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10 of the Biggest Disasters in the History of New York City Blog Series: The 1977 New York City Blackout

We return this month with our series of the 10 Biggest Disasters in the History of New York City with a look at a local problem that was felt throughout the nation; the 1977 blackout.  The blackout occurred at approximately 9:30 pm on July 13, 1977 and left most of New York City without power for 25 hours.

The 1977 blackout started when a series of lightning strikes from a storm in Westchester County hit a Con Ed substation on the Hudson River, tripping circuit breakers and overloading main transmission lines.  A second lightning strike hit a substation in Yonkers which knocked out two more transmission lines.  Operators from Con Ed tried to reduce the load to preserve power but within an hour of the first lightning strike, New York City’s biggest generator shut down and caused most of the city to lose power.  All of New York City, except neighborhoods in southern Queens that were powered by the Long Island Lighting Company, was left in the dark.

The loss of power throughout most of New York City was bad enough, but the reaction to the blackout throughout the city made matters much worse.  Widespread looting and arson took place as more than 1600 stores were looted and over 1,000 fires were started.  More than 3700 people were arrested in the largest mass arrest in the history of New York City.  In total, the blackout cost the city more than $300 million in damage and it took years for some areas of the city to recover.  As a result of the 1977 blackout, extra safeguards were added to the electrical system and hospitals updated their back-up systems and maintenance to ensure they would have power.

The 1977 blackout showed us how a natural occurrence like lightning can set off a chain of events that leads to a full-scale disaster.  At ServiceMaster Restoration by Complete, we provide storm damage restoration services to help homes and businesses damaged by a storm, including a lightning strike.  We are also ready to help repair damage caused by vandalism for affected homes and businesses.  While the safeguards in place should prevent a large-scale blackout like that in 1977, there is still a chance your property could be affected by these related disasters which is why we are here to help.

Context for the 1977 New York City Blackout

The summer of 1977 was filled with tension throughout New York City.  The “Son of Sam” murderer was still on the loose and causing waves of terror throughout the city and street crime was on the rise.  New York was also affected by the economic downturn that was gripping the nation.  The city itself was particularly affected and was near bankruptcy at the time of the blackout.  That summer, the East Coast was experiencing a significant heat wave that only made the residents more restless.  The combination of these factors is believed to have fueled the extreme reaction to the blackout that occurred throughout the city.

Timeline of the Blackout

The lead up to the blackout started on the evening of July 13, 1977 when lightning hit the Buchanan South substation at 8:37 pm, tripping two circuit breakers.  A second strike caused two transmission lines at the Indian Point Energy Center to go down and overloaded two other transmission lines.  Con Ed attempted a remote start of the power station at 8:45, but the remote start failed at the unmanned station.

Lightning struck again at 8:55, hitting the Sprain Brook substation in Yonkers, NY.  This strike knocked out two main transmission lines and while one of the lines was powered up again, the strain on the system caused other transmission lines to exceed their capacity.  As a result, Con Ed reduced the load on their generator at their facility on the East River.

Con Ed then had to reduce the voltage system wide due to the overloads, starting with a 5% reduction and then an 8% reduction.  However, the overload caused a major interconnection at Leeds substation to trip at 9:19 which caused overloads to the connections to Long Island and New Jersey.  Within the next 5 minutes, Con Ed tried reducing the load by dropping customers from the system and tying to the Long Island Lighting Company system, but another interconnection with New Jersey tripped at 9:29.  As a result, the Con Ed system automatically dropped the overloaded lines, cables, and transformers.

By this time, the three main powerlines to New York City were overloaded and there was still not enough power in the city.  Ravenswood 3, the biggest power generator in New York City, shut down at 9:27.  Within 10 minutes, the entire Con Ed system shut down, leaving New York City in darkness.

Immediate Effects of the Blackout

The effects of the blackout were felt immediately.  Subways had to be shut down, stranding commuters all over the city.  A baseball game between the Mets and Cubs had to be stopped in the sixth inning at Shea Stadium.  New York City television stations went off the air and even banks, stock exchanges, and brokerages on Wall Street had to shut down.

The mayor of New York Abe Beame declared a state of emergency and immediately sent portable generators to hospitals within the city.  He also sent extra firefighters and police officers throughout the city to help keep the peace.  Mayor Beame wasted no time blaming Con Ed for the power failure, citing what he believed to be “gross negligence.”  However, an investigation found the series of lightning strikes to be the root cause of the blackout.

Blackout Looting: Christmas in July

The blackout occurred after many businesses and shops throughout the city had closed for the day, leaving them vulnerable to looting and vandalism.  Widespread looting occurred in 31 neighborhoods as people of all ages took what they could in the mayhem.  Time Magazine described the scene in their July 25, 1977 article “The Blackout: Night of Terror:”

“Roving bands of determined men, women, and even little children wrenched steel shutters and grilles from storefronts with crowbars, shattered plate-glass windows, scooped up everything they could carry, and destroyed what they could not.  First they went for clothing, TV sets, jewelry, liquor; when that was cleaned out, they picked up food, furniture, and drugs.”

Looters even managed to steal new cars from the Ace Pontiac showroom in the Bronx by breaking through the door and starting the cars by putting the ignition wires together.  Others used their vehicles to crash through storefronts or pull the grates away before looting.  Many who looted were then robbed themselves as they walked the streets with their goods.

In all, over 1600 stores were damaged, more than 130 stores were looted, and 45 of them were set on fire.  The Crown Heights and Bushwick neighborhoods of Brooklyn were hit the hardest by the looting.  Around 4,500 looters were arrested.

Arson During the Blackout

Arson was also widespread in the aftermath of the blackout as firefighters responded to 1,037 fires throughout the city.  Fire was set to buildings and vehicles and crowds threw rocks, bottles, and other debris at the firefighters when they arrived on the scene.  Several of the fires set to businesses spread to nearby apartments and homes.  Many of the fires were set as diversions for looters.

Restoring Power and Aftermath

Con Ed began their effort to restore power within an hour of the blackout, but power didn’t start being restored until the morning hours of July 14.  The power first returned in areas of Queens at 7 am on July 14 and by 1:45 pm, power was restored to about half of Con Ed’s customers.  Power was restored to the entire city by 10:39 pm.

During the blackout, an estimated $300 million in damage was done from the looting, vandalism, and fires.  The Carter Administration gave New York City $11 million in aid to help cover the damage.  Many of the businesses that were affected by the looting and destruction during the blackout never recovered.

In the aftermath of the 1977 blackout, changes were made to the electrical system to help prevent major blackouts in the future.  Better monitoring equipment and backup generators were added to safeguard from power failures and hospitals in the city updated their backup systems.  New York City experienced a blackout once again in August 2003 as power went out through much of the northeast U.S.  However, New Yorkers came together during the 2003 blackout and there was very little crime during the 30 hours that the power was out.

Disaster Restoration in Staten Island and Brooklyn, NY

The 1977 blackout in New York City is an example of how a storm can cause a serious issue that leads to a much bigger problem.  Our technicians at ServiceMaster Restoration by Complete are ready to help those who have experienced damage from a storm in Brooklyn and Staten Island, NY with our storm damage restoration services.  Do not hesitate to call our professionals immediately after a storm so we can ensure that your property is restored quickly to its original condition.