Sleeping in streets, long hours, risky trees Looking back at the Blackout of 2003

Remember Aug. 14, 2003?

A massive power outage that afternoon affected eight U.S. states as well as the province of Ontario, stranding travelers and keeping homes in the dark.

Approximately 40 million people in the U.S. had to deal with an emergency that caused monetary losses estimated at $6 billion.

An investigation in 2004 found that the main cause was an Ohio power plant going offline during high electrical demand, coupled with the FirstEnergy Corporation’s not trimming trees in part of its Ohio service area.

In Hudson County, it took some people seven hours to cross the river from New York to get home from work. Others spent the evening on their porches watching the turmoil.

Restaurants had to deal with food rapidly defrosting on a hot evening, and some hair salons had to cut clients’ hair outside.
Ran down 23 floors
Joan Palmer of Jersey City was working on the 23rd floor of a midtown Manhattan office building when the blackout struck at approximately 4:15 p.m.

Her reaction? She took a cue from 9/11.

“After 9/11, my guard was up over any little thing that [happened],” said Palmer, an executive assistant at a venture capital firm. “So I think what happened was the fire alarm went off, and I started freaking out and ran down 23 floors.”

When she got to the street, Palmer realized it was a blackout. She also realized she couldn’t get back to her home in downtown Jersey City.

Plagued by a limp suffered from breaking her leg in 2001, Palmer found herself making her way to the Upper West Side to stay at a co-worker’s apartment.

“You saw businesspeople that couldn’t get home sleeping in the streets,” Palmer said. “And I just remember when it got dark, it was the strangest feeling. I had never been in New York when it was this dark.”

Palmer made her way back to Jersey City the next day, once the subways were running and cell phones were operational.

But Palmer said looking back five years later, the experience for her was actually “kind of cool being part of history.”

It was the first major blackout in the area since 1977. A whole new day, at night
After the blackout began around 4:15, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner had to start the equivalent of a new workday.

“I remember [the blackout] happened around 4 o’clock that afternoon and I didn’t stop working until 6 a.m. the next morning,” Turner said.

Turner, the mayor of a city of approximately 13,000 residents, also had to be there for the thousands more people who came by NY Waterway ferries from New York to the Weehawken waterfront in order to get home to various parts of New Jersey.

Buses were also running, even with dimmed streetlights. “People passed through Weehawken and it was very difficult time, as much as it was a hot day and they were waiting for hours for a ferry to get across the river,” Turner said. “Our town saw everybody spring to action and provide the best transportation.”

Turner also saw the best in his townspeople helping not only their neighbors, but people coming off the ferry.

The town is now better equipped to handle another blackout, Turner said, with enormous backup generators and upgraded technology for the town’s Office of Emergency Management. Planting shorter trees
Local PSE&G spokesperson Richard Dwyer, who lives with his wife and children in Bayonne, was the man on the scene on 8/15/03.

“Within minutes, I was getting calls from virtually every region of my 82-town coverage area – including from my children,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer said in the five years since that hectic day, the New Jersey utility company has invested millions of dollars to upgrade electrical equipment to improve delivery, and have embarked on an education campaign to promote the planting of trees that do not grow over 35 feet tall on city streets.

He said that trees account for approximately 26 percent of interruptions in electric service.

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