Remembering the blackout of 2003
by Irena Barbara Nagler
From the September, 2019 issue
In June, a semitruck rammed into a power pole on Main St. It knocked a traffic light askew. Many nearby businesses lost power, including the People's Food Co-op, where a sign on the door informed me of the outage.
A few hours later, in an unrelated synchrony, power was lost at the Pittsfield Library, where I was working that evening. When it happens there, it's often because a squirrel has been filing its teeth on wires.
Computers were not affected, only some of the lights. In the twilight ambience, the alarm system spoke to itself in soft intergalactic squeaks. White, vase-like lamps arrayed down the middle of the public area usually remain on during outages. Their reflections seem to continue their linear march through the big windows by the fireplace and on over the wetland outside, a ghostly procession of will-o'-the-wisps above the waters and grasses.
After work, I ran into a friend, Shirrice Roberson, on the bus. She asked me if I remembered the big blackout in 2003. She had been working at a hospital then. Of course I remembered.
The blackout began on August 14, lasting for two days in most areas affected. It resulted from a software bug at FirstEnergy in Akron, Ohio. The problem rendered operators unaware of the need to redistribute a load among transmission lines that had sagged over foliage. The blackout stretched from New York City to Lansing.
"We heard three loud booms then the whine of power going down and up again as backup generators began to operate," Shirrice recalled. "The lighting was dim; computers weren't working. We had to prepare instruments from memory and count them by hand. Employees passed patients' trays from the kitchen, from one to another through hallways and up stairs.
"Outside on a receiving dock, it was eerily quiet; no birdsong, no traffic. We didn't know yet what had happened; some feared there had been an attack; solar flares were mentioned. People wanted to
call home, but we had no cell phone coverage for a while." Generators at cell towers had lost backup power, and batteries could not be recharged.
I was busy getting stuff out of the way for kitchen renovation when the outage hit. My dryer stopped, leaving a load of damp clothes that I had to air dry in various awkward places. Also, I was about to travel to the northern Lower Peninsula, via Kalamazoo, and was not sure the train would run.
I walked into town on an errand on campus, one which I should have realized could not be completed. There were no traffic lights. The sky was rich gold-caramel and had a density of its own in the humid air. The silence generated a sense of spaciousness. The street seemed wider, with silent fields opening up in the suspension of signals transmitting order. The effect was one of an expansive slowing of pace, rather than chaos or panic; a numinous world impressing itself on the familiar.
The Michigan League had a generator. I stopped in the store there for some reason and found a bracelet with amber-colored jewelry almost the color of the sunlight outside.
Despite the inconveniences I had an increasing sense of relaxation that was mirrored by everyone I encountered. In the dark night, neighbors chatted in front of houses and apartments. Mars, at perihelion, was bright in the sky.
In New York, people trapped in the city slept in parks and on stairs, gathered in bars for free food, and had block parties. By all reports, the Humans of New York handled the blackout well.
In my journal I wrote that I almost wished we could periodically do this on purpose, except for places that should have their own generators for crucial reasons; that it might turn out to be a sort of safety valve--or a rehearsal.
Shirrice ended her story of the hospital on that August 14: "I couldn't see my hand inches from my face. We walked out to our parked cars, linking arms and holding hands because it was utterly dark."
On the second day of the blackout, I took a bus instead of a train and joined family in the north. Mars hung gold-red and glowing above a great white dune to the east of Leelanau State Park. On the first night, a blue aurora pulsed and shape-shifted with a subtle majesty and presence, all night long and into the dawn hours: shimmering feathers and curtains, rippling cosmic gauze, electricity.
[Originally published in September, 2019.]
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