automobile tunnels were closed, stranding thousands of commuters and an equal number of New Yorkers had to be evacuated from the subway system. The largest mass arrest in city history—approximately 4000—overwhelmed the judicial and law enforcement systems.
Gradually, power was restored, beginning at 7 am on July 14th. Television stations however remained off the air until July 15th.
New Yorkers have a reputation for taking it all in stride. In previous blackouts, the city’s inhabitants had taken a c’est la vie attitude, printing t-shirts sold weeks later on the city’s streets, asking “Where were you…during the blackout?” Following the northeast blackout of 1965, the R&B group the Ad Libs released a song entitled “New York in the Dark” that included the lines, “the people they were frantic, although they didn’t panic, they kept on singing songs, until the lights came on again.”
The blackout of 1977 was entirely different. New Yorkers who lived through the event refer to themselves as survivors and talk about the profound fear and stress they experienced.
As I’ve always said, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Climate change is already creating events that mimic the chaos and loss of control New York experienced during the great blackout of 1977. Stay alert!