New York’s Darkest Hours Were Catalysts for Change


Thursday, July 13th was the fortieth anniversary of a dark day—the 1977 electricity blackout that left New York City without power and forever changed the US energy landscape.

The 25-hour collapse began with a series of three lightning strikes and resulted in the domino-effect breakdown of power distribution across the city.

The first lightning strike at Buchannan South substation tripped two circuit breakers. A second lightning strike at Indian Point took transmission lines and the 900 MW nuclear plant off line. The city’s alternate transmission lines quickly became overloaded. Consolidated Edison tried to engage fast-start generation, but the remote start failed. The third lightning strike took out additional transmission lines. Soon thereafter Ravenswood 3, the biggest generator in New York City, shut down. The city plunged into darkness.

The timing of this was ill-fated. Severe economic problems gripped the city that summer, and the Son of Sam murders had placed citizens on edge. According to Wired Magazine, “When the lights went out, New York was in the midst of a financial crisis and teetering at the edge of bankruptcy. The rioting and looting that followed the blackout marked one of the lowest points in New York history.”

By the time the power came back on, arsonists had set more than 1,000 fires and looters had ransacked 1,600 storesaccording to the New York Times. 50 new Pontiacs from a Bronx dealership went missing. A congressional study put the total damage caused by looting and vandalism at $300 million.

As Dr. Massoud Amin states in 77 Problems, a powerful film about the July 1977 incident, he witnessed the best and worst of humanity during that 25-hour period. Amin and his father were trapped in an elevator between floors for several hours. A group of kindhearted individuals helped them pry open the doors and escape, after which they walked home through the fires, looting, and destruction.

But since that day, Amin—now a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering—explains that he has also witnessed policy changes and the development of preventative measures to guard against similar events. The blackout illuminated some of the city’s long-overlooked issues such as racial and economic inequalities and major flaws in the power network. This awareness made improvement possible.

“What comes out of darkness is light. What comes out of chaos is new meaning,” he states in the film. In honor of the 40th anniversary of this pivotal day, we invite you to watch and reflect. DE_bug_web



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