“Here we go again,” an African-American woman said to her friend on Park Avenue. The memory of Sept. 11, 2001, is so much a part of every New Yorker’s life that no further explanation was needed. We had been through this kind of thing before.
“You know what, I’m not afraid,” a young Irish woman working in the foyer of the Fitzpatrick Manhattan Hotel on East 55th Street said. “If the lights stay out all night, I’m not afraid. All these terrorist warnings and color alerts don’t frighten me anymore. Look at the people outside – they’re helping each other. New Yorkers have so much spirit. It’s amazing.”
Inside the Fitzpatrick, candles had been lit and the bar was open. The customers voiced their resolve not to worry and, indeed, the atmosphere was almost festive. Like everyone else in the city they had no clear idea of how it had happened or how long it would last, but they weren’t going to worry about it excessively either.
In the first hour of the power cut the city’s emergency services responded only to the most pressing calls. That left hundreds of intersections without traffic cops.
Incredibly, ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to keep the traffic flowing, and by all accounts they did exemplary jobs.
On 42nd Street at 5.00 p.m. on Thursday evening the traffic was moving in both directions remarkably well. Passersby openly voiced their surprise and irritation that the police and emergency services were not immediately visible on the streets, but the majority of citizens were preoccupied with the task of making their way home now that public transport had broken down.
The stalled public transport systems afforded a rare snapshot of the city: when all the commuting stops you can actually see how many people are on the island of Manhattan. They came pouring out into the streets from every subway and train station, by the tens of thousands, and although the congestion was almost unprecedented, amazingly enough they all made room for each other on the city sidewalks.
After a long day at work, Irish construction workers had to make their way home on foot over the 59th Street Bridge to Sunnyside, Woodside and other Queens’ neighborhoods. Still in their overalls and complaining loudly and good-naturedly to their friends, they joined the thousands of others who turned the massive tri-level structure into a footbridge.
“This is great, isn’t it?” one of them remarked. “I live in Maspeth. I may get there before midnight.”
In Sunnyside, landmark Irish stores like the Butcher’s Block were closing early.
Noel, the manager, had the foresight to buy a generator, which kept the store running, but he decided to close up shop early just the same.
“Although the ice box was working we had no lights, so we closed early. The generator saved us.”
In Woodside, it was a similar story. The Irish bars were still serving although the pints were getting warmer by the hour. Not that it mattered, though – the pubs were all packed. Candles were lit and people kept arriving.
Niamh Carney of the Matchmaker in Maspeth said: “Outside you really couldn’t see two feet in front of you. But the customers kept coming in. We had a small generator that powered the fans here and we lit candles. We even decided to host a barbeque outside.”
“People kept arriving from the city on foot all night – they stopped in for a pint on the way home. Under the circumstances you just had to make the best of it.”
In Yonkers, there was a similar resolve to just get on with life.
Said James Neilis of Rory Dolan’s bar and restaurant: “The cops were out in force and so the traffic outside was running smoothly. Inside we operated with a limited menu until 9.30 p.m. The grill was working so we had an indoor barbeque going. The bar was packed and we served customers by candlelight. We had a radio in the back and the bartenders kept the customers posted of the latest announcements. But by 10 p.m. it had really gotten too dark to see by, so we had to close up for the night.”
Almost a week later the question that remains is will the lessons of the blackout of 2003 be learned in time to prevent a similar occurrence in the near future?
Industry watchdogs are not optimistic. President Bush said last week that “our grid needs to be modernized . . . and I’ve said so all along.” But Republicans blocked a modest Democratic plan for system upgrades two years ago, calling it “pure demagoguery.”
Senate Republicans have put on ice the only part of the energy plan that had any relevance to the blackout, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposal for an expanded oversight of the transmission system.
So with both sides playing politics, you may be in the dark again before you know it.
And be sure you’re stocked on the candles.