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Back from the Black-out

Some people will say that the black-out was no big deal and for most, it wasn’t but it belied a number of critical issues. Today, less than 24 hours after our electricity was restored (for the record, 28th street between Lexington and 3rd Avenue got its electricity back on Friday at 9:45pm), I am thinking about some of the scenes I witnessed in this historical event. First of all, I was impressed by how cool and collected everyone was. While there are many recollections of the black-out here’s mine. (granted, I’m posting this late but I just finished making sure that everyone was OK on this end and replugging and generally digging under from the madness of the past few days).

Thursday was a regular day at the office… until about 4pm. At a few minutes ’til 4pm, something happened to the lights in our building. I was looking at my computer screen and noticed a slight dim. As I was wondering whether this was due to lack of coffee or a sugar low, or just general dizziness due to too many hours staring at the screen, the lights went out for a few seconds, and every computers went dead. A few seconds later, the power came back up in the building. Across the street, above the building in which our web servers are hosted, a giant cloud of black smoke erupted. It was at that point I realized we had not only lost electricity for a few seconds but were now running on borrowed time. My phone rang. It was my wife calling to tell me that they had lost power in her office. I told her to stay put and that we would talk soon.

Meanwhile, the building fire alarm went off. A message telling us to evacuate the building was streaming through the different alarm system. After making sure that everyone on my team was heading out, I made my way down the 11th flights of stairs, no real big deal. As we got downstairs, I tried to call Amy. Phone signal at that point was already spotty (as thousands, if not millions of cell phone users tried to make similar calls). I sent Amy a text message instead and this would be our primary form of communication over the next few hours. The wonders of text messaging is that their light load tends to trump phone calls, making them easier to carry on overloaded networks. The same is true for most kind of data traffic currently available on either GSM or GPRS service. Based on that idea, I decided to try to get a little news. Everyone was getting a little edgy, especially considering our past experiences with September 11th. The question on everyone’s mind was, of course, whether it was terrorism. We didn’t know. I tried to calm people down by telling them that we could only assume the best for now.

A connection to CNN.com provided a few more details, highlighting the fact that other major cities were under the same kind of conditions. This made us all feel better as it provided some basic deduction that Indian Point, the local nuclear power station, was not the only part to have blown up. After 15-20 minutes, CNN had a full report with the mention that terrorism had been ruled out. With this in mind, and based on the fact that things were not going to be fixed any time soon, I headed for the Ferry landing with a few co-workers. There, people waited patiently to get their tickets. One of the thing I must add in order to explain that kind of behavior is that most of the people now working in the neighborhood I work in (the Pavonia Newport Center in Jersey City) had been relocated there after September 11th. As a result, many of them were actually veterans of that last disaster and realized that the best way to behave was to be calm.

Apparently, that lesson had been lost on some people on the other side of the river. When we arrived to the 38th street Ferry Landing (about 6:30pm), thousands and thousands of people were trying to do the reverse trip into Jersey. Many of them were very unruly and my fellow passengers and I had to fight our way through the crowd to get out of the area. At that point, my best guess estimate is that there were close to 5000 people congregating in the area. Considering the potentially dangerous combination of large crowds and pissed off people, I decided to head back home by the least crowded route. I assumed side streets would be less crowded than main arteries and that the bike path along the west side might be the best way to move south quickly. Within a few minutes I was on 28th street, walking east from the river.

The street was a little eerie. While I have left behind throngs of people, I now found myself in a neighborhood that was completely deserted. For two blocks I walked without bumping into another soul (a glance up and down the avenues showed that people were still congregating north on 34th street and south on 23rd). By the time I made it to 10th avenue, the crowds had returned. There, civilians had stepped in, attempting to replace the traffic lights by directing what could only be described as traffic pandemonium. Every car in every direction wanted to move. Some cars were trying to head the wrong way down streets and avenues. The result was total gridlock. Once again, figuring that I was planning on getting home and wasn’t trying to be particularly heroic, I walked on.

A few minutes later, I was on the corner of 28th street and Lexington. There, only half a block from home, I felt I could contribute and started trying to direct traffic. Let me just say that this little experience (only about 45 minutes worth of work) gave me new respect for traffic cops. First of all, when directing traffic, one realizes that trying to get a car driver to do your bidding, when you’re just a foot soldier, is not as easy as it seems. For starters, cars are bigger than you are. Secondly, car drivers do not really care that much for pedestrians trying to tell them what to do. So a lot of work went into cajoling drivers into doing the right thing. Some did, got out of the intersections, and let traffic through. Others (and I hope Dante has a particularly bad circle of hell built up for those) could not be bothered and had to have their way, gaining no advantage whatsoever by moving in the middle of intersections and blocking traffic coming from main avenues.

Tired from trying to get all this moving (and a little less optimistic about the good nature of drivers), I went home. Amy was waiting for me in the lobby, wondering where I was (she had gotten home a lot faster than me). We went up the dark stairs with a light lent to us by the doorman and, while there was still light out, gathered up candles, matches, flashlights and oil lamps. After doing so, we filled up the bathtubs with water, figuring that water could be going next. We then called our parents and a few friends to reassure them that everything was OK. I asked mom to hit my site (TNL.net) and she told me it was down.

This all took a few hours, during which we brought more candles down to the lobby (due to our recent wedding, and our indecision as to what the proper candle arrangement would be until the last minute, we found ourselves sitting on what could be consider a godsend on blackout day: a large collection of candles) and Amy started to cook stuff that was in the freezer. We left our door open to throw some light in the hallway and, every so often, a neighbor would stop by. We ended up having a massive dinner with one of our neighbors, during which we talked about just about anything but the blackout. One would hardly have known that we were in the middle of a national crisis, save for the fact that a quick glance out the window showed, well not much, it was dark.

Later that night, we went out for a quick walk around the neighborhood. People had pulled out chairs, beers, and candles, and were generally hanging out. The whole neighborhood had a party feel to it. A few bars and restaurants were still open, cooking on barbecues or running through whatever alcohol they had. A few blocks down, a sushi place for offering dollar sushi. To light their little stand, they had parked a car sideways and were using the car headlights. The streets, surprisingly, were more crowded than they are on a regular day as a lot of people must have figured that no light was the perfect excuse to go bar-hopping. Down on 23rd street, National Guardsmen were directing traffic. Along Park avenue, a few buildings (notably the New York Life Building) were running on generator. With this quick observation, we went back home, climbed up the 8 floors and went to bed.

The alarm clock on my Palm can be a very handy thing in a black-out. Just set up wake up as an event, set up the alarm and you’re done. I woke up at 7am on Friday, as usual. The only difference was that the electricity was gone and my paper had not been delivered. Dropping a bucket into the bathtub and using a washcloth, I did my best to take a quick shower over the toilet, using it as a drain. I then put on some clothes and went down to the computer room. The wireless connection from the Wi-Fi station provided by Verizon seemed to be down. My own DSL router was useless too. However, the phone line was working and the battery on my laptop was still good. I got online using a dialup line (for once, AOL picked up on the first ring, probably because very few other people were trying to get online). There, I received an IM from Charles Rawls, who heads Dorsai. He had gotten juice back around 6am and was working on bringing machines back up. One of those was TNL.net and I posted a quick message telling people I was fine. I sent shot a few work-related emails off, just in case I might not be able to reach people again. I also tried to reach a few of the sites we were hosting at work. All of them were responding OK so I knew that things were pretty much under control at the office. However, the site for our US division, the one where I might be able to get some information as to who to contact in the US, was down.

I tried calling my boss, but he wasn’t answering. One of the things we take for granted in this day and age is the ease of accessibility to people. Mobile phones give us direct access. Answering machines give us delayed access. Without electricity, neither is good. Mobile phone towers only store electricity for a few hours, a critical flaw that, hopefully, will be investigated and resolved in the future. Answering machines are pretty useless without electricity. I tried to reach other people at work but no one was available. So I decided I would hike up to corporate headquarters. Walking up, I passed a few restaurants that were serving barbecue-cooked breakfast. I also passed a few banks that had employees sitting around. Stopping by one of them to check on the ATMs, I learned that all ATMs were down, with suspicion that the whole ATM network may be out. This was bad news so I just tried to head straight to headquarters where, if the ATM network was out, people like myself could be of use.

There, I was told that they didn’t have any information, and was given a phone number. I called but it was ringing busy. With nothing to do there, I decided to just head home again. On my way home, I passed a deli stand that was selling the New York Times. I picked up a copy, figuring that I could read that while redialing the business contingency line. Got home and started dialing. After a few hours of redialing, I gave up. A few hours later, my boss, having received email from me, called me and said that things were under control and that the day was going to go on skeleton staff. With no way to get to the office anyway, I figured I would just stay home, which I did.

We read for a while and then started to get hungry. Food in the fridge was starting to spoil so we decided to throw that away. Through the informal network of people chatting on the phone, we’d found out that other parts of town had power. So we headed out in search of electricity, a laptop and two cellphones in a backpack, and hopes that we would find a place with ATMs, electricity and water. As we were walking out on a power-rich part of town (lower 20s on the west side, around 4:30pm), Amy said that we might want to hike up to the upper west side, where her aunt and uncle had power). A quick call and we were up there, enjoying the power of warm showers and available outlets). We then went to get some prepared food at a nearby store and headed back down to our neighborhood late in the evening. There, we sat down with some of our neighbors for dinner. A few minutes before our arrival, power had finally been restored, to the loud cheers of a neighborhood ready to rejoin civilization). With prepared cooked foods and champagne, we celebrated our good fortune, happy to have survived the blackout of 2003.

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