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Darkness Falls: Tales From the Blackout

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It was about 4:15 when the power went off and I just assumed that the air conditioners were sucking the life out of our power, so I headed for the fuse box. Damn. Wasn’t a fuse.

Within five minutes, all the neighbors were out, asking each other do you have power? We hung around outside complaining about the humidity and waiting for the buzz and hum of the return of power.


Several minutes later we heard sirens. And then again, coming from another direction. A stream of cars came down our side street, indicating an accident on the main road. Several minutes later and sirens again, coming from elsewhere.

Streetlights must be out, our neighor Rick said. Rick, a retired policeman, turned on his police scanner. He listened quietly on his front lawn for a few minutes and then came running over, breathless. Whole northeast! Even Detroit!

So, what would your first reaction be? Yes, terrorism. We took it in stride, however, and everyone went in to their respective houses to check for candles, batteries and all the necessities.

WABC 770 was the only station I could get on the car radio. Sean Hannity was on the air, taking phone calls from all over and getting on the spot reporting. He reiterated one very important fact over and over. This was not a terrorist attack. Something went wrong upstate, perhaps in Buffalo.

I listened to a stream of on-the-spot reporters detailing all the ways in which New Yorkers were helping each other: sharing cabs; giving rides to strangers; directing traffic and just being patient. Those who still had connections on their cell phones were lending the phones to strangers to make calls to loved ones.

The comparisons to the ’77 blackout in NYC, rife with looting and danger, are inevitable. And so are the comparisons to 9/11. While some of you may cringe or roll your eyes the truth remains; we’ve learned a lot from 9/11.

The city appeared to be in a complete state of calm. People walked the bridges just as they did on 9/11, in massive throngs of strangers among strangers, sharing the misery of the day.

I think we learned how to cope with both the big and the small, and to take situations like this in stride. It’s as if a fire drill had rung, and everyone went to their proper places and did what they were supposed to and no one pushed or shoved.

Even with thoughts of terrorism still creeping into the back of our minds, we remained calm, if not a little pissed off that it had to happen on such a hot and humid day. Sure, I worried about the ton of meat I had in the freezer, and I worried about elderly relatives and I sort of shuddered remembering what happened after it got dark in New York in 1977, but I still retained my air of complacency. After all, we’ve been through worse things than this. Much. much worse.

Out here on Long Island, we mostly went on with our day, while keeping an ear tuned to the radio. The kids stayed in the pool until almost nightfall. We ordered pizza (thank goodness for gas-powered ovens), drank a few beers and waited for some good news.

As darkness approached, we headed across the street to my parents house, where my sister and her husband had already decided to camp out for a while. We listened to the Yankee game on the radio and read, talked and played games and told spooky stories and made spooky faces with the flashlight until we had to squint to see each other.

Such darkness. No streetlights, no light residue from the city, no planes streaking across the horizon, no neon or amber waves of sale signs sucking the pitch black from the sky. It was a sight to behold, looking upwards and we all craned our necks and admired the stars because there were more than we had ever seen before.

My son took out his telescope and scanned the sky for Mars. The rest of us laid on the grass and soaked up the scenery. The sky was flooded with constellations we never get to see. We pointed this way and that and looked for more and someone joked that they would go inside and print out a chart of the starts.

We felt lucky to be able to what people in other parts of the country whose sky isn’t saturated with electric lights get to see every night, and as we lay there on the grass scanning the heavens, we let out a collective gasp as a bright shooting star sailed past us.

Eventually the moon made its way over our part of the world, an almost full moon glowing orange and resembling a partly deflated basketball. We sat in silence for a while until the we had to turn our chairs to keep our eyes on the moon and then I realized how late it was.

We took the kids home and waited. We heard that power was coming back on sporadically in parts of New York. We all camped out in the living room, but it was too hot to sleep well. I read by candlelight as the kids slept and woke and slept and woke, each time asking if the electricity was back.

It came back in fits and starts. I would hear the fan start whirring or the cable box click on and we would get all excited and prepare to move ourselves into the bedrooms and cool air and then the hum of electricity would become more like moan and darkness would fall again.

This went on most of the night and we finally fell dead asleep at about five, too exhausted to even care about being hot. When I woke up at seven, the fan was on. I waited, held my breath even, but it seemed to be permanent. We were back.

The first thing I did was not reach for the computer or turn on the tv. I sleepily lumbered into the kitchen and kissed the coffee maker. Welcome back, buddy, I said and hurredly scooped some grounds into the basket in case this was just a tease and I would be submurged into a coffee-less world again.

Now it’s 8am, the coffee is made, the fans are on (we decided to hold off on the air conditioning to be kind to the power plants), my inbox is full and there are stories of the wonderful camraderie of New Yorkers in the paper.

And I’m going back to bed.

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About Michele Catalano

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks for the report from the front lines Michele! Very positive attitude and perspective – we are still at the mercy of our fragile infrastructure.

  • It’s nice to hear your story. Even here in California, I was really worried about all the people I know in New York. I was hoping everyone was okay.

  • I’ve been sitting the dark and then sunshine sweating since yesterday afternoon here in Toronto. I’m fortunate that I came to the game prepared, with reserves of water, flashlights, candles, a propane camp stove and a hand-cranked radio.

    Parts of the city have power back, and I’ve hopped on my bike to go to one of them obviously.

    I’ve heard that I may not have power back until maybe Monday.

  • Eric Olsen

    I may reconsider my attitude toward survivalists – stay confortable Jim.

  • Wow! I know blackouts stink. Went through a four-day one in Seattle when a transponder blew. But, there was normal life just a few miles away, so we could escape the darkness most of the time. To have an entire grid blow boggles the mind.

    I called friends in NYC last night. Had more luck reaching them on their cell phones than regular ones because so many of us have electricity reliant units. (Me too.) This incident may be another boon for cell phone companies.