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The International Writers Magazine: Key Moments in New York - From Our Archives

The Blackout of '03
John Richmond
I was in New York City when the power went out that Thursday.  Specifically, I was driving in Queens, heading for Nassau County and looking for a store that would sell me a couple of six-packs of Moosehead beer.  The stuff’s hard to find in the City, so I figured that it might be easier to find out-of-county. 


The afternoon was hot and sunny and I was listening to the guys on sports radio- you know, the ones in the middle of the AM dial.  The station began to break up- almost flickering in and out- but it been doing that for the last two days, so I didn’t really pay it much mind.  Too, the traffic light directly in front of me went out, but- hey- this is New York- you expect these kinds of things to happen. 

It wasn’t until the station went completely dead that I slowly began to put two and two, together.  Quickly, I began channel-surfing on both the AM and FM dial and found nothing.  Every intersection that I arrived at had no functioning traffic lights.  Yes, the thought of terrorism entered the back door of my mind, but remember, I was now in Nassau County where stories- and legends- of fiscal terrorism and financial irresponsibility would make the Taliban accountants seem like divinity students.

After driving for about another ten blocks, I began to entertain a couple of things.  The first was that this might not be just a local outage.  The second was that it was approaching four-thirty on a Friday afternoon.  And the third was given a choice between finding a cold six-pack of Moosehead and extricating myself from the certain impending vehicular chaos that was about to descend onto an already edgy New York metropolitan area, I opted for sobriety and extraction. 

Making my way down the back streets in a way that would have probably gotten me inducted into the “open-field driving hall of fame,” I returned home.  Once I was inside and had the door locked behind me, I turned on the hallway lights- well, at least I tried.  “Oops, remember why you passed on the Moosehead,” my short-term memory reminded me.  “No lights.”

Upstairs, I knew that I could retrieve a bottle of Georgi vodka from the freezer, end my self-imposed minutes of temperance and begin to really think about the lights being out.

Quickly, I took out the bottle - can’t risk spoiling the still frozen meat - grabbed a glass and sat down at the table.  My woman brought out a portable radio and we searched around for a station, for some news.  Finally, we found one and then two and even a third.  Hopping back and forth, we learned that the power was off as far west as Detroit and parts of Toledo as well as in Toronto and Ottawa, Canada.

On all of the stations the possibility of terrorism was being discounted and the ‘blame game’ had begun.  The Americans were blaming the Canadians, the Canadians were blaming the Niagara Mohawk Power Company- the scene of the Blackout of ‘65- Niagara Mohawk was blaming the people in the Midwest, and eventually everyone got around to blaming some stupid tree for falling on the lines somewhere.

“Right!”  I said to her as we sipped vodka from condensing glasses into bodies that were beginning to condense in a similar way.
She laughed.  “What?  You don’t believe them?” she asked.
I looked at her as if she had been the curator of the “real” Warren Report.
“What?” she asked again, uncomfortable and with a touch of anxious defensiveness.
“Do you believe them?” I asked and took another sip.
“I don’t know,” she said shaking her head.  “I don’t know what it could be.  They said it wasn’t terrorism.”
Immediately, I sensed an opening fertile for conversion.  “That’s right, that’s what they said,” I agreed and poured us both another drink.  “Let’s approach it that way - what it is not.”
“Okay,” she said reluctantly and then hesitated before repeating, “What, then, if it’s not terrorism, not a glitch and not a tree falling on some wires?”

I picked up my glass, took a long drink, put it down and sighed before beginning.  “Don’t you find it a little strange that the Department of Homeland Security has reacted to all of this is such an easy-going manner?  I mean, no color code elevation- and nothing from the Pentagon!”
She took a sip of her vodka.  “So what are you saying, then?”
“I’m saying that it was a test.”
“A test?” she echoed, incredulously.
“Of course,” I pressed almost nonchalantly.  “They simulated a terrorist attack on the power infrastructure of the northeast to see how everyone would respond - how everyone would react.”
“You believe that?” she asked.
I nodded in complete certainty.  “I believe it more than the story about nobody knows how it happened or the other story blaming the whole thing on a tree!”
We sat silently for a moment before I continued.
“And,” I emphasized, “I think that everyone from Bush to Bloomberg to Tom Ridge to the governors and mayors of the other states and cities knew ahead of time that it was going to happen.”
“To test us?” she asked, shaking her head.
“Simply and exactly,” I replied and then poured us both another half glass of somewhat less than ice-cold vodka, “to test us.”

© John Richmond Feb 2010

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