New York City blackout of 1977
Learn more about New York City blackout of 1977
Unlike other blackouts that affected the region, namely the Northeast Blackout of 1965 and the 2003 North America blackout, the 1977 blackout was localized to New York City alone and resulted in city-wide looting and other disorder, including arson.
The events leading up to the blackout started at 20:37 (8:37 p.m. EDT) on July 13 with a lightning strike at Buchanan South, a substation on the Hudson River, tripping two circuit breakers in Westchester County. The Buchanan South substation converted the 345,000 volts of electricity from Indian Point to lower voltage for commercial use. Due to a loose locking nut and a planned upgrade that had not taken place, the breaker was not able to reclose and allow power to flow again.
There was more to come after the first lightning strike at 8:37PM EDT, with its loss of two 345,000 volt transmission lines (and subsequent reclose of only one of the lines) and the loss of a 900MW nuclear plant at Indian Point. As a result of these, two other major transmission lines became loaded over their normal limits.
As per procedure Con Edison tried to start fast-start generation at 8:45PM EDT - the only problem was, no one was manning the station and the remote start failed.
Then at 8:55PM EDT there was another lightning strike which took out two additional critical transmission lines, and again only one of the lines was automatically returned to service. This outage of lines from the Sprainbrook substation caused lines that were previously reported to be just over their normal limits now to exceed their long term limits. (Transmission lines typically have three distinct ratings based on their thermal capacity to transport power: Normal, Long-Term and Short-Term Emergency. These ratings allow operators to make decisions on what measures they need to take to reduce the loading if any of the ratings are exceeded, depending upon local or regional rules.)
After this last trip Con Edison had to reduce manually the loading on another local generator at their East River facility due to problems at the plant - exacerbating an already dire situation.
Then at 9:14PM EDT, over thirty minutes from the initial event, the operator initiated a 5% system-wide voltage reduction to try to reduce NYC load and the transfers from upstate. The results were not enough, and they quickly went to 8% voltage reduction. (There are logical steps built into a power system to allow operators control of the voltage. Control of this voltage is critical, and in emergency situations voltage reductions or "brown-outs" are used to reduce demand.)
At 21:19(9:19 PM EDT) the final major interconnection to Upstate NY at Leeds substation tripped due to a thermal overload which caused a 345KV conductor to sag into a tree. This trip now caused the 138 kV links with Long Island to overload, and a major interconnection with PSEG in New Jersey also to load even higher than previously reported. At 9:22PM EDT, LILCO opened its 345,000 volt interconnection to Con Edison in an effort to save its own system.
Finally by 9:24 pm EDT the Con Edison opertor tried but failed to manually shed load. Five minutes later, at 9:29 PM EDT, the Linden 345,000 volt interconnection with New Jersey tripped and the Con Edison system began to automatically "island". (The term island is used in bulk system operations, when load and its supply are isolated from any other load or supply. For example, the state of Texas is essentially an electrical island as a result of not having any AC-interconnection points with the rest of the US grid(s)).
Con Ed, the power provider for New York City and some of Westchester County, could not generate enough power within the city and the three power lines that supplemented the city's power were overtaxed. Just after 21:27 (9:27 PM EDT), the biggest generator in New York City, Ravenswood 3 (also known as Big Allis) in Queens, shut down and with it, all of New York City. (Mahler 2005)
By 21:36 (9:36 PM EDT) the entire Con Edison power system shut-down, almost exactly an hour after the first lightning strike. By 22:26 (10:32 PM EDT) operators were starting a restoration procedure that took over a day to complete.
As a result of the 1977 blackout, the operating entities in New York fully investigated the blackout, its related causes, and the operator actions. They implemented significant changes which are still in effect today to guard against similar events causing another blackout of NYC. Despite these safeguards, there was another blackout in August 2003, caused by events far removed from the bustling streets of NY.
The blackout came at a low point in the city's history, with New York facing a severe financial crisis, and commentators contrasted the event with the good-natured Where were you when the lights went out? atmosphere of 1965. Some pointed to the financial crisis as a root cause of the disorder, others noted the hot July weather. Still others noted that the 1977 blackout came after businesses had closed and their owners went home, while in 1965 the blackout occurred during the day and owners stayed to protect their property.
Looting and vandalism were widespread, hitting thirty-one neighborhoods, including every poor neighborhood in the city. Among the hardest hit were Crown Heights where seventy-five stores on a five-block stretch were looted, and Bushwick where arson was rampant with some 25 fires still burning the next morning. At one point two blocks of Manhattan's Broadway were on fire. Thirty-five blocks of Broadway were destroyed: 134 stores looted, 45 of them torched.
In all, 1,616 stores were damaged in looting and rioting. 1,037 fires were responded to, including 14 multiple-alarm fires. In the largest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were arrested. Many had to be stuffed into overcrowded cells, precinct basements and other makeshift holding pens. A Congressional study estimated that the cost of damages amounted to a little over US$300 million.
Shea Stadium went dark at approximately 9:30 p.m., in the bottom of the sixth inning, with Lenny Randle at bat. The New York Mets were losing 2-1 against the Chicago Cubs. Jane Jarvis, Shea's Queen of Melody, played Jingle Bells and White Christmas. The game was completed on September 16, with the Cubs winning 5-2.
By 1:45 p.m. the next day, service was restored to half of Consolidated Edison's customers, mostly in Staten Island and Queens. It was not until 10:39 p.m. on July 14 that the entire city's power was back online.
Mayor Abe Beame accused Con Ed of "gross negligence" but would eventually feel the effect himself. He finished third in the Democratic primary to Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. Koch would go on to win the mayoral election, due in part to the growing support for the death penalty following the looting.
- According to director Richard Donner, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth mistakenly believed he had caused the blackout by plugging in a spotlight to a lamppost while filming the 1978 film Superman.
- It is widely rumored that the birth rate in New York City went up 35% nine months following the blackout in 1977 (suggesting that people had sexual intercourse during the blackout), but this has not been proven and remains an urban legend (but was nevertheless featured on VH1's I Love the 70s episode for 1977).
 Cultural references
- In a what-if alternate history issue of Conan the Barbarian by Marvel Comics, the blackout is connected to a brief time travel visit of Conan to our times. Peter Parker also makes a cameo.
- Raymond Stantz knocks out New York City's power while investigating a river of slime in Ghostbusters II (1989).
- Coupled with Son of Sam hysteria, the effects of the blackout on New York City are a key theme of the 1999 Spike Lee film Summer of Sam.
- Rapper Pharoahe Monch's 2006 music video "Push" is set in the night of the blackout.
- The Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel Blackout by Keith R.A. DeCandido takes place during the '77 blackout.
 See Also
- Goodman, James (2003) Blackout New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
- Mahler, Jonathan (2005) Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous