Reflections In A Blackout
August 20 2003
First, the lights flickered, then they went out. Then, they came on again.
Then they went out, for good. August demand for air conditioning overloaded
the circuits, I thought.
© 2003 Creators
The hall was dark as I made my way down to "the nook," the guest studio at
NBC's offices at 30 Rockefeller Center.
I called MSNBC to volunteer a live report from "30 Rock" on the blackout and
what was going on below on 6th Avenue. They said they would get back to me.
But when they called, the phone did not ring. No matter. The blackout was now
an international story, from Detroit to Toronto to Connecticut. Fifty million
had lost power.
My wife and I made our way down a darkened fire escape to emerge onto Sixth
Avenue and walk the 10 blocks to Essex House. The restaurant was not serving,
but we were handed bottles of water before taking the stairs to our room on
the 7th floor. The electronic keys were still working. Then, it was a minibar
dinner of cashews, pretzels, potato chips and a Snickers bar. Junk food was
better than no food.
By morning, electricity was back, but cell phones were still not working and
the planes not flying. There seemed no way out of the Big Apple. But when a
car arrived to transport me to MSNBC, I told the driver to make it D.C. Five
hours later, we were at 400 N. Capitol St. in time for the 6 p.m. show.
Yet during the night previous, as I looked out over the world's greatest city,
suddenly gone dark, the vulnerability of our high-tech nation was transparent
in the blackness that enveloped Central Park and the Upper East and West Side.
Had this blackout lasted another 48 hours, the situation could have
deteriorated with startling speed and gone ugly fast.
For the 8 million living there, food in refrigerators and freezers would have
begun to spoil. With no electricity for stoves or ovens, nothing could have
been cooked. Unless families had dry food on hand, scores of thousands would
have had to go panic-buying at stores, where the shelves would have soon been
With pumping stations shutting down for lack of power, the faucets would no
longer work and the toilets no longer flush.
Looking down on Central Park South the night of that blackout, one saw, in the
glare of the headlights, folks on rollerblades and bicycles. The next morning,
a line of SUVs was at the hotel, picking up passengers and luggage, and headed
for the bridges and tunnels out of Manhattan. If you owned a car and had a
tank of gas, you could make it 300 miles south to where the electricity was
But the lines at the gas pumps were lengthening, and one heard of stations
already charging $10 a gallon.
Hearing the sirens wail all night and wondering – were the cops racing to
rescue trapped subway riders, or save citizens from muggers or looters? – I
thought: If I lived here, Sullivan Law or no Sullivan Law, I would keep a gun
and ammunition in the house.
Yet, unlike 1977, where the rioting and looting started as soon as the lights
went out, this blackout was relatively crime-free. Had it lasted for days,
though, I doubt it would have remained so.
This thought also came to mind: If millions of Americans are angry at having
been deprived of the amenities of life for 24 hours, what must life be like in
Baghdad. There, they have had no power, or power only a few hours a day, in a
nation that has gone through 12 years of sanctions, from which estimates of
the dead run to the hundreds of thousands, with the casualties highest among
the elderly and children under 5. Do they blame us, hate us, for that?
Woodrow Wilson called sanctions the "silent deadly remedy." Their impact is
invariably harshest on the most vulnerable of any society, rarely on the
regime or dictator. And what benefit do we derive from our sanctions on Cuba,
Burma, Iran, North Korea to justify the suffering we cause and to compensate
for the hatred engendered?
The blackout was a wake-up call, the president said. We have to invest scores
of billions of dollars in new power plants and power lines. But the U.S.
government is $455 billion in deficit and over $6 trillion in debt.
Moreover, we are looking at huge new costs for prescription drug coverage for
seniors and perhaps a $300 billion to $600 billion price tag for the
reconstruction of Iraq.
Meanwhile, white-collar jobs, with high wages, are now following blue-collar
jobs overseas, as the world's poor pour into the United States. Virtually
every state is now a mini-California, slashing expenditure or raising taxes.
Now, we are told, we need to enlarge the armed forces to meet our expanding
commitments overseas. Something's got to give.
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