Few things will stir a panicked sense of slipping into the apocalypse like a sudden, swift power failure. The disappearance of energy, modern convenience and air conditioning all at once was shared across 40 blocks of Manhattan on Saturday night, including the dense core of Times Square.
The outage lasted just a few hours but predictably drew reference to New York's 1977 blackout that lasted far longer (two days) and afflicted a far greater portion of the city, triggering waves of vandalism, looting and arson. Eerily enough, they happened on the same date. Unlike the Carter-era blackout caused by lightning strikes, however, this one was pegged to a problem in a 13,000-volt cable. And it didn’t get anywhere near the level of crime — just impromptu street performances by actors turned out of their Broadway houses for the night.
Yet New Yorkers who escaped the great blackout of ’19 unscathed weren’t breathing much easier. Con Edison was predicting more dark time later this week in the face of a sweltering forecast that would strain the electrical grid.
We in New England can relate to the vicissitudes of the utilities. We may not have been wandering amid darkened skyscrapers like extras in a monster-meets-metropolis movie, but we’ve certainly endured that feeling of having the plug pulled inexplicably. One of the most recent memories around here was the October 2017 windstorm that left much of the Merrimack Valley in the dark for days. Some waited four full days for power to come back — a protracted delay that led state regulators to hit National Grid with a $750,000 fine for lack of preparedness and slow response.
If there’s a common thread through all of this, from New York to New England, it’s not so much the shared sense of helplessness that comes with a power outage as it is the attention they bring to the state of our infrastructure.
Con Ed officials were not brooking much criticism of their system, but political leaders and experts alike pointed to the weekend blackout as a warning that we all need to pay much closer attention to the health and resiliency of our grid. It's not just a worry for New York City, either. Even if your lights didn’t flicker last Saturday, you should be concerned all the same.