The New York City Blackout: 10 Years Later

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Today is the 10-year anniversary of the great blackout of 2003, which affected much of the Northeast, most notably New York City.  I was living in Dallas at the time and on a business trip to Hartford, CT.  As luck (or lack of it) would have it, I would end up making a last-minute trip down to New York City on that fateful day – and have one of the most surreal experiences of my life.  Here’s a light-hearted account of it all, recounted from an email I sent to friends and family a few days after returning home from the ordeal:

Thursday, August 14:

Ralph hears about the blackout in New York on the news while at work in Dallas. He thinks to himself, “Wow…thank GOD Kanani’s not in Manhattan!”

Minutes later, he receives the call from me. “Hey…guess what..I had to make an emergency trip to Manhattan today for work; and the power just went out all over the city. I think I’m trapped here.”

Some big, karmic, practical joke? Nope…but as events unfolded over the next day, one would wonder.

I wasn’t even SUPPOSED to be in New York. I was in Hartford on a business trip. One of my coworkers in Connecticut was asked to do a last-minute product demonstration in our New York office. She agreed; but after thinking about it, she realized she was not the best person for the demonstration. That’s when I entered the comedy of errors that was about to play itself out over the next 24 hours.

Cath asked me if I would take her place at the AccuMark software presentation in New York while she took over the class I was teaching to our international trainers. It made perfect sense. She knew the subject matter I was teaching; and I was used to doing last-minute, high-pressure software demonstrations for high-profile customers. Plus, a day of excitement in the city would be a good shot in the arm for me. (Be careful what you ask for!)

At my hotel in Manchester, Connecticut, I gathered my cushiony yoga mat and a bath towel, just in case the presentation ended in time for me to do a late-afternoon yoga class in NYC, then get back to Hartford for the company dinner that was planned. Though I had a rental car for the week in Hartford, I was advised by my coworkers Andi and Rodolfo to make the hourlong drive to New Haven, CT, then catch the Metro North train into Manhattan to avoid traffic into the city. It made perfect sense; and that’s exactly what I did, taking along a big bottle of water and a big bag of trail mix. (I guess that would be the foreshadowing element to this story, huh? Trail mix….as if I was going “camping” or something!)

I left my rental car at the train station in New Haven and boarded the train to Grand Central. It was a full train, loaded with people heading to New York for a long weekend before school started. I sat next to 2 teenagers who talked the whole trip about the fake ID’s they had purchased and their upcoming weekend of bar-hopping and drunkenness; how they would “beat” the system; how they had groomed themselves to look older; how they were so much more mature than their real age; how they were so cool; how they would “conquer” Manhattan. They were so IRRITATING, rehearsing their lines for the moment the bouncers asked them when they were born. Role playing. One would play the bouncer, the other would convince him they were 21. Then, they’d switch roles. I felt like turning to them and telling them how IMMATURE they sounded and how seasoned NYC bouncers were…and good luck in getting past the velvet ropes; but I held my tongue, remembering how I at their age, around 17 or so, was just as cocky and irritating…if not more so. Looking back at the weekend, I guess they never got the chance to “conquer” the New York City night scene. I guess they were the brunt of that karmic prank, too!

We arrived safely in the Big Apple. My demonstration at the office went well; but it lasted longer than expected. No way to make that afternoon yoga class. At 4:05 pm, I headed back to Grand Central Terminal. On the way, a storefront I was looking into went dark. I figured their electricity simply went out temporarily. I stopped by a sushi joint to grab some maki rolls for the train ride; but their lights were also out. I thought it strange that they were already closed for the day. No biggie. I’d grab something at the food court at the train station. On the way, I began to notice that traffic lights weren’t working. Then, I began to hear people talking…the rumor mill had begun. The whole city was out. No, the whole STATE was out. No, everything west of the MISSISSIPPI was out. WHAT???!!!!

blackout-confusion

I watched the first emotional stage of the city develop…Frustration. People were ticked off that they wouldn’t be able to get home on time. Wasn’t there a ball game on TV tonight? I thought about the company dinner I would miss in Connecticut…I was REALLY looking forward to lobster and steamers! DAMN it!

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Getting home any way you can…

Stage 2…Anger. It was HOT, for God’s sake! No air conditioning! People began to pour outside from the buildings, the shops, their homes. Drivers, gridlocked and going absolutely nowhere, started honking their horns, cussing at other drivers out their windows. Working women began to cry, worried about their kids at home…across the river in Jersey, in Brooklyn. Not only were we not going to get home in time…we may not get home TONIGHT…PERIOD!

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Heading home by foot over the Brooklyn Bridge

Stage 3…Acceptance. Nothing we can do about it. It’s way too hot in the interior of the city. Move to the edges, to the waterfront. I made my way to the Christopher Street Pier, newly renovated in recent years with landscaping, picnic tables, paved walkways, shaded pavilions. Along with tons of other people, I found a spot on the grass and rolled out my yoga mat. Took off my shirt (now drenched), dug out my book, read and enjoyed the sunshine and cool breeze off the water. A quick call to Ralph and Mom to let them know I’m okay. I noticed city employees setting up lamp posts and generators along the piers. Hmmm…they know something we don’t. At this point, it was kinda fun. People throwing Frisbees, conversing, eating pizza and Chinese (takeout restaurants made a KILLING), doing yoga on the grass. GOD, I love New York!

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Weary outside the main Post Office

About 7 o’clock, I decided to make my way back to Midtown. No electricity yet…and maybe an 8 o’clock yoga class would take place. I sure could use it right now! I walked through Greenwich Village, which was like a big street party. Grocery stores were practically giving away all forms of ice cream, which was melting quickly in the heat. Everyone you saw on the street was digging into a carton of Häagen-Dazs or munching on Eskimo Pies. Restaurants weren’t serving food; but they were taking advantage of the lack of air conditioning by continuing to sell drinks, mostly of the alcoholic variety. Maybe those 2 teenagers on the train DID get their share of libations, after all! Everyone was outdoors, in the streets…standing around, laughing, eating pizza, passing on rumors. I noticed that lots of fire hydrants had been opened; and kids were playing in the gushing water…just like the movies!

Power out across East Coast

Although yoga class was a long shot, I figured they might do it with candlelight, which would be oh-so-woo-woo! Apparently, only one other person thought so, too. I waited with a guy named Casey outside the door. The buzzer wasn’t working; so we had no way to know if class was on or not. It turned out he was a gym rat who had never done yoga before (a “virgin”)…tonight would be his first class. He asked me what it was like; and I told him how wonderful it would be; how much he would enjoy it. By 8:20, no one had shown up to let us in. Casey was so bummed that he would miss his first class. He asked me what hotel I was staying in. I explained that I didn’t have one – that I had never intended to be in the city past 6pm – that I was basically, well, trapped. He got really concerned and gave me his address, in case I needed a place to stay for the night. How sweet! How New York. That’s what I love about this city…the people. Up-front and in-your-face, but compassionate just the same. Always getting an undeserved, bad rap from the rest of us. Anyway, he was WAY too cute to spend an evening in total darkness with. Thanks, Casey-the-Hot-Yoga-Virgin, but no thanks.

Stage 4…Fear. The sun set quickly…and everything faded to pitch black instantly. You could feel the fear in the air. You could cut the distrust with a knife: it was so thick. You could barely see in front of your face. People continually looked behind them as they walked. I remembered the lamp posts and generators along the waterfront; so I made my way back downtown. By the time I arrived, most of the grassy areas were taken. Families with children, tourists, Manhattanites, gays, straights…everywhere. Thank goodness for my yoga mat!!! I set down for the evening and enviously watched the lights of Jersey City across the Hudson River. Even watched a skyscraper there burn. Strange what passes for “entertainment” when there’s nothing to do. Watched amorous couples who were thrilled by the total darkness. Too bad the moon spoiled their fun. When it rose, it was bright as a searchlight, like Cosmo’s moon in “Moonstruck” – absolutely breathtaking. As the night progressed, the air became cooler – too cool, in fact. Thank goodness for my hotel towel – a useful substitute for a blanket. I was set. I ate my “dinner” of Evian and trail mix….and I was suddenly exhausted.

blackout-eriver

Friday, August 15:

At 2:00 am, park employees came by and kicked everyone off the waterfront, shining flashlights at everyone and telling everyone to move on, the park was closed. WHAT???!!!! I was so blown away by the idiocy of it. Where in the hell were these hundreds, if not thousands of people to go???!!! A mass exodus back to the interior of the city…past all the sidewalk sleepers who had been expelled from the hotels due to fire safety regulations…to the parks and greenspaces, where there was more soft grass to lay on – where it felt safe.  How ironic it was that one of the safest places to be that night was Central Park!

News was still hard to come by…mostly rumors passed from someone’s aunt in Philly via cel phone to someone else to someone else to someone else. I needed the real scoop; so I settled down on a sidewalk near the Port Authority in Midtown. A makeshift security guard, hired to watch someone’s shop through the night, had his car radio on. The news channel. I listened for about a half hour. Not good news. Metro North would not be running the next day. My only hope of getting back to Connecticut (and then, back to Dallas) shriveled. I passed out on the sidewalk (again, my soft yoga mat saved me) until about 4 am, when I heard people cheering and clapping. The newscasters said that the lights had come back on in Midtown. LIARS!!!!

I rolled up my mat and decided to take a chance on the news, anyway. I trekked over to Grand Central Terminal, stepping over the mass of sleeping bodies outside the Port Authority – families waiting to catch the first buses in the morning to Jersey. That’s when it hit me how surreal it all was – everyone’s chance to experience homelessness for one night. Bum for a Day!!! Or worse…it was like a massive die-off, with hundreds of bodies lying everywhere. World War III. Armageddon. It gave me the creeps.

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Grand Central was a bust. No electricity, no trains, no activity whatsoever, except for the long lines to the restrooms and payphones. Cel phones were still not working well…the lines jammed. Plus, my cel battery was on the blink; and I had to save any cel time for only the most important calls. I needed to be patient for a few more hours…I might as well get some more sleep. Bryant Park was just down the street. Step over more people, find a (stone) bench, roll out the yoga mat, cover myself with my towel, collapse.

I awoke to yet another surreal experience. The voice of Liz Phair singing…LIVE. Apparently, she had a mini-concert scheduled in the park first thing in the morning. It was either being televised or broadcast on radio; I couldn’t tell which. But her cheerful, folksy voice was welcome after the strangeness of the previous night. People were enthusiastic and cheered her on. It felt like we were WWII GI’s; and she was with the USO. I thought to myself, “They can bring in all these power generators for her concert…but not for lighting in the parks the night before?” Bizarre.

The guy on the bench right next to mine was from upstate New York. As I looked at him, I thought he must have looked handsome 24 hours ago….in his crisp lavender shirt and maybe a burgundy necktie, briefcase in hand, on the way to the office. Now, he just looked pathetic – crumpled shirt, severe case of bed-head (or should I say bench-head?), dark circles under his eyes, exhausted, lost. He had spent the night in Central Park and, like me, had made his way in the wee hours of morning down to Grand Central in hopes that Metro North trains were running…then fell asleep in Bryant Park. I had to break the bad news to him – that they would not be running until probably Saturday. We were both starved; and the remaining trail mix I had just wouldn’t do. I found a little, corner bodega that was selling coffee and pastries left over from Thursday morning. With the line that had formed, it took me 45 minutes to get 2 cups of watered-down coffee and 2 rock-hard Danishes. But I wouldn’t have traded them for Starbucks…they were delicious to 2 starved strangers. We broke bread together, wished each other luck and parted ways – each pursuing our own plan of escape.

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After a hard night on the sidewalks of NYC

I called Mom and Ralph to let them know I survived the night; and that I was okay, not to worry. By this time, I was going home, come Hell or high water. Another important phone call to Linda Ryan, our Gerber Technology travel agent. She would become my lifeline for the next 10 hours. I couldn’t leave my cel phone on because my battery was nearly dead. We had to communicate through voicemails left on my phone in Dallas. She would try one option for me to get home, then leave me a voicemail. I would check my voicemail to find out what the options were, then call her back. She was AWESOME!

Plan A: Wait for the electricity to come on, then for the trains to get organized, then catch Metro North to New Haven. Grab my rental car in New Haven, drive to Hartford, catch my 6:40 pm plane to Dallas. WRONG! No trains would be running today, even if the electricity actually DID come back.

Plan B: Go to the Port Authority to look for a bus to Connecticut. WRONG! “Stay AWAY from the inter-state buses,” warned Linda. They were a mess. If there even WAS a bus to Connecticut, we’d be crammed like sardines onto it. And no one has bathed since Thursday morning. (That included me…and I could barely STAND myself by now!)

Plan C: Limo service to Connecticut. Yeah, right…or maybe a private jet or helicopter. NEXT!

Plan D: Rent a car from Manhattan to New Haven. Drop off the rental car in New Haven and grab my original rental car there. WRONG! No rental cars available in NYC.

Plan E: Rent a car from Hoboken, NJ to New Haven. WRONG! No rental cars available in Hoboken, either.

Plan F: My coworkers Jenni (in Dallas), Walter and Suzanne (both in Jersey) have a plan. Walter, the NY salesman for whom I did the presentation, also got trapped in the city, along with another coworker, Summer. Walter and Summer were able to get back into the Gerber Technology office and spend the night there last night. This morning, they were able to catch a Path train to Suzanne’s house in Hoboken. Walter’s wife was driving down from Connecticut to take him back home. I could catch a ride with them back to New Haven. WRONG! The Path trains were so packed by the time I got the message, that Walter’s wife arrived before I could even get to Jersey. Nice try, though.

Finally, Linda calls me with Plan G…but timing is gonna be close…REALLY close! Find a way to get to the airport in Newark, NJ. A rental car is waiting for me there; but I have to pick it up by noon. (It’s already 10:30.) Having made the trip from NYC to Newark Airport many times in the past, I knew exactly where to catch the airport bus. I run to the corner of 42nd and 8th for the Olympus bus, praying that it is running. It is. (Maybe Plan G will actually work!) They only take cash on the bus. Thank God I saved what little cash I had. I was tempted several times to grab a drink at one of the bars during the night…or buy something to eat for dinner rather than my trail mix; but something told me to save what cash I had. There were no running ATMs; and credit card machines weren’t working, either. Out of cash, out of luck!

I arrive at Newark Liberty International Airport. First stop, ATM for some much-needed cash. Then, I hop in the rental car and speed to the Interstate. Unfortunately, the way around the city was closed; and I was redirected back through Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel. That meant I had to start at the bottom of the island and drive all the way up to the top – some 200-plus city blocks – with no traffic lights working along the way. It added another hour and a half to my trip. I was pretty stressed out by now. I kept doing my yogic breathing…telling myself to “let go”…that if I missed my flight to Dallas, at least I would be in a comfortable hotel in Connecticut…with a BATH!

I finally get through Manhattan and onto I-95 North to Connecticut. But the karma still isn’t good. Traffic is horrific. A normally 1-1/2 to 2-hour trip to New Haven took me over 4 hours…..again, eating away at my time. If I had nails, they’d be chewed up by now. If I smoked, I’d be through a whole carton by now. If I had a bottle of anything ALCOHOLIC in the car? Honey, I’d have pulled off the Interstate by now and headed to the nearest beach and been THROUGH wit’ all o’ this!!!

Thank God for Linda, my travel agent extraordinaire!!! She was so calm and encouraging on the phone:

“Kanani, you’re gonna make it. Don’t worry. I’ve made that drive from New Haven to Hartford many times. If you get the rental car dropped off in New Haven, pick up your original rental car there, and get back on the interstate by 4:30, you’ll be at Bradley Airport by 5:15 – plenty of time before your 6:40 flight.”

“But what if I don’t get out of there by 4:30? Is there a later flight I can take? Or one first thing in the morning?”

“We aren’t even GOING there. You’re gonna be fine.”

Gotta love her. Little did she know that after picking up my original rental car in New Haven, I STILL had to drive back to my hotel in Manchester, CT to get my stuff, pack my suitcase and check out BEFORE heading to Bradley Airport! (I had never checked out of the hotel in Connecticut, under the assumption I was going to return from NYC the same day I ventured out.) That was gonna be at least another 45 minutes added onto my trip. There was NO WAY I’d make it. More yogic breathing. More “letting go”.

And…more karmic “prankstering”. As it turned out, the National Car Rental office was not at the New Haven train station, as I had assumed. It was over a mile away. After several unsuccessful calls to find out where it was, I asked a bus driver, who gave me directions. Made it there. Dropped off the car. WHAT??!! No drop-off service to the train station to pick up my original rental car?! Call a cab. Wait for the cab. Get to the train station. Hop in my original rental car. Drive like a bat outta Hell to Manchester. Pop the trunk, run into the hotel. The Gerber Technology Denmark contingent had just arrived for the 2nd week of training at the Gerber Technology office the following Monday and were checking in at the registration desk. “Hey, you’re back!” they said, in their gorgeous Danish accents. “We heard you were trapped in New York!” Wow…if traffic had traveled HALF as fast as the news of my dilemma had traveled to Copehagen, I’d be home by now.

A quick “Farvel!” to the Danes. Run up to my hotel room. Throw my stuff into the suitcase.  Change out of my sweaty, smelly clothes. No time for a quick shower, damn it. Off to Bradley International Airport.

And as Linda assured me, I made it…but just barely. I was the very last person on the plane…but on the plane, nonetheless. A quick phone call home:

“Hey, I made it. I’m sitting on the plane in Hartford. I’ll be home TONIGHT.”

“I can’t BELIEVE you actually MADE it!” exclaimed Ralph.

I almost didn’t believe it myself. I’m just gonna close my eyes and breathe until I open my eyes on the DFW runway. Open these weary eyes in my OWN car. Open these happy eyes at HOME.

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5 responses to “The New York City Blackout: 10 Years Later

  1. Awesome blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a
    little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress
    or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..
    Any ideas? Bless you!

    • WordPress is a wonderful place to start! Just keep writing…keep the flow going. Write about all that interests you. Read everything you can to observe different styles and methods of writing. And most of all, enjoy it! 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Where were you when this happened?

  3. I was in Atlanta and in the Banking Industry. There was a great concern initially that this was somehow terrorists related. We were unable to communicate in large part through messaging or emails with our Blackberry phones as usual with no immediate insight or updates until sometime thereafter.

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