The New York City blackout of 1977 ran from July 13 to July 14 and plunged the entire city, except southern Queens and areas of the Rockaways, both of which were mainly powered by the Long Island Lighting Company System, into pitch darkness overnight.
It was not the first time that New York had suffered blackouts, not was it the most widely spread, but the 1977 blackout has become infamous for the epidemic of violence, looting and general chaos that came with it and that had not been seen in previous emergencies.
The blackout was the result of a series of lightning strikes hitting various substations and a subsequent catalogue of unfortunate events that made it nearly impossible for the engineers to get the power back online. For a detailed analysis and timeline of the cause of the events, you can see one on Wikipedia, but in short:
- A lightning strike on a substation on the Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers in Westchester County. Faulty maintenance prevented the breakers from re-closing and allowing the power to flow.
- A subsequent lighting strike at Indian Point – the nuclear plant that fed Westchester County – caused two transmission lines to fail, of which only one returned, and the loss of power from the plant. A remote-start on the plant was attempted but failed.
- Yet another lighting strike caused two more transmission lines to fail, with only one re-closing, and a massive overload of power into the remaining lines. As a result, the power provider Con Edison had to reduce the load on another major generator at East River.
- The call came to “shed load” but Con Ed operators and Power Pool operators had different understandings of what that meant. Con Ed intended to gently lower load by a few hundred Mega Watts, PP to suddenly drop load by 1500MW.
- The last major interconnection to upstate NY tripped due to overheating which in turn caused the links in Long Island to overload and the New Jersey interconnections to struggle with their loads.
- A miscommunication caused Long Island to open connections (trying to reduce overloading on their own lines) to try and redirect almost twice the power through the available lines between themselves and the city.
- After trying to protect the system by dropping customers, Con Ed automatically began isolating its self from the ‘outside world’.
- By 9.27pm, Con Ed’s city generators could not produce enough power and the lines feeding into the city were on the verge of collapse. The city’s biggest generator “Big Allis” shut down and the city went black.
The 1977 blackout could not have happened at a more unfortunate time. The United States as a whole was suffering a financial crisis and inner city poverty was endemic. New York was in the middle of a heat wave while also slipping into to panic over the Son of Sam murders. In effect, the blackout was the straw that broke the camels back, very much like the shooting of an unarmed man triggered the London riots last year.
The violence and looting spread across 31 districts. Shops were looted across the city, usually by people from the very same neighbourhood. Fires were widespread. The airports closed for hours. Road tunnels were shut because they couldn’t be ventilated. The cost of the damages was estimated to have reached $300 million by the time order was restored on the 14th.
So what is to be learned from the 1977 blackout? Firstly I would suggest that in times of financial hardship, all it takes is for the power to go off for ONE NIGHT before chaos reigns. This is particularly apparent in built up, heavily populated areas, especially those areas that are in the lower economic brackets. In the UK these days, we have very few areas that are as desperate as central New York in 1977, but they are not unheard of. If we live in these areas it needs to be considered that a night without power could see mass panic in the streets outside our windows.
In nearly all the other respects our society is almost identical to the society of seventies America. Our economy is struggling. Immigration is causing people to become tense in and distanced from their own communities. The concepts of civic and personal responsibility are but memories. Joblessness is always increasing. Crime is increasing. What is going to be the match that lights the blue touchpaper? A (metaphorically inaccurate) blackout?
So. Taking all of this into account, what is to be done in the event of a blackout.