Looting, Riots, and Homicides: America’s Worst Blackouts

The electricity we use daily is often taken for granted. It will always be readily available, we say to ourselves, even though we know that this is obviously not the case. Still, when hurricanes strike or human errors lead to hour-long blackouts, most of us find ourselves with no Plan B in sight, completely incapable of functioning.

People playing cards / New York City Blackout / Blackout relief / Looters break out
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Some blackouts are resolved in a matter of a few minutes, while others darken numerous cities at once and last for hours or even days. In those cases, and especially in cities, people take to the streets and all hell breaks loose. Here are some of the worst power outages in United States history.

1965 – Northeast Blackout

The 9th of November 1965 was an ordinary Tuesday. People went about their day, tending to their chores, when suddenly there was a major disruption in the power supply. It hit the Northeast, leaving more than 30 million residents powerless and helpless.

Commuters gather near Penn Station, trying to figure out ways to get home during a blackout.
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This specific blackout lasted 13 hours and impacted several areas of the Northeastern States, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

The Cause – Human Error

The central cause of this dramatic blackout was simple, human error. Several days before the accident, a protective relay was accidentally set near Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2, Ontario’s Niagara generation station in Queenston.

A darkened New York City during the big power blackout.
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The function of a protective relay is to notice faults or irregular flows of power. When it spots one, it trips a circuit breaker, which then protects from any overload to the electrical circuit. Understandably, protective relays are a crucial component of working with electricity.

It Wasn’t Set High Enough

The reason why this unfortunate incident happened was that a maintenance worker didn’t set the protective relay at a high enough level. Then, in the cold weather of November, a month in which many people use the power to heat and cook in their homes, the overuse proved too much.

People are sleeping on the hotel lobby floor during a blackout.
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An incredible strain was placed on the system, and a surge in power, originating from a generating plant in New York tripped the protective relay that was wrongly set. This sparked a chain of events that deactivated a power line that was headed for Northern Ontario.

In Less Than Five Minutes…

The remaining power flowing to the tripped line was diverted and caused an overload in other lines, tripping each of their relays. Stuck in one place, the power headed into New York State, creating an overload in those lines as well.

Policemen lead commuters through a subway tunnel.
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All of this happened in less than five minutes. Taking everyone by surprise, the blackout affected many citizens in a lot of different ways. Several people were stranded in office buildings, others in subway tunnels, others in trains with no other way to get home.

Criminal Minds

Police officers were the first ones to jump to the various dark scenes. They were instructed to prevent burglary and other criminal activities. Shop owners grew worried, for fear that the darkness and lack of surveillance would bring out the worst in people.

An Albany policeman directs traffic in this city's main intersection after a massive power failure
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Some places were lucky and didn’t lose any power at all, like Brooklyn’s Midwood and New Jersey’s Bergen County. To prevent like this from happening again, several additional procedures were incorporated.

1977 – New York City

By the Hudson River, at 6:47 a.m., a lightning strike on a substation caused one of the largest blackouts in history. Two circuit breakers were tripped, diverting the power to protect the circuit. However, 340,000 electric volts converted to a lower voltage, and the slow upgrade cycle kept the breaker from closing and allowed power to flow again.

A crowd of New Yorkers making their way home during a power outage.
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Then, a second lightning bolt struck, followed by a third. Both caused even more problems. About an hour after the first tripped breakers, New York’s power generator collapsed. Unfortunately, this incident came during a period of economic struggles.

Riots and Looting

Neighborhoods were hit hard, in particular, Bushwick and Crown Heights. Crown Heights had 75 stores to guard, and Bushwick had to deal with sporadic fires throughout the following morning. Approximately 4,500 looters were arrested, and 600 police officers were injured.

Lootersleave a supermarket through a broken window as they carry off their stolen wares.
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Throughout the course of the blackout, pedestrians struggled to cross the streets. Broadway shows ended midway, and many people scrambled to find creative ways of getting home

Millions of Dollars’ Worth of Damage

The power outrage wrecked havoc in the streets. Refrigerators ceased working, and with no power, the food spoiled. Restaurants kept their doors opened and begged people to come in. Many agreed and licked their fingers in the dark.

Civilian Helen Glucroft directing traffic during the blackout.
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With the power out, air conditioning shut down. One could see nothing but the silhouette of the city’s famous buildings like the Empire State Building. But despite all the chaos, some people took to the streets and helped direct traffic.

The Start of Hip Hop?

There is an urban legend that the blackout allowed for several looters to steal precious DJ equipment from electronics shops, giving birth to the hip hop genre. This speculation came from two DJs: Curtis Fisher and DJ Disco Wiz.

During a citywide blackout a group of people sit on the sidewalk and have a party.
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Fisher claimed that when the blackout struck, he and Wiz were playing records, using their equipment in the park when the power went out. They took advantage of the city’s vulnerability and stole a mixing board from one of the shops. Others dismiss this tale as inaccurate. “Blackout ’77 got nothin’ to do with hip-hop . . . Whoever came with that is talking a lot of BS,” Afrika Bambaataa was quoted saying.

Complications for Superman

The outage also caused complications for the people working on the movie Superman who were in the area shooting scenes. Eventually, the city was handed $11 million to pay for all the damages caused by the blackout.

At dawn, the Manhattan skyline shows no lights due to a power blackout.
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The operating groups of the city fully investigated the incident, what caused it, and the actions that could have prevented it. They implemented several changes which are still being assimilated today, in order to guard against a similar event.

Homicide and Mass Arrests

In total, 1,616 shops were severely damaged in looting and rioting. 1,037 fires were tended to, and the largest mass arrest in New York City’s history took place: 3,776 people were put in handcuffs. They were stuffed in overcrowded cells, basements, and other arbitrary holding pens.

A policeman collars a looter as the blackout continues.
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The cost of damages climbed up to a little over $300 million ($1.29 billion today). In addition to all the looting, there was also one recorded homicide. A Brooklyn teen and aspiring mobster by the name of Dominick Ciscone was gunned down in the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens.

Shea Stadium Suspended the Game

The lights at Shea Stadium shut down at approximately 9:30 p.m., in the middle of a game. The New York Mets were up against the Chicago Cubs and at a loss of 2-1. The stadium’s organist played Jingle Bells and White Christmas to try and soothe the mood.

Auxiliary lights and headlights from cars light up Shea Stadium during the blackout.
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Eventually, the game was suspended until further notice. Two months later, on September 16th, it was completed. The Cubs won 5-2. We’re not sure whether the same people who attended the first part of the game were the ones sitting in the stands for the second round.

1982 – West Coast Blackout

The cause of this drastic blackout along the coast of America’s Western states was a high and gusty wind. On December 22nd, this violent wind knocked a key transmission tower, smashing it into a line tower causing, like dominoes, the collapse of three other towers.

A high-angle view of a traffic jam during a blackout.
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Several other problems cropped up when issues in communication stopped instructions from being passed along to other workers. Even the system’s backup plans weren’t of much help because it truly wasn’t designed to handle such a rattling failure.

Homes Were Left in the Dark

The outage left hundreds of thousands of homes with no power. Electricity was cut off in areas south of Oakland as well as in San Jose. ”This is the first time in recent history that we’ve had such a significant outage,” Jan Stewart, a representative of Pacific Gas and Electric, was quoted saying.

People playing a game of cards by candlelight during the blackout.
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Nearly two million businesses and households darkened during the sudden blackout, affecting residents in San Francisco, San Diego and as far as Las Vegas, Nevada. No one had any estimation of how long it was going to last.

One Man Was Killed

One citizen was reported killed after walking into a toppled power line in northern California. Luckily, no other deaths were reported by the San Francisco police. Electric trolleys and buses were put to a halt, sparking chaos among the stranded passengers.

Doctors perform an emergency operation during a blackout.
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The local police reported several purse-snatchings in spots where passengers were stuck. It was hard to see among all the silhouettes, and one couldn’t really identify who was standing in front of them or behind their backs.

They Closed the Golden Gate Bridge

At 4:30 p.m., a vehicle overturned on the Golden Gate Bridge due to heavy wind. The bridge was instantly closed, marking the first time it had shut down because of gusty winds since the year 1951.

The Golden Gate Bridge is closed.
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Commute across the bridge resumed after seven in the evening, with one lane open in each direction. Still, the drive across the bridge was terrifying. “‘You could see the cables swinging as you approached the bridge,” one resident said; ”It looked like a giant harp.”.

Mudslides and Rain

Almost two inches of rain fell, and four to six inches poured down on the mountains outside of LA. Rapid mudslides closed several roads north of the city, and an avalanche in the Sierra Nevada covered part of California’s Highway 50.

Mudslides cover the highway.
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As the turbulence moved east, California posted a warning to Wyoming and New Mexico, as well as to Colorado and southern Montana. People panicked that they might find themselves in the dark for an unknown number of hours.

Glittering Casinos Darkened

The power outage caused a rapid evacuation of Disneyland. The amusement park darkened, as well as the glittering casinos and the rest of Las Vegas’ flashy hotels. The power failure was more or less scattered but affected populated spots from San Diego to as far as Yuma, Arizona.

The Red Cross wagon offers coffee to stranded passengers.
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One spokesman at Disneyland reported that approximately 7,700 visitors had to be escorted from the darkened amusement park by workers with flashlights. Several frightened people were stuck on rides.

1996 – Western North America Blackout

On a hot August day in 1996, during a period of high demand for cooling and electricity, a transmission line failure left four million people across eight West Coast states powerless. The effect was immediate and lasted for several hours.

A passenger waits at his gate during a power outage.
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The power outage was a huge inconvenience. Operated jetways were stuck; however, planes continued to land and take off. Traffic lights didn’t operate, and restaurants struggled with the collapse of their refrigerators.

Small Fires Popped Up

Due to the intense summer heat, many lines overheated and, in some cases, sparked small fires. As for reports of looting and other damages, just a few were recorded. The public was outraged by the improper systems and faulty equipment that contributed to the severity of the event.

K-Mart employee does paperwork by flashlight during a blackout.
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In total, the blackout affected citizens in seven western states, as well as two Canadian provinces, and Baja California, Mexico. Nearly 7.5 million people lost power anywhere from a few minutes to six hours.

1998 – North Central U.S.

In the summer of 1998, on a warm June evening, a lightning storm in Minnesota caused a transmission failure. A line was struck by lightning, and lower voltage lines became overloaded with diverted power.

A police officer directs traffic during a power outage.
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Soon after, another lightning bolt struck a second line. The transmission line disconnections went on until the whole northern Midwest was disconnected from the Eastern grid, creating three isolated, powerless “islands.” 52,000 went without electricity for up to 19 hours.

2003 – Northeast Blackout

The 2003 blackout in the Northeast is considered the second most dramatic and widespread blackout in the history of power outages. Significantly larger than the incident in 1965 this outage affected a whopping 45 million people across eight states.

Cars head over the Brooklyn Bridge beside a blacked-out New York City skyline.
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The cause? A software bug at FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. Overloaded transmission lines struck untrimmed trees, and the alarm, which was supposed to go off, didn’t sound any warnings to maintenance workers.

Strained Phone Services

The drawback was a manageable issue that unfortunately spiraled into a severe problem. Several states were affected, including Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut. Several essential services operated, but others miserably failed.

During the blackout, stranded travelers, try to keep cool in Grand Central Terminal.
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Due to the overload in calls, phone services took a serious blow. It was also reported that Detroit lost water pressure and still kept a water boiling advisory for nearly a week after the power was restored. New York’s sewage water spilled into waterways, forcing several beaches to close down.

2011 – Southwest Blackout

The 2011 blackout is considered the most widespread power outage in California’s history. It happened mostly because of California’s dependence on Arizona’s power imports. At the end of the scorching summer of 2011, the weather caused the state’s engineering schedule to clash with planned outages.

Downtown is dark after a massive blackout hit Southern California.
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The grid was now vulnerable to one technician’s innocent mistake. After switching major equipment, the power collapsed for about 12 hours, leaving 2.7 million Americans puzzled and frantic. The impact was devastating.

Restaurants Threw Away Millions of Dollars’ Worth of Food

Restaurants and grocery stores suffered the hardest blows. Due to the lengthy period of time the power was out, they had to throw away produce worth an estimated $12 to $18 million.

Neighbors in San Clemente gather around a bonfire, coping with the blackout with cold beers.
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Many sewage pumping stations also collapsed, causing a stream of unsafe water in many locations. Since this unfortunate incident, diesel generators have been installed at five pumping stations.

2012 – The Derecho Blackout

In June of 2012, a derecho stormed in and affected larges parts of America’s Midwestern states. A derecho is defined as a widespread and long-lasting type of storm. It’s characterized by a series of thunderstorms that can often cause hurricane winds, flash floods, and violent tornadoes.

Power outage darkens the city at night.
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The resulting damage of this specific derecho caused 4.2 million residents across 11 states to lose power. In some spots, it took between seven to ten days to restore the power. The states most affected were West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey.

2012 – Hurricane Sandy

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy, one of the most disastrous hurricanes to hit North America, impacted 24 states, including Maine, Michigan, New York, Florida, New Jersey, and Maine. New York was hit the hardest, with subway lines having to close down and dangerous, flooding streets.

A darkened Flatiron Building over an empty street while Manhattan is still in a blackout.
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Tragically, some people had to live with no electricity for nearly two weeks. The damage inflicted on New York alone is estimated to have been at around $18 million, and around $65 billion including the rest of the inflicted states.

How Did Hurricane Sandy Form?

In the fall of 2012, a tropical depression formed off the northeast coast of Nicaragua. It gradually strengthened, and after two days, it became a Category 1 hurricane that was heading northeast.

Two people duck a gust of wind along Brooklyn Heights' Promenade.
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It crossed over Haiti, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. Haiti was flooded with rain, setting off streams of deadly mudslides that took the lives of approximately 50 people. On October 26th, the hurricane reached Cuba and Puerto Rico, tearing down the city of Santiago de Cuba.

The Wide-Reaching Storm Progressed

Hurricane Sandy progressed all the way up the East Coast. It swirled several hundred miles offshore bringing insane amounts of rain ashore. Roads were flooded in the Outer Banks.

Park Choul waits behind the counter in his deli lit by flashlights following Superstorm Sandy.
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The wide-reaching hurricane crossed over New Jersey, creating more havoc. Then, a smaller storm to the north of Hurricane Sandy gravitated towards it, and the combined storm systems began swirling along the coast.

A Frankenstorm

Now a hybrid of two storm systems, Hurricane Sandy was so immense that the news called it a “Frankenstorm.” As it mixed with cooler air, Hurricane Sandy lost its initial structure; however, it retained its gusty winds.

Rising water, caused by Hurricane Sandy, rushes into a subterranean parking garage.
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Eventually, it moved from a Frankenstorm to a Superstorm, an unofficial name given to massive storms that don’t really fit into any specific category. The superstorm hit New York, flooding several areas of the city and paralyzing the subway system.

Over Eight Million People Lost Power

In total, over 8 million people lost power during the storm, and outages lasted for days in some cities, while other areas lived without power for weeks. Blackouts due to Hurricane Sandy reached as far as Michigan.

A full day after
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images

Finally, on October 30th, Sandy began to weaken as it shifted inland before finally slowing down the following day over Pennsylvania. At its peak, Hurricane Sandy covered nearly a quarter of North America.

The Aftermath

Many homes were destroyed all along the East Coast, and it took more than five years to rebuild several of them. Many residents, traumatized by the event, relocated to higher ground. Thousands of citizens were temporarily homeless.

Police tape hangs in front of a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
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Even though the storm wasn’t as powerful as other recorded hurricanes, the fact that much of the continent was unprepared for it led to high levels of damage. More than half a million houses were destroyed in New York and New Jersey.

A Post Sandy Baby Boom

Climate experts predict that hurricanes like Sandy will occur more frequently as the planet warms. They warn that country and state leaders need to prepare for the worst, as we are living in an uncertain world where disaster can strike at any given moment.

Newborns in a hospital nursery.
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Fun Fact: Nine months after Hurricane Sandy struck, hospitals in New Jersey coined the term “Post-Sandy Baby Boom,” after noticing a spike in births nine months after the hurricane dissipated. Some hospitals saw a 35% jump, while others saw 20%.