Great Northeast Blackout Hits the United States

Great Northeast Blackout Hits the United States

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On November 9, 1965, the biggest power failure in U.S. While Consolidated Edison struggles to locate the cause and repair the problem, a radio broadcast informs the public about the emergency situation.


A surge of electricity to western New York and Canada touched off a series of power failures and enforced blackouts yesterday that left parts of at least eight states in the Northeast and the Midwest without electricity. The widespread failures provoked the evacuation of office buildings, stranded thousands of commuters and flooded some hospitals with patients suffering in the stifling heat.

In an instant that one utility official called 'ɺ blink-of-the-eye second'' shortly after 4 p.m., the grid that distributes electricity to the eastern United States became overloaded. As circuit breakers tripped at generating stations from New York to Michigan and into Canada, millions of people were instantly caught up in the largest blackout in American history.

In New York City, power was shut off by officials struggling to head off a wider blackout. Cleveland and Detroit went dark, as did Toronto and sections of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In some areas, the power problems were scattered. The lights remained on in Albany and in Buffalo, but not in nearby suburbs.

Officials worked into the night to put the grid back in operation and restore electric service. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that that the power was back on in parts of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens by 11 p.m. -- but not Manhattan. ''We're certainly not out of the woods yet,'' the mayor said.

He said that New Yorkers should treat today ''like a snow day'' -- listen to the radio and 'ɾxercise your common sense.'' Transit officials said there would be no subway service for the rush hour this morning. Mr. Bloomberg said that he expected the subways to be running eventually today, but that traffic lights might be out of sequence.

''It wouldn't be the worst thing to do to take a day off,'' he said.

The blackout began just after the stock exchanges had closed for the day, a slow summer day of relatively light trading, as thousands of workers were about to head home. Office workers who were still at their desks watched their computer monitors blink off without warning on a hot and hazy afternoon. Soon hospitals and government buildings were switching on backup generators to keep essential equipment operating, and the police were evacuating people trapped in elevators.

Airports throughout the affected states suffered serious disruptions, including the three major airports in the New York metropolitan region, but did not close. Still, delays and cancellations rippled all the way to San Francisco. Federal Aviation Administration officials said the airports in the affected states had switched to emergency power. They said that airliners in the air had not been in danger, although many were rerouted to terminals beyond the blackout.

Thousands of subway passengers in New York City had to be evacuated from tunnels, and commuter trains also came to a halt. Gov. George E. Pataki said that 600 trains were stranded.

Officials said that the cause of the blackout was under investigation but that terrorism did not appear to have played a role. Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, met with his advisers in Washington. But Mayor Bloomberg said that there had been ''no evidence of any terrorism whatsoever.''

President Bush, who was in San Diego yesterday, said he planned to order a review of ''why the cascade was so significant.'' He also said the electrical grid might need to be modernized.

''I have been working with federal officials to make sure the response to this situation was quick and thorough and I believe it has been,'' he told reporters.

The office of the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, initially said the power problems were caused by lightning in New York State but later retracted that. Canadian officials later expressed uncertainty about the exact cause but continued to insist the problem began on the United States side of the border. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the seven nuclear plants in New York and New Jersey and two in the Midwest had shut down automatically when the failure occurred.

Telephone service was disrupted, especially calls to and from cellular phones. Most of the problems, telephone company officials said, had to do with heavy use. Officials said the trouble was compounded by power failures at some cellular transmitters. Cash-dispensing teller machines were also knocked out, so people who did not have cash on hand could not buy flashlights, batteries or other supplies.

The power failure exacted a variety of tolls in Michigan and Ohio, tying up the freeways in Detroit, forcing the cancellation of minor league baseball in Toledo, Ohio, and sending Jennifer M. Granholm, the governor of Michigan, into emergency meetings without the use of lights or computers.

In Times Square in New York, billboards instantly went dark and the city was left without traffic lights and the usual sounds of rush hour. Volunteers directed traffic with mixed success. Some stores in Manhattan closed as cashiers fumbled with registers that no longer toted up purchases. The Metropolitan Museum of Art emptied out, but not before some art lovers had pulled flashlights from backpacks and purses and trained them on paintings.

In a city still jittery from the Sept. 11 terror attack, some people worried as they tried to find their way home. 'ɺll I could think was here we go again -- it's just like Sept. 11,'' said Catherine Donnelly, who works at the New York Stock Exchange.

Mr. Pataki said he had ordered the National Guard to assist state and local authorities, but New York City officials said the Guard's aid was not necessary.

Police officials in the city said they first responded as if the power failure had been the work of terrorists, and with the concern that the city was suddenly vulnerable. Heavily armored officers were sent to likely targets and emergency command operations were begun in every borough.

The officials said that the city was mostly calm in the first hours of the blackout, and that every precinct in the city had moved to control traffic at critical intersections.

By midnight, though, the police reported several incidents of looting and bottle throwing in Lower Manhatan and Brooklyn.

So there was no air conditioning, no television, no computers. There was Times Square without its neon glow and Broadway marquees without their incandescence -- all the shows were canceled. So was the Mets game against the San Francisco Giants at Shea Stadium. And there was a skyline that had never looked quite the way it did last night: the long, long taut strings of the bridges were dark, the red eyes that usually blink at the very top not red, not blinking.

As the lights came back on, officials estimated that 10 percent of the city's households again had power by 10 p.m. About that time, power was also restored in Newark and Buffalo.

''This is a very, very slow deliberate process, and you have to be very careful how you do it, or you will have the whole system fail again,'' said acting superintendent of New York State police, Wayne E. Bennett.

Mr. Bloomberg said the subways had been evacuated safely and that he believed the rescues of people from stuck elevators had gone smoothly. But one woman, after having walked down 18 flights of stairs at a Midtown office building, collapsed and died as passers-by, rescue workers and paramedics tried to save her.

As the afternoon dragged on with no lights and no word on how soon subways and trains might resume service, some hiked home. Others filled bars. A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on East 14th Street near Avenue B gave away ice cream, one scoop to a customer. The Haagen-Dazs shop near Union Square had a ''power outage sale,'' selling cups and cones for $1 apiece.

Drivers, benefiting from suddenly very essential radios, flashed news bulletins to people in the street. ''It's a major grid, and it's out from Toronto to Ohio,'' Sharon Dennis told a throng that had gathered around her green Ford Taurus on West 34th Street shortly before 6 p.m. ''They say they don't know how long it will take to restore power.''

Mr. Pataki declared a state of emergency, and went to the Office of Emergency Management at the state police headquarters in Albany, where he said he would remain until power was restored.

Mr. Pataki reluctantly recalled one of the two major blackouts of the last 40 years in the Northeast -- the 1965 power failure, which left an 80,000-square-mile stretch of the United States and Canada without electricity for as much as 27 hours. ''It wasn't supposed to happen again,'' he said, 'ɺnd it has happened again. And there have to be some tough questions asked as to why.''

The Nov. 9, 1965 blackout began with an overloaded relay at a hydroelectric plant in Ontario. That plunged Toronto into darkness, then Syracuse, then four of the five boroughs of New York City, which had been drawing 300,000 kilowatts from the Niagara Mohawk utility in upstate New York. The lights stayed on in parts of Brooklyn and on Staten Island, because of a generating station that was not knocked out.

On July 14, 1977, lightning hit two Con Edison transmission lines north of New York City, tripping relays that soon shut down power plants in the New York metropolitan area. Parts of the city were dark for more than 25 hours, and there was widespread looting.

Yesterday, the North American Electric Reliability Council, which was set up by the utility industry after the blackouts of 1965 to reduce the likelihood of cascading failures, said that power problems were felt throughout the entire eastern interconnection, which covers most of the country east of the Mississippi River. The South was unaffected by the blackout, the council said.

The council had issued its annual summer reliability assessment of the supply of electricity earlier in the year, concluding that the nation should have adequate resources to meet the demand for power this summer. But it warned of possible problems, particularly around New York City, if extreme weather produced unusually heavy demand.

Phillip G. Harris, who is in charge of the consortium that oversees power distribution from New Jersey to the District of Columbia, said the exact cause of the blackout would not be known for some time. ''We have to get into the forensics of it,'' he said. There was high demand for electricity yesterday, he said, 'ɻut it was not any hotter than we had last year.''

He said that his system had recorded a ''massive outflow'' of power to northern New York or Canada shortly after 4 p.m. He said that the surge overloaded power lines that took themselves out of service.

For people with medical problems, the blackout added another layer of anxiety. Emergency rooms were flooded with patients with heat and heart ailments. At Harlem Hospital, a spokeswoman said that a number of pedestrians had been hit by cars because traffic lights were out.

At Jamaica Hospital in Queens, where even emergency power was lost for several hours, a spokeswoman said that officials there had been denied permission to divert patients to other hospitals.

In neighborhoods where memories of the 1977 blackout linger, yesterday did not bring the sounds of that long-ago evening. This time, there was little looting, officials said, and the grinding of iron store gates being forced up and the shattering of glass was absent.

In Bushwick, the Brooklyn neighborhood that was at the center of the vandalism in 1977, Mario Hernandez, a 44-year-old air-conditioner mechanic, remembered the looting well. ''I got five couches, five TV's, two stereo sets, gold chains, everything you could think of,'' he said yesterday, recalling that hot evening when he was 18. 'ɾven the decent people, the churchgoing people, were taking stuff back then.''

Police officers waited in the 83rd Precinct, on Knickerbocker Avenue. ''So far so good,'' an officer said. ''Nothing out of the ordinary. It's actually quieter than normal.''

East Coast of North America, 1965

At just before five-thirty on 9 th November, the entire area of New York City fell into blackness . The whole area was victim to a complete failure of the power system. Issues began within minutes of the lights coming on. All systems suggested no problems, but that didn’t stop them from “dimming” somewhat. Further investigation revealed an “unusual flow of current” to the north of the site plant’s location.

Shortly after New York went under the cloak of night, the entire eastern seaboard would follow. After that, all power would fail in several south Canada states.

US Investigators would look to a problem with power lines at Niagara Falls, but their Canadian counterparts thought otherwise. They believed the “problem” lay on the United States side of the border. They noticed a “huge surge of electricity, flowing in the opposite direction to the normal flow of that hour!”

An eventual joint US-Canadian investigation would fail to find a satisfactory reason for the blackout. Expert testimony all agreed that it simply “should not have happened!”

When the Aerial Phenomena Research Organisation conducted their own investigation, they revealed some interesting witnesses. The private pilot, Weldon Ross, claimed to have seen a “strange red fireball-type object” hovering in the air. It then began ascending from the huge power lines below him. He witnessed the anomaly a minute or so before the blackouts began while flying to Hancock Field. His statement became verified when Hancock Field employee, Robert Walsh, stated he saw the same object while arranging emergency lighting.

As the years passed, there would eventually be witness testimony to the possibility of UFO involvement in the incidents. Before we look at that, however, and the blackouts that would follow, check out the piece of news footage below.

November, 2019

It's worth noting this most recent cold snap that blanketed the midwest, south and east because it too broke a ton of records mainly because of its unusual timing. Over 400 record November lows were set by mid-month and even broke some set by the Great Norther Cold Front of 1911 — one of the most infamous cold fronts in the books. That front dropped temps some 70 degrees in a matter of hours. One can only imagine how many sinus issues that caused.

Where were you August 14, 2003? The Great Northeast Blackout.

Lost power at work, went home to find we lost power there as well.

My neighbor has a nice generator he bought because of the Y2K hysteria. We ran a couple of extension cords over to power the fridge and a couple lamps. It came in handy for the ice storm of March 2012 as well.

Only real inconvenience was that is was very hot and muggy, and I had no air conditioning. Power was back on late the next day.



Lost power at work, went home to find we lost power there as well.

My neighbor has a nice generator he bought because of the Y2K hysteria. We ran a couple of extension cords over to power the fridge and a couple lamps. It came in handy for the ice storm of March 2012 as well.

Only real inconvenience was that is was very hot and muggy, and I had no air conditioning. Power was back on late the next day.



In an elevator near the top of the Empire State Building, wearing a brand new suit and shoes after taking a day-trip to NYC for a job interview.



Iron Woode

Elite Member

We lost power while I was at my GF's place. I stayed put until after 10PM when traffic was almost non existent. I drove home to my place and went to bed.

There were random parts of London that had power, but most did not. I went to bed and was awakened at 2:00 AM when power was restored.

It appears that Bruce Nuclear was pumping out the power shortly after the blackout started.




Senior member

I thought I saw you on Rte 95 near New Haven

That's exactly what I was doing-the family and I spent a couple of days in VA, a couple of days in DC and was driving home to Massachusetts when the blackout hit.

Red Squirrel

No Lifer

I was helping to paint my sister's basement. Got driven home after we were done and noticed the traffic lights were out, figured it was local to my area, but it just happened right while we were driving.

Sat around home wondering when it would come back, and figured if it does not come back soon we'll just do a BBQ. Found out it was really big and the ETA was pretty far away, at that point they were saying perhaps even days. The fact that it happened in summer made it pretty much a non issue so it was more like meh, this kinda sucks, no TV or anything. Went to bed that night and it came back by next morning.

I think they had disconnected the grid from the south then all was good and we had power. Been a while though so I forget exactly what happened.

John Connor



Platinum Member
Garage Moderator


Diamond Member


Platinum Member

I remember longer blackouts from various storms but not anything on 8/14/2003.

ETA: Now I know why, I wasn't in the affected zone.



I think I was affected by it in Pennsylvania, but I don't really remember it.

Yeah, that image definitely included me. Surprised that I made it so long without my computer!


Golden Member



This 2003 Blackout, is one that should have never happened, there was a Blackout in 1965,
the power companies should have fixed the crappy system by 2003.

In 1965 when the lights went out, my Mom was driving my Sister and myself
home from the Babysitter's, we were on our way Home.
Both my Parent's worked, we had to go to a "babysitters" before and after school.
The Northeast blackout of 1965 was a significant disruption in the supply of electricity on Tuesday, November 9, 1965

Remember the Movie with Doris Day?
Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? is a 1968 American comedy film with Doris Day, directed by Hy Averback. Although it is set in New York City during the infamous Northeast Blackout of 1965,

Going Black: 50 Years Ago the Power Failed Across Northeast United States

Manhattan skyscrapers and apartment buildings are dark shortly after 6 p.m. Nov.9,1965 during New York City's massive blackout.

(TNS) - Subway riders stranded underground. Workers trapped between floors in elevators. Streets packed with honking cars and pedestrians, some panicked, some exhilarated. And illuminating it all, only the light of the November moon.

The Great Northeastern Blackout came at the height of the evening rush hour on Nov. 9, 1965, and plunged tens of millions into darkness across the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada for hours, including New York, Boston and Toronto.

The nation had never seen a power failure of such scope before, and Cold War tensions instantly stoked fears of sabotage. In New York, the nation's communications capital, news organizations including The Associated Press were stymied in finding out what happened and in getting the word out to the public.

The Blackout That Exposed the Flaws in the Grid

On a late Thursday afternoon in the summer of 2003, everything turned off. As this week’s Retro Report video illustrates, in the span of a few minutes, the biggest power outage in United States history brought swaths of the Northeast, the Midwest and Canada to a standstill. Around 50 million people were left without power. In the days and weeks that followed, reporters and investigators raced to pinpoint the source of the outage, while larger questions swirled about the stability of the power grid in the 21st century. Here, a Times reporter who covers energy technology reflects on that day and the changes that resulted.

When the lights went out for 50 million people on Aug. 14, 2003, most of them knew only that they themselves had lost electricity, not that a tightly knit system had been ripped apart all the way from Detroit to Toronto to New York City. Even the people in electric control centers were confused some of those in the Midwest knew the magnitude of the problem only because they were watching CNN, which showed a blacked-out Times Square.

I had been at the Indian Point nuclear plant that morning to report an article about handling nuclear waste. By 4 P.M. I was in southern Westchester in my parents’ kitchen, unplugging the telephone so I could connect it to my laptop modem and file to The Times. As I connected the phone line to the modem, the lights went out.

“Matthew, what have you done?” my mother asked. In daylight, it’s hard to tell that the whole neighborhood has been switched off, but a battery-powered radio tuned to an AM station (then popular — it was still 2003) confirmed that New York City was also dark.

I was soon kicking myself for having left the nuclear plant, where I might have witnessed the complicated series of responses that must be taken in a blackout to avoid a meltdown (as would be demonstrated eight years later in Fukushima, Japan).

Even when the extent of the blackout was clear, the origin was not. In those days, determining the sequence took weeks of tedious forensic work by engineers, who gathered data from recorders at hundreds of locations, and then synchronized them to establish the chronology of what was cause and what was effect. Today more of that data is available in real time.

The engineers determined that the immediate source of the problem was a cluster of lines that had failed in Ohio, unnoticed by local operators, causing electricity to surge into lines that were still open, until those overloaded and led to a cascade.

It was less than two years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and terrorism was on everyone’s mind. For many people, so was New York’s fate in the last big blackout, in July 1977, when rioters had looted and burned hundreds of shops and stores. Some remembered November 1965, when a blackout hit most of the Northeast, and the instant suspicion was a Soviet attack. But it was the spirit of Sept. 11 that prevailed, with remarkable cooperation and patience.

The grid, especially in those days, was opaque even to its operators, and problems became apparent with far too little warning for anything to be done about it. Automatic relays (basically industrial-scale circuit breakers) were programmed to protect equipment, not to ride out any disturbance, and as each one acted, isolating a power line or a transformer, the disturbance got bigger and bigger, until a huge house of cards collapsed. Later investigation showed that some utilities did not realize how prone their relays were to unplugging key components of the system.

But the investigation also showed that there was nothing high tech about the causes. One power company, FirstEnergy, had neglected to trim trees near its high voltage lines, and on hot days, when power demand is high, the metal in those lines gets longer and the lines sag in this case, three of them hit the trees, creating short circuits that took the lines out of service. The regional grid coordinator, the Midwest Independent System Operator, was supposed to have a computer program in place to monitor power flows. A technician had shut it off to upgrade the software, and then gone to lunch without turning it back on, or telling the operators what he had done. The operators themselves were not properly trained.

Neglect and error cause all kinds of problems in industrial operations, but the grid is a bit different, finely balanced and tightly linked, and one bad actor became something like a drunken sailor in a canoe.

Before the blackout, Congress had dithered for years about whether to institute mandatory performance standards for companies on the grid. The blackout settled the question, although the details were far too complicated for the government itself to put into effect. The Energy Department hired a pre-existing voluntary organization, which became the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, to develop consensus standards and then enforce them.

Utilities that had previously checked boxes on forms indicating that they were complying with recommended standards were now audited to see if they were meeting mandatory rules.

And within a few years, the group was issuing fines for the kinds of bad actions that had led to the 2003 blackout: failure to trim trees or to supervise operators, for example. Some fines came after investigations of subsequent blackouts some came as a result of audits.

Thanks to another catastrophe, the Great Recession, work is now well advanced on a system that could substantially reduce the risk of a future large-scale collapse.

The improvements were ideas that engineers had always liked, but had trouble persuading utility executives and public service commissions to pay for. But the 2008 stimulus bill paid for them. It was an investment that could end up being repaid many times over, given the billions of dollars the 2003 blackout cost the economy.

The devices now being deployed, phasor measurement units, sound like something out of “Star Trek. They are nondescript little devices — circuit boards, basically — that monitor a graph called a phasor, which shows the rising and falling voltage, 60 times a second, the alternation of the familiar AC, or alternating current. In normal conditions, with the eastern grid, which stretches from New Orleans to Halifax, that graph should look the same all over.

Among the belated discoveries in the summer of 2003 was that one phasor measurement unit in Cleveland and another in Detroit had started showing differently shaped graphs an hour before the collapse. But neither unit was set up to communicate to a central office they merely provided a post-mortem diagnosis of something that could have saved the patient a lot of grief.

Now 1,000 of the devices are being installed around the United States and Canada, wired together so that each control center can see not only its own territory, but also that of neighbors. Now, if the electrons dancing back and forth 60 times a second in Cleveland start to get out of step with the ones in Detroit, operators all over the Eastern United States will know it soon enough to take action.

This is not to say that more blackouts are impossible this week, government and utility officials are holding a drill to simulate a cyberattack on the grid. As Dr. Deepakraj M. Divan, then the chief executive of a grid equipment company called Soft Switching Technologies, put it at a hearing shortly after the blackout, “I can report that the laws of physics still work, and I’m afraid they will continue to work, to our detriment, until we do something.”

This week’s Retro Report is the 19th in a documentary series. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton, a former “60 Minutes” producer. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. The videos are typically 10 to 14 minutes long.

When was the last major blackout?

Share All sharing options for: It's been more than 100 days and Puerto Rico is still in the longest blackout in US history. Hundreds of thousands of Americans across Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands rang in the new year in darkness, still mired in the longest blackout in US history.

One may also ask, how long did the blackout of 1965 last? 13 hours

Likewise, what was the worst blackout in the United States?

  • No. The Great Northeast Blackout (1965) On Nov.
  • No. New York City Blackout (1977) On July 13, 1977, a lightning bolt caused a power outage at the Indian Point nuclear generating plant in New York City.
  • No. West Coast Blackout (1982)
  • No. Northeast Blackout (2003)
  • No. Mid-Atlantic and Midwest Derecho Blackout (2012)

Has NYC ever had a blackout?

New York City may be known as the city that never sleeps, but that doesn't mean it can't go dark. On Saturday, a Con Edison power failure resulted in a blackout that affected 72,000 customers in the heart of Manhattan. But the five-hour blackout was not the first to hit the city, nor was it the biggest.

August 2003 Blackout

For more information go to the US Department of Energy or the Natural Resources Canada websites.

Statements & Comments

  • Public comment period open until 5:00 PM, June 29, 2006 on Draft Report on Implementation of the U.S.-Canada Power System Outage Task Force Recommendations. Public comments can be submitted to [email protected]
  • April 5, 2004 - Secretary Abraham Releases Statement on Final Blackout Report . January 12, 2004 - This Excel file is a summary of all comments and recommendations received by DOE on the Blackout Report via email and the Blackout Forum as of 1-12-04.
  • Industry Technical Conference on August 14 Blackout Transcript 12-16-03 . December 16, 2003 - This Excel file is a summary of all comments submitted at the 12-16-03 meeting.

What Happened?

August 14 and 15, 2003 - The northeastern U.S. and southern Canada suffered the worst power blackout in history. Areas affected extended from New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey west to Michigan, and from Ohio north to Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario. Approximately 50 million customers were impacted, and the economic costs will be staggering.

The outage in the news

North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) press releases: a history of the event

How Did the Northeast of America Go Dark During 1965?

On 9 November 1965 over 80,000 square miles of the North East United States, plus Toronto and Ottawa in Canada, were plunged into darkness when a transmission line near Ontario caused a succession of power outages. Over 30 million people were affected.

A map of the states and provinces affected not all areas within the political boundaries were blacked out. Image Credit 08OceanBeach SD / Commons.


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