Wake-up call for the city that never sleeps

New Yorkers revealed their newly developed calm side, improvising and taking charge as the lights went out across town
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The Independent US

For Chet Kerr, a New York litigation lawyer, his leather briefcase is a vital accessory. On Thursday night, as his city and many others across the north-eastern US and south-eastern Canada were brought to a stifling halt by the blackout, he used it as pillow.

"I was at Grand Central trying to get a train and it was clear they were going to be delayed," he said. "There were two or three thousand businessmen there, all in their suits, and we all just lay down there and went to sleep. At around 4am I was able to get on a train back home."

With power restored to most of New York and other affected cities yesterday, New Yorkers could afford to be sanguine about what was possibly the biggest power outage in history, and certainly the most hyped. "People were calm," said Mr Kerr, buying a newspaper and coffee yesterday morning from a midtown deli close to his office. "It was a frustrating experience but people were polite with each other."

As what passes for normal life in New York returned, an inquiry was under way to identify what happened on Thursday afternoon when, just after 4pm, the electricity failed and up to 50 million people were left to manage without lights, air conditioners, phones or public transport. People in Cleveland, Ohio, were still being told to boil drinking water yesterday because of possible contamination of supplies by sewage.

Most experts believe the problem started somewhere in the Midwest, possibly in Ohio, when a power failure triggered a complex cascade of events that shut off the entire grid and closed around 100 power plants with a generating capacity of 61,800MW. "This was essentially a nine-second event," said Michael Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council. "If we've designed the system for this not to happen, how did it happen? I can't answer that question. I am embarrassed."

It is this aspect of the black-out that appears to have concerned people most. While a handful of people suffered terribly - one 59-year-old woman died from a heart attack after climbing 17 flights of stairs - for most it was little more than a nuisance, a "pain in the ass". A number of small businesses, especially restaurants, may have suffered, but few are likely to be wiped out by what happened.

But identifying what precisely went wrong, preventing it from happening again and putting it right before terrorists realise what a soft target the power supply may be, is a priority. President George Bush has ordered the establishment of a joint task force with the Canadian authorities to do just that. Experts said there could be a fuller explanation of what happened and of the order of events by tomorrow.

The power cut of August 2003 will most likely just join the ongoing myth of New York, part of the city's fairytale, a shared fable to be devoured and regurgitated by everyone who makes this place their home. It will become a historical marker in much the same way that the black-outs of 1965 and 1977 have. On Friday evening people were already asking each other: "Where were you when the lights went out?"

At 6am on Friday, Jason, an employee with the city's transportation department, was on the streets, directing the vehicles that were trying to negotiate the Gotham maze without the aid of traffic lights. Fifteen hours later he was still there, a whistle in his hand as he stood at a junction on Fifth Avenue.

"Things are a lot easier now," he said, even though a cab driver had reliably informed The Independent on Sunday that the traffic lights on all the roads below 38th Street were still not working. "Things are moving much more easily. This morning it was pretty chaotic."

In fact, on Friday evening, Manhattan's normally packed and boisterous midtown was pleasantly easy. The usual tourists were out to watch the restored neon vulgarities of Times Square and the television news crews who were using them as a backdrop for their reports, and the usual hawkers were busy selling the usual handbags and watches, but the humid streets were unusually quiet, the partially lit streets close to calm.

On Fifth Avenue, it was hard to make out the normally arresting displays in the windows of Saks department store from the other side of the street while a stretch of West 47th Street, home to the diamond trade, looked like a dark canyon there were so few lights. The white marble face of St Patrick's cathedral glimmered like old silver.

In JC Carney's, an oasis of cool air and dark wood on a warm evening, Michael Kingston was seated at the circular bar with a pint and a copy of the New Yorker. A recent arrival to New York, the Australian student had been on the Upper East Side when the power went off. "People had their car radios on and there were crowds gathered round listening to the press conferences that Bush and [New York Mayor, Michael] Bloomberg were having," he said. "It was all quite friendly but nothing extreme."

After that terrible day two years ago when hijackers flew two airliners into the towers of the World Trade Centre, the benchmark for New Yorkers has been moved for ever. Two days without electricity may have been a bother, a painful insight perhaps into what the people of Baghdad deal with on a daily basis, but it was little more than that.

One newspaper headline yesterday was suitably low key: "Blackout's Greatest Cost May Be Just Inconvenience".

Robert Cooper, a New York police officer, leaning against a traffic barrier with his colleagues on Friday night in Times Square, summed up the general feeling as he shrugged his shoulders. He smiled: "We've got no problems now."

'We'd never seen so many stars'

With gay hunks acting as volunteer traffic cops, a tab running at the candlelit bar and nothing to do but talk, Siobhan Flanagan revelled in Toronto's blackout

Since lipstick, tobacco, and red wine are not electrically powered, I suffered little deprivation during the Great Blackout. I am back online, but two blocks away, clocks are still frozen at 4.14 Thursday afternoon and people are walking up 17 storeys. I'm wondering why a well-placed paper clip could probably jam a grid serving millions. On the radio they're discussing the advantages of windmills.

On Thursday, I swept back to the pre-web, pre-TV, pre-phone era of word-of-mouth. I learned from my neighbour, Sherry, in phrases I would hear repeated, that the blackout covered "the whole Eastern seaboard" and "all the way to Ohio." We only had 24 hours of fresh water and should fill our baths.

Even urban Canadians are haunted by a sense of the wilderness. Emergency supplies are routine. A relaxed queue crowded the corner store. The proprietress demanded a 400 per cent increase of "Five cents, please!" for a book of matches.

In my downtown neighbourhood, the loudest sounds were now voices and footsteps, with the occasional churning overhead of a police helicopter. Children packed the playground. People sat on porches and drank beer, or gathered on sidewalks. Kevin, an accountant, told me the Americans were blaming us. "Because we are the faggy, dopehead peaceniks." US authorities aren't keen on Canadians: we've legalised same-sex marriages, are relaxing marijuana laws and wouldn't join the Iraq war. The swathing blackout vexed mutual resentments.

As darkness fell, through streets lit by slow-moving headlights, I walked to a local bar where I knew an eclectic group would congregate, as we had for 9/11, crucial ice-hockey games, and the TV relay of the Stones at SARSstock.

Round the candlelit bar, we ate free veggie and chicken wraps. Shadowy multitudes passed the window, forced home by foot or out surveying the occasion. We tried to remember if phones needed electricity, ran tabs because cash was short, and told stories of civilians directing traffic. In the gay village, he was a toned hunk in bikini pants, in the financial district a man wearing a tie, down the block he was a civil servant who kept on his cycling helmet. They stood at their intersections with donated food and water at their feet.

Joe, a professor of sociology, intoned: "We're back where we belong, telling stories in the dark, in a non-derivative experience." Behind him, the guys who didn't want to give up their pool were playing in darkness for the spontaneously inaugurated Stevie Wonder Trophy. Lisa, a barmaid, glanced at the black TV screen, which reflected candle flames, and noticed how it resembled footage of some blighted Iraqi town during the war.

Knots of us kept going out to the parking lot to look up at the stars, more dazzling than anyone alive has seen over Toronto. By the time Mars rose, the grid was returning, up the Eastern seaboard to about a block away, and the stars had faded. Mars was still more bright and yellow than we will ever see it again.

Siobhan Flanagan was born in Britain, brought up on three continents, and now works in Toronto as a documentary film-maker. She is currently developing a series, "The Three Passions of Bertrand Russell"