It was a bug that no one could see, unless you were looking for it. And even then, the only place you would find it was in computer software.
Yet this little computer bug, on Aug. 14, 2003, knocked out power for 45 million people across eight states — as well as another 10 million in Canada — leaving many parts of the Northeast, including New York City, in the dark.
New York is no stranger to blackouts, of course. There were many at the time who reflected back on another major blackout in July 1977 that resulted in widespread looting causing millions of dollars in damage, and the arrest of nearly 4,000 people.
This blackout was different. Many of the images that spread nationally were of commuters taking to the streets and bridges and walking home — many times snaking through gridlocked cars.
It was a projection of unity, of strength, of laughing in the face of adversity. Sure, there were many problems caused by the blackout — especially commuters who spent hours stranded in powerless subways, or who were forced to sleep on the ground because they had no way home — but as a whole, we found a way to persevere. To borrow an old phrase that’s perfect for summer, turning lemons into lemonade.
Last week, many of us got a reminder of what life is like without electricity. Tropical Storm Isaias wreaked havoc on New York City, and didn’t spare the Bronx at all.
Nearly 30,000 customers lost power in the Bronx, according to Con Edison, noting a “customer” refers to who is being billed, and could reflect entire households or even entire buildings. Hundreds of trees dropped around the city, as did hundreds of lines. Getting out and putting this infrastructure back together again is no small feat.
And it takes time.
No one is saying ConEd and other utilities couldn’t do better. But when some elected officials pound their chests and use words like “atrocious” to describe hardworking people who are out around the clock trying to bring back our much-beloved — and much-needed — electricity, it’s nothing more than theatre, and does nothing in trying to make future response better.
Yes, even an hour without electricity is terrible. We depend on it. We need it. We can’t do many things without it, including for a few, actually living.
But all of us were kids at one time, and had a parent or an adult demand we clean our room before we go out and play. After complaining and crying, we find that it probably took us no more than an hour to actually clean it.
Yet, imagine if you were then asked to clean all the bedrooms of every child in your neighborhood. That’s going to take some time.
We see one or two downed poles and power lines, and we scratch our heads wondering why ConEd can’t swoop in and fix it right away. But we sometimes forget that it isn’t one of two downed lines — it’s hundreds. Maybe even thousands. And yes, it takes time to put it together.
Utilities do need to get better at response. The downtime doesn’t need to be this long. But New York is home to some of the oldest electrical grids in the world. Modernizing it takes cash — and lots of it.
We agree with Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Gov. Andrew Cuomo that infrastructure change is needed. But now let’s see them put their money where their mouths are.