Blackout 2003: The Debate We Won't Be Having This Time

On Tuesday November 9, 1965, at 5:30 p.m. New York City fell dark when the Northeast was hit with a massive power failure. Lights went out across 8 states. The blackout was triggered when a relay switch in Toronto failed. Four million homes in the metropolitan area were plunged into darkness. Although the disaster cost the economy of New York City tens of millions of dollars, it is remembered as the "good blackout." Only a small number of stores were looted. Crime in general declined. And New Yorkers celebrated the feeling of good will which pervaded the city. Sociologists afterward attributed the city's good fortune to three main factors. First, shop owners were able to protect their stores because the blackout began before they had closed up for the night. Second, in 1965 the city had not experienced a general blackout before. Most people expected the lights would come back on in a short period of time. Third, the blackout occurred on a cold November evening, the temperature hovering in the mid-forties.

An urban legend arose after the blackout of 1965. It was alleged that the "blackout was responsible for a bumper crop of babies nine months later." It was, according to a website devoted to urban legends, "debunked by J. Richard Udry in 1970, when he showed statistically that the birth rate for the period in question was completely unexceptional."

On July 13, 1977, at 9:35 p.m.--after most businesses had closed and their owners had gone home for the evening-- the lights went out again across New York City and the metropolitan area in a power blackout triggered by a lightning strike. The weather was hot and humid. This disaster would become known as the "bad blackout." While most people remained calm and orderly several communities saw massive looting. The cost in dollars and cents was later estimated at a minimum of $135 million. The psychological toll was far greater as the city wondered why the social order had collapsed. The op ed pages filled with explanations. While some argued that root causes of poverty were to blame, others contended that the "night of the animals," as Midge Decter put it, was a symptom of the general breakdown in law and order and the respect for authority. Most people seemed to share Diane Ravitch's view. She condemned the looters as plain thieves. A Ford Foundation study, Blackout Looting (1979), concluded:

[T]he main cause of the violence was the serious national economic decline that has created exceedingly high levels of unemployment and high prices for food and other necessary goods, and has substantially worsened the living standards of the poor. Prices of food, clothing and rent, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, rose 86 percent from 1967 to 1977. In 1977, the welfare allotment for a family of four in New York City was $129 every two weeks, a rent allowance of up to $218 a month plus food stamps. These figures were based on a standard of need stabilized in 1974. Added to inflation, the national unemployment rate for blacks in general doubled over the past ten-year period, from 7 percent to 14 percent. As a result, unemployment in minority areas skyrocketed. Businesses and manufacturers continued to leave the city; since 1969 the jobs lost amount[ed] to 650,000. In addition, in 1977 the city's Department of Employment estimated black teenage unemployment at almost 70 percent, and Hispanic unemployment at nearly 80 percent. The people arrested that night had unemployment rates far above those who were arrested during the 1960 riots: in some cases they were almost three times as high!

Historian Herbert Gutman compared the blackout looting of 1977 to the Kosher Riots of 1902. President Jimmy Carter opined that the looters were suffering from hunger. The Ford Foundation study emphasized that the looters were not hungry "in the sense that peasants were in the French Revolution.... In a welfare state where basic subsistence is provided to almost everyone, widespread hunger in the literal sense is no longer the issue."

But the Ford Foundation report charged that the looters were indeed suffering from "a more general, spiritual kind of hunger, deeply felt by citizens of the ghetto because they simply lack the goods, the material things, and the power to consume what is so thoroughly emphasized by the media in our society." The authors of the report ended on a grim note, emphasizing the breakdown of the social contract in impoverished communities. "The basic arrangement between society and the individual ... which calls for the individual to accept certain rules and obligations in return for society's protection and guarantees, has worn extremely thin among the poor in general." But they added: "To say [the looters] were simply hoodlums, however, ignores the social and economic realities of urban life which became startlingly visible in the darkness of the night of July 13, 1977."

On August 14, 2003, shortly after 4 p.m., the city was plunged once again into darkness. Eight states and part of Canada were affected by the blackout. There were no reports of mass looting. New York Mayor Bloomberg attributed the model behavior of most citizens to innate New York goodness. The blackout led immediately to questions about the state of the energy infrastructure in the Northeast in particular and in the country generally. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson blamed a handful of large Southern utilities for blocking needed improvements in the national transmission grid, arguing that they had put their private concerns ahead of the public welfare.

No one this time focused on social problems.

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Andrew D. Todd - 7/16/2004


Charles McConnell (revised by Tom Philbin), Audel's Plumbers and Pipefitters' Library, Vol II, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1967, 1977, 1983, 1986, pp. 80, 292

Materials relating to Raymond O. Arsenault's "The End of the Long Hot Summer: Air Conditioning and Southern Culture." (Journal of Southern History, Nov, 1984):
papers deposited by Arsenault.

Newspaper precis of Arsenault.

Review of a more recent book. Quotes a figure of 83 percent air conditioning.

Elizabeth Shove, Notes on comfort, cleanliness and convenience,

Official statistics relating to air conditioning. One limitation of this data is that it does not deal as extensively as might be with differing regional patterns, especially in conjunction with historical time scale.

NYGuy - 8/22/2003

Jesse you write:

“I'd venture a guess that there were other conditions that differentiate the blackout of '77 from this one.”


That is a great guess and the answer may be even more surprising than you might think since dramatic changes have occurred in our city since 1977. What I am about to discuss is in terms of Census data used to identify various racial types in our city which shows NYC is now a predominately a community of peoople of color, with Hispanics and Asians being the fastest growing groups.

First, it should be noted that a whole new generation has sprung up since the 1977 blackout and there is more interaction among this generation with the various racial groups particularly in the work place. .

An interesting New York Times article published in 1996 on NYC contains many of the important changes that have been occurring since the 1950’s and here are some of the highlights:

. “…the influx of foreigners in the city is enhancing its economic vitality and rescuing whole neighborhoods from decline.”

.” Starting in the 1950's, the trend of upper- and middle-class people, especially whites, fleeing the city while the poor flood in has indeed eroded the city's tax base. But that pattern has changed in the last couple of decades. According to the Planning Department's population division, Puerto Ricans and native-born black citizens -- who constituted the greatest wave of newcomers in the postwar decades -- are now leaving the city in proportionately larger numbers than whites. “

“ An especially extraordinary change is taking place in the city's black population, with native-born black residents leaving the city and being replaced by immigrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere. The Planning Department estimates that about 40 percent of the city's black residents are foreign-born or descended from a foreign-born parent.”

“ But immigrants today are increasingly people with skills, entrepreneurial spirit and cohesive family structures who are less inclined to go on welfare or use public housing than current city residents.”

The fastest growing groups are Hispanics and Asians.

Meanwhile the police are doing a greater job with their effective enforcement methods.

And as I quoted in my earlier post the housing situation has improved.

I agree that 9/11 has made us more serious. We were not sure if this was a terrorist action or just a malfunction and I don’t think any one wanted to make the situation more difficult if it was a terrorist attack.

In general I would say there is a more positive attitude in NYC as the citizens recognized the great opportunities NYC and this country offers. Meanwhile, they also have more to lose than in 1977.

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/20/2003

NYGuy makes some valid points here. Also, although I'm not a New Yorker (I'm in Kent, Ohio, which wasn't blacked out, although pretty much every surrounding community was), I'd venture a guess that there were other conditions that differentiate the blackout of '77 from this one. In 1977, the lights went out at about 9:30 PM. From what I understand, the summer of '77 was much hotter than this one, and the city at that time was already in a high state of anxiety due to the city's rampant fiscal problems as well as the "Son of Sam" murders that were taking place at the same time. Perhaps the more sanguinary approach taken by New Yorkers this time around is due in part to 9/11 as well (after all, if people can withstand the kind of traumas that afflicted the city that day, they can certainly withstand the lights going out).

Again, I'm not a New Yorker. NYGuy- do my points have validity?

David Salmanson - 8/20/2003

All the Hawaiians (sp?)I know (say five people total) all adore Spam which seems very odd to almost all mainlanders, although I have an affection for it based on a summer camp breakfast dish I enjoyed as a youth. Jonathan, can you write some more (perhaps even a full HNN piece!) on the role of Spam in Hawaii? Inquiring minds want to know how this happened! Why not canned turkey or some other tinned meat?

David Salmanson - 8/20/2003

All the Hawaiians (sp?)I know (say five people total) all adore Spam which seems very odd to almost all mainlanders, although I have an affection for it based on a summer camp breakfast dish I enjoyed as a youth. Jonathan, can you write some more (perhaps even a full HNN piece!) on the role of Spam in Hawaii? Inquiring minds want to know how this happened! Why not canned turkey or some other tinned meat?

NYGuy - 8/19/2003


You make good points on the police and the impact of 9/11. I was part of all three blackouts and in this last one people were all aware of what happened in 9/11 and they did have concerns.

I think another important difference was that this blackout happened at 4:11 PM in the summer while the other blackouts occurred during the winter when it was dark. As a result we had close to 4 hours to understand what was happening. In addition, most New Yorkers were at work and could walk to get home during daylight hours. Those who could not get home were seen enjoying a few drinks at those bars or restaurants that were able to remain open. And as usual Nyer’s just accepted that they had to make the best they could out of a difficult situation.

Housing also played an important role. Here is a quote from Mayor Bloomberg’s press release on housing.

“The 2002 survey shows that the City has improved housing conditions,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Twenty years ago, few people viewing the devastated neighborhoods of Harlem, the South Bronx, and Central Brooklyn could imagine the renaissance these neighborhoods have experienced.”

As a result New Yorkers have a greater investment in their communities and don’t want to tear them down.

Improved job opportunities over the years helped all groups to improve their conditions and now they have more to lose then in years past.

And, of course with the influx of immigrants who have come to this city there is less interest in destroying the opportunities that they came to this country to seek.

This is too short a comment to do full justice to the changes in NYC, but for those who are interested search for “NYC Census” on the internet to get more details on the major changes in NYC.

But, the more I think about it, I believe the long hours of daylight provided a calmer atmosphere on the streets.

Andrew Todd - 8/19/2003

Practically speaking, the recurrent electric power crises of
the last couple of years are air-conditioning crises. Air
conditioning is not only a significant component of total
electric energy consumption-- it takes the lion's share of
peaking demand as well. The size and scale of the electric power
generation and distribution industry is governed by peaking
demand, not average consumption. The utilities have to build
capacity which will be used only on the hottest day in August, so
to speak.
The conventional air conditioners in general use are
grossly inefficient, largely because they are not designed
as organic components of the buildings they are installed
in. Most Americans insist on air conditioning, but this
insistence has not made itself generally felt in building codes.
The result is a vast number of extremely inefficient window
air conditioners. A geothermal heat pump-- that is, an air
conditioner with a thermal connection to the subsoil-- can
typically reduce air conditioning load by a factor of five or
ten, eliminating it for all practical purposes. To take an
analogous case, compulsory indoor plumbing means that we do
not have people emptying chamber pots out of upper story
windows. On the eve of the current energy crisis, the payback
period for a geothermal heat pump was approximately ten years,
depending on assumptions. That is sufficient to secure gradual,
but not rapid, adoption. Rapid adoption seems to require a
payback period of a year or so.
Air conditioning exhibits positive feedback. Once people
start using air conditioning, they lose their heat
acclimatization. The result is that they need more air
conditioning, so as to avoid exposure to the heat. As a rough
index, the percentage of households with central air conditioning
has approximately doubled in the last twenty years. The electric
load required to power conventional air conditioners varies
approximately as the square of the difference between the outdoor
temperature and the desired indoor temperature. Because the
national air conditioning system has been going haywire, it has
thrown increasingly unbalanced load on the electrical system
until the electrical system reached breaking point. There
are technical solutions, of course, such as geothermal
cooling, but these require that one go back and rethink the
particular technological system instead of mindlessly trying
to expand it. I think that on the evidence, both Democratic
governor Grey Davis of California and Republican president
George W. Bush qualify as mindless expanders. Both are
committed to giant bureaucratic solutions of escalating expense,
and progressively totalitarian propensities-- it is a mere matter
of detail that one is socialist and the other, corporate
A long-term solution to the air conditioning--electricity
crisis is going to involve turning our backs on both Davis and
Bush, and the bureaucratic interests they represent; and
reverting back to the household level. It is a matter of urgency
to refit large numbers of buildings for geothermal heating and
cooling, reducing their dependence on large-scale electric
grids, and reducing the peak loads they put on such grids. To
do this, fiscal-political measures can be devised to fit all
political tastes. The net tendency of this refitting will be to
reduce the dependence of the individual on the central
government, as well as his impact on the natural environment.

There is a literature on the social effects of air conditioning
(see notice re Raymond Arsenaut, below). In arsenaultian terms,
one can talk about how air conditioning creates or destroys the
conditions for a crowd, which can become a mob. In these terms,
looking at the 1965 blackout, in november, one must bear in mind
that most buildings were heated by natural gas or oil, According
to McConnell and Philbin, a typical oil burner installation runs
on the gravity feed system, with the oil tank at a higher
elevation than the burner. Likewise, a steam circuit is
self-circulating. One might add that natural gas, of course,
comes out of pressurized gas lines with considerable internal
storage. Northeastern gas supplies might very well have been
pressurized by pumps in Texas, and thereafter fed through
mechanical pressure reduction valves. Typical heating systems
did not depend on the electrical supply, with no electric pumps
or controls to fail, and therefore an electric power failure in
the cold season would not tend to drive people into the streets--
or, for that matter, into bed.
About the same time, however, the Kerner Commission had noted
the role of temperature in riots, i.e.. the numbers of tough
young men hanging out on the streets because of the heat wave,
cheerfully scuffling with each other like so many musketeers, and
ready for any adventure. People like Herbert Gutman, Jimmy
Carter, etc. no doubt perceived the looting in the 1977 as an
"outlier" of the riots, with much the same causes. In the late
seventies, something like half of all households had air
conditioning, with a heavy concentration in the south, and
naturally, the incidence in northeastern slums was much lower. A
reasonable "guesstimate" might be something like ten percent or
less. Air conditioning still did not tend to interfere with the
formation of street corner society, a la _Talley's Corner_.
By the present time, air conditioning has effectively reached
demographic totality. Practically everyone has air conditioning,
even if the areas cooled are still expanding. Used air
conditioners are extremely inexpensive, and attempts of utility
companies to enforce payment for electricity in slums tend to
shade off into the futilities of counterinsurgency warfare. In
the kind of urban neighborhood where the local kids view it as
natural to throw rocks at the electric company man, electricity
is effectively free, and so is air conditioning. This is of
course why the electric utilities serving the big northeastern
cities have the highest rates in the country.
Now, when people are accustomed to air conditioning, they
fail to build up a heat tolerance over the summer. When the air
conditioning goes off, they are mostly just enervated. They want
to lie still and not do much of anything. And that is how it
turned out.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/19/2003

Well, here in Hawai'i, when the dockworkers got locked out last year (Hawai'i gets 95+% of its supplies by boat), people were stocking up on rice, spam and toilet paper. And I think diapers ran pretty low, pretty quickly, too.

David Salmanson - 8/18/2003

Well, 50 million blacked out does make it the largest blackout in US history. Forgetten in these stories is that the '65 and '03 blackouts took down almost the whole Northeast and the latter also included parts of Canada. The '77 blackout made news b/c of the riots.
And the '89 earthquake dominated the news for weeks as did the rolling blackouts in CA, although as planned blackouts they were a somewhat different story.
The people with the better beef about coverage are Detroiters and Clevelanders who suffered far worse consequences of the blackout than did NYers. But sewage leaks and water service shutdowns do not make for the same compelling visuals as all those folks trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on foot.

And btw, my wife pointed out something to me. In the midwest, anytime there is an incident it seems like people line up for gas (one of the news reports showed a near riot at a gas station) here in Philly, people irrationally buy bread and milk (this winter I saw folks buying four or five gallons of milk at a time!) What's the local irrational disaster buy of choice in other parts of the country and why the differences? For example, what do the lay in when the Hurricane's are hitting the Gulf Coast, what do folks do in Denver during the spring snows? etc. etc.

Rex Stetson - 8/18/2003

The real reason for the difference in behavior wasn't socioeconomic- it wasn't high unemployment. It was ineffective police protection. I'm not saying that the two didn't have the same root cause, they may have- bad government, bad policy, etc.
But take a look at the difference between the NYPD of the 1970's ( the NYPD of Serpico, Death Wish, etc.) - who spawned all types of extralegal activity by their ineptitude and corruption and graft- including vigilantism as well as crime! Then compare it to the NYPD of 2003- no one for a moment thought the NYPD would permit rioting or looting- so the good people did not panic, and the bad people did not try to get away with anything.
The full theory, and debunking of counter theory- is available at


Elia Markell - 8/18/2003

You should be careful, Richard. A close reading, even, of your first paragraph might lead some to conclude you actually LONG for some 1977-style riots. (As long as you don't get attacked in them, of course.) I'm sure thats not your really meaning, now, is it?

Josh Greenland - 8/17/2003

I'm wondering why all the big blackouts have happened only in the northeast? Here in California we had serious power outages due to the `89 Loma Prieta quake, and some during our recent power crisis, probably including some caused by Enron cynically ramming power through our grid in a way to cause an outage. But these never seem to be "big" outages in media terms. Maybe an outage isn't "big" unless it hits Manhattan?

Bob - 8/16/2003

I do not pretend to have the definitive explanation for the differences among these three events, but there are two factors that must be considered in explaining Blackout 03. First is the style of policing reintroduced in New York City during the Guiliani administration, and exported to many other cities. This might have inspired habits of obedience to law in that element of the population which might otherwise have engaged in opportunistic looting. One must also consider 9/11. Despite prompt denials by authorities that terrorism was afoot, a substantial segment of the population effected must have suspected and feared otherwise. That would tend, it would seem, to invoke the same spirit of cooperation seen that terrible day. There must be more to it than just this, but no credible explanation could exclude these as factors.

James J. Simonelli - 8/16/2003

The "messages" promoted and "learned" from the 1965, 1977 and now the 2003 Eastern USA black-outs were "made" by the media.

In 1965 when the lights went out so did the media for the most part.

In 1977 when the lights went out once again so did the media.

In 2003 when the lights went out there existed a wide number of venues for getting and sending news and information.
So naturally, the "news" and thus the message would be current and the "current" news went right along with the electricity - what caused it to fail?

I first hand experienced all three black-outs.

In 1965 I was in the gymnasium shower with the rest of the Manhattan College Track Team in Riverdale, New York. An uneventful night of cold food in the cafeteria and no studying.

In 1977 I was leaving, with my family, the local (in Brooklyn) Carvel (ice cream store) with a dozen Flying Saucers. By the time we got home the lights wwent dark and so I told my children they couls eat all the Flying Saucers (ice cream sandwiches) they wanted. We heard car alarms and sirens but we were totally unaffected by any bad deeds.

In 2003 in Wadsworth, Ohio at around 4:00PM our lights glowed, dimmed, got brighter, dimmer and then went out. My brother-in-law said it started at his office around 3:30PM and his office told the workers to go home. The news has yet to be discovered as to the source, cause or reason for the 2003 electric event.
Our power failed for a short time and then was returned. We had power all the remainder of the time while others around and nearby had none.

But the news was and remained "current", as we had none. And that was the news current news, not the social news.


Richard - 8/16/2003

No, it's more like 1965: we're, relatively speaking, in fairly good shape. It's only in contrast to recent years that today looks bad. But if the economy doesn't improve - and I argue that it probably won't - and people are poorer for longer, then, during the next blackout, we may see 1977-style looting.

We make heroes of liars? Quite right - George W. Bush. Moral depravity? Precisely: Bob Livingston, Bob Barr, Newt Gingerich, Strom Thurmond!

marte - 8/16/2003

Hi Seattle-based HNN (at least my e-mails come from Seattle) -- thanx for this article on yesterday's blackout in the area of my home turf. I have nothing stimulating or argumentative to say, so this post isn't going to be very ?interesting?, but I'm just grateful that you're there (or here or wherever the h* in this odd world) and that you offer us a space to say things even when they're not very bright or, yet, "interesting". I'm really looking forward to reading other people's posts on this because I'm still basically just absorbing that it "just now" happened.

Hello, out there?

Carl - 8/16/2003

Well now isn't the economy in bad shape and unemployment high today? How come then there wasn't any looting with this power outage? And somehow in this age of moral depravity and making heros of liars and adulterers New Yorker's are full of "goodness" that somehow didn't exist in 1965 or 1977? Give me a break.

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