Some found bliss in New York’s blackout

New York: The heart of New York was hit on Saturday evening by a massive blackout that darkened Times Square, disrupted Broadway shows, stranded underground metro trains and paralysed traffic. Among the stricken hundred thousand people were media persons who occasionally mock India and other developing countries for their infrastructure problems. The blackout cut a swath through the midtown from the Hudson River on the west to trendy Fifth Avenue and from Madison Square Garden to the Lincoln Centre, blanketing tourist magnets like Times Square and Rockefeller Centre.

About 25,000 fans of Jennifer Lopez were evacuated from her concert at the Madison Square Garden after the third song. Broadway musicals and plays were also cancelled and some artistes took their music to the streets holding impromptu concerts. Chaos prevailed underground where five train lines were affected and thousands of passengers were stranded on the trains and in the stations before a slow evacuation began. Some found bliss in the blackout. They roasted hot dogs on the pavement and cracked open champagne. “I loved the darkness,” one said. In Times Square, the lights had gone out on Broadway about an hour before curtain. Cast members cheered disappointed patrons with impromptu street songs.

Of course, others saw nothing amusing. It was terrifying for passengers briefly trapped in subway cars. The elderly feared that they would not be able to leave apartment buildings because elevators were out of order. By midnight, power was back in Manhattan. Citizen volunteers helped direct traffic at cross-sections after the electric signals failed disrupting vehicles. The CEO of the city's private electricity company told the media that over 73,000 connections were affected. He said that a "significant disturbance" at an electric substation triggered the power failure with the problem cascading to other substations.

Responding to reports of people hearing explosions, he said it was unlikely that there were any. The sounds were probably the massive circuit breakers tripping, he said. New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill at a news conference ruled out "criminality" behind the blackout. City hospitals ran on emergency power and did not have air conditioning during the blackout. Incidentally, Saturday was the 42nd anniversary of the legendary citywide blackout which lasted 25 hours and the city was torn by rioting and looting. The 1977 disaster with the public disorder marked a point of decline of the city that took it several decades to recover from.

The US suffers from ageing infrastructure, especially in older cities like New York. In very hot summer days, it has rolling blackouts in the outer boroughs with the city unable to keep up with the demand. Fires and explosions in the underground conduits for electric and other utilities happen frequently sending manhole covers shooting up and causing blackouts. Such an underground electric utility explosion recently in April in the midtown area injured six people and caused the evacuation of several buildings. Despite the embarrassing reminders of ageing infrastructure, the US media puts an ominous spin when it comes to India or other developing countries. After the 2012 blackout in India, The New York Times wrote disparagingly, "For a country considered a rising economic power, Blackout Tuesday - which came only a day after another major power failure - was an embarrassing reminder of the intractable problems still plaguing India".

- Arul Louis

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