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Report from the Blackout of 2003 in New York City

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Report from the Blackout of 2003 in New York City
Stephen Comite MD
Dermatology Online Journal 9(3): 25

Dr Comite practices dermatology in New York City. His report about experiences with the recent blackout in New York City originally appeared on the DermChat-list discussion and are reprinted here for their wider interest.

On Thursday a bit after 4 PM we were seeing patients in my midtown Manhattan office when poof—simultaneously all of the computers crashed, the lights went out and the phones stopped working.

We were able to take care of our patients, and even perform a biopsy using natural sunlight. We had to postpone only one patient who needed his HIV lipodystrophy tuned up with a filler, as the EMLA would have taken too long, and I was anxious to let my staff going home.

We held a quick meeting. My excellent staff quickly then unplugged all of the computers (we were worried about a power surge when the power came back on) and packed out medication perishables, including Botox, in ice, for me to take home. No way to save that days computer data or put the phones on service. A total and complete crash. We hand copied our list of patients for Friday and called them in the morning when we realized we could not open.

One of our patients was able to cell phone a relative in Atlanta, so we were able to obtain some basic information. Most cell phones were not working apparently because of too much demand. Some public phones were working, but there were long lines to use them. Subways were shut down. Buses were way, way overcrowded and stuck in traffic. Cabs would just sit in traffic, too.

Our building then told us we had 15 minutes to clear out before they were shutting down. We grabbed some candles and walked downstairs. Those of us in Manhattan offered to put up anyone who could not get home. I warned my staff about what happened in the 1977 blackout with looting and fires, and told them to get home before dark. Fortunately, the sun sets late this time of year, and with everyone milling around outside, all seemed safe.

The streets were incredibly overcrowded, with pedestrians everywhere and street traffic at a standstill. Everything was orderly, save for the occasional intersection where pedestrians flowed through the lights ignoring the lone auxiliary policeman who tried to stop them. Besides, traffic was not going anywhere. Many bars were open and filled with customers. Most restaurants and retail outlets were closed though I saw one giving away flip-flops to women who desperately needed them. Despite the heat and humidity, spirits were very high. Food trucks were doing great. I got a carvel soft ice cream for dinner. Most vendors did not mark up prices.

Miraculously I found and shared with a stranger an air-conditioned cab. Sadly, we went three blocks in 45 minutes so I had to get out and walk. Walking home with some bags of equipment, I discovered that 15 blocks later, after a turnoff to the bridge, traffic was totally clear. I even got on a double-bus, which amazingly maneuvered around a gridlocked intersection with the passengers in the back of the bus giving directions. The bus was free, and it turns out a patient of mine was sitting right next to where I stood, so we had a nice chat. Most everybody was talking and sharing info.

When I got home, the elevators were, of course, non-functional. I carried my little girl up a zillion flights of stairs. (Those of you whom we have had the pleasure of having over for a visit knows how high up we are, and any of you visiting NYC is welcome to visit and say hello.) Since the stairwells were dark, our building organized some Good-Samaritan guys in great shape to walk up with us carrying flashlights to light the way. Pregnant and elderly people were all over the lobby. Some slept there all night.

Got upstairs with barely enough time to find the one excellent flashlight and light a few candles, change, feed, and put my little girl to sleep before there was no more natural light.

The city night was awesome, with no lights. No computers, no TV, no VCRs. We got our news from my radio Walkman.

My wife, who works downtown, tried to take a ferry home. After she waited on line with a few thousand other people, she found a friend and started to walk home. They stopped for dinner at a Japanese restaurant and were able to have a salad. It took them a while to realize that the restaurant had run out of rice because either the waiters were embarrassed to tell them or could not communicate that, but at least they were able to get some food. We were finally able to communicate by cell phone. Besides walking a whole bunch of miles, she had to walk down and then up a total of about 80 flights. The trip took a mere 6 hours.

A neighbor came by this morning to help out. Realizing that our oven burners were working, we were able to have a very nice breakfast of tea, OJ and French (freedom?) toast. The water was drained by early in the morning since we now know that water goes up building via electricity. Dog owners who live on high floors, just spent the whole day outside so as not to have to up and down the stairs.

So, today, Friday we drove out to the beach since many local areas were not affected by the blackout. Our New York City mayor told us to take the day off and go to the beach, so why argue with this kind of advice. Expressways without traffic lights were actually running well. The large side streets were problematic because without traffic lights, traffic jams would suddenly arise at important intersections. Yet, everything was very careful and orderly, though traffic lights and electricity were functional in some areas, but not working just a few blocks away.

We found lots of areas where power had been quickly restored. We stocked up on more candles, water and flashlight batteries. We found a delicious pizza shop where the pizza was baked in ovens. We ate the superb pizza in daylight with no overhead lights in relative darkness

The beach was wonderful, after all the sunscreen and shade. Yes there are beautiful beaches very close to NYC.

As we were preparing to stay overnight with relatives, we found out that power had been restored in Manhattan. Back to the office where everything was fine. Computers were OK. I turned on our phone system so we could review emergencies as I am covering for another dermatologist as well. Much of Manhattan was closed, but there were lots of retail establishments open.

Historically, but especially after 9-11, New Yorkers have a way of taking adversity in stride. Despite lots of opportunities for trouble, people handled this crisis amazingly well. We had the equivalent of a snow day in the summer.

Steve Comite

New York City

© 2003 Dermatology Online Journal