On this day 50 years ago, New York City and most of the Northeastern United States were plunged into almost complete darkness as the result of the first great power failure in U.S. history – November 9, 1965.
The Northeast blackout of 1965 affected parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey, as well as the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles were left without electricity for up to 13 hours.
The blackout began at the height of rush hour, delaying millions of commuters, trapping 800,000 people in New York’s subways, and stranding thousands more in office buildings, elevators, and trains. Ten thousand National Guardsmen and 5000 off-duty policemen were called into service to prevent looting.
Fortunately, a bright full moon lit up the cloudless sky over the entire blackout area, providing some aid for the millions who were suddenly plunged into darkness.
Power was gradually restored to the blacked-out areas, and by morning power had been restored throughout the Northeast.
Power restoration was uneven. Most generators had no auxiliary power to use for startup. Parts of New York City were repowered by midnight, but the entire city was not returned to normal power until nearly 7am the next day.
Power in western New York was restored in a few hours, thanks to the independent generating plant at Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, which stayed on line throughout the blackout. It provided auxiliary power to restart other generators in the area which, in turn, were used to get all generators in the blackout area going again.
The New York Times was able to produce a ten-page edition for November 10, using the printing presses of a paper outside the affected area in New Jersey. The front page showed a now-famous photograph of the city skyline with its lights out.
In contrast to the wave of looting and other incidents that took place just 12 years later during the New York’s power failure of 1977, only five reports of looting were made in New York City after the 1965 blackout. It was said to be the lowest amount of crime on any night in the city’s history since records were first kept.
The cause of the blackout ultimately was attributed to human error occurring several days before the blackout, when maintenance personnel incorrectly set a protective relay at the Sir Adam Beck power generating Station in Queenston, Ontario.
The following year, seven New York utilities formed the New York Power Pool and created a control center to monitor and coordinate the interchange of power among the interconnected systems.
Other organizations were formed to prevent mistakes and increase robustness in the region’s electric power infrastructure.
When another power failure occurred in New York City in 1977, further refinements were made.
The 2003 Northeast Blackout led to further changes, including the introduction of smart grid technology to minimize both the likelihood and impact of future disturbances.
Yet, in 2015, Crown Publishers released a new book, ‘Lights Out: A Nation Unprepared‘, in which investigative news veteran Ted Koppel asserts that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but probable, that such an attack would be devastating – potentially leaving large portions of the country without power for weeks or months – and that the government agencies charged with the nation’s security are shockingly unprepared to deal with it.