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What Happens If There’s a Blackout in New York City?

Brooklyn cools off in Prospect Park as a scorching summer day turned to night on July 19, 2020.
Brooklyn cools off in Prospect Park as a scorching summer day turned to night on July 19, 2020.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The last thing the city needs in the summer of 2020 is a blackout.

While Con Edison downplays the risk of a mass outage, some New Yorkers are preparing for the possibility in a year when expecting the unexpected has become the norm.

The mere threat of a power outage in the coronavirus era seems particularly brutal with the city unemployment rate at 20.4% and record numbers of residents working from home. With round-the-clock energy use at historic levels in some households, even worries about brownouts and localized outages loom large.

“We’re just sitting here waiting for the other shoe to drop, and that’s a blackout,” said Jason Charles, a city firefighter from Harlem who heads the group NYC Prepper’s Network. “And when the power goes out with COVID going on, you’re screwed. Imagine people stuck in the subways or in an elevator. And if everyone ends up outside because of the heat, are they going to maintain social distancing?”

As temperatures hovered around 90 degrees for a fifth straight day Wednesday, and the city braced for thunderstorms, Con Edison was working to restore power to 600 customers, most in Brooklyn. A “customer” can be a house, a business or an entire apartment building.

Earlier in the week, the utility asked customers in western Queens to curb their energy consumption and limit the use of appliances like air conditioners, washers, dryers and microwaves, while company crews repaired equipment.

Con Edison said it also reduced voltage by 8% in the area as a precaution to stave off an outage.

How Likely Are the Lights to Go Out?

Con Ed stressed that a full-blown, citywide blackout like the ones in 1977 and 2003 is highly unlikely.

“A blackout is a cascading event that leaves everybody out of service,” said Bob McGee, a spokesperson for Con Edison. “We’re not in danger of anything like that at this point in time.”

But he added that “scattered outages are possible after three successive days of extreme heat, because overhead wires can burn, but things have been designed to ensure we’ve got more resiliency built into the system now.”

McGee noted upgrades such as improved “automatic circuit reclosers,” which prevent outages from spreading. The power company says it has installed rolling generators in various neighborhoods to keep service reliable during the heat wave, while mobile crews have controlled voltage levels and cooled transformers.

Smaller outages, McGee conceded, are more likely to occur. Roughly 11,500 customers have lost — and regained — power since Sunday.

Con Ed maintains an online map, which allows you to see the number of reported outages and customers affected at any given time — presuming your internet is working.

Utility workers at a manhole on Eighth Avenue in Midtown, Nov. 18, 2019.
Utility workers at a manhole on Eighth Avenue in Midtown, Nov. 18, 2019.
Gaspard Le Dem

McGee stressed that, even with more people working from home, “there’s been less usage overall,” likely thanks to swaths of empty office buildings.

A peak summer day in past years, he noted, would result in a usage of about 13,000 megawatts of power in the five boroughs and Westchester. Demand for power during the current heat wave reached a peak of 11,730 megawatts on Monday afternoon.

Still, residential demand has surged. A recent study by Columbia University’s Earth Institute reported “substantial increases” of around 23% of weekday New York City residential electricity consumption during the shutdown.

In May, Con Ed blamed a potential rate increase on increased residential demand as work-from-home becomes the norm. A typical city residential customer using 350 kilowatt hours per month could expect a 9.5% hike, from about $99 in 2019 to nearly $109 per month this summer, the utility said.

Be Prepared

Marcella Tillett, vice president of programs and partnerships for the Brooklyn Community Foundation, said that amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial justice demonstrations, blackout concerns may be an afterthought to some.

“It’s almost easy to forget that there are these seasonal concerns like power outages that crop up every year, because there’s so much about this summer that’s atypical,” she said. “Some of the usual safeguards that we’ve cobbled together in years past just aren’t there.”

Noting the foundation had raised a record $3.7 million from 1,600 donors in just four months for the Brooklyn Covid-19 Response Fund, she said, “I have no doubt that Brooklynites and our nonprofits are going to take care of each other and fill in the gaps if something happens. It’s in their DNA.”

Tillett expressed concern for seniors already wary of leaving their apartments due to fear of contagion, and homeless New Yorkers who so often fall through the cracks.

Lisa Zullig, director of nutrition services for God’s Love We Deliver, agreed.

Her advice in a possible blackout? “Take care of yourself,” she said. “And check on any neighbors, family or friends who may be vulnerable and alone.”

If an outage does occur, the city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene and the federal Department of Homeland Security offer the following tips:

  • Prepare a “Go Bag” with a supply of prescription drugs and health and hygiene supplies such as toiletries and a first-aid kit.
  • Have a battery-operated radio available with fresh batteries and a flashlight with fresh batteries and an extra set of batteries.
  • Check on neighbors. The elderly, children and people with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during heat waves and power outages.
  • Buy foods that require no refrigeration and little or no preparation for cooking. Have a supply of food and water for a minimum of three days.
  • Keep an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer in the event of a power outage to check if food is safe. The refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours. A full freezer will keep the temperature for about 48 hours. Use coolers with ice, if necessary.
  • Listen to the radio and check social media for further instructions and updates from city officials.
  • Keep laptops, cellphones and back-up batteries charged. Roughly 93% of Americans say a major interruption to internet or cell phone service during the pandemic would be a problem in their daily life, according to a March poll by the Pew Research Center.
  • A citywide map of cooling features like sprinklers can be found online at Cool It! NYC.
  • To find your nearest cooling center, call 311 or visit the City’s Cooling Center Finder.
  • DOT’s Open Streets also highlights each Cool Street across the city.

Charles, the firefighter, also suggested purchasing a solar charger, and possibly a two-way radio.

“They’ve gotten so much better over the years,” he said. “And you really want to be able to stay in contact with each other.”

Historic Parallels

Those who lived through past blackouts noted too much has changed — even before the pandemic — to be able to make easy comparisons.

“Things were different in 2003 when I was an EMT,” said Charles, referring to the massive shutdown that left the city and much of the Northeast dark on August 14, 2003.

“I wasn’t into prepping yet. There were pockets of looting in Washington Heights, but the cops shut that down quick. A blackout now compounds everything already going on.”

Parts of lower Manhattan were blacked out during Superstorm Sandy, in October 2012.
Parts of lower Manhattan were blacked out during Superstorm Sandy, in October 2012.
Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

Rutgers University history professor James Goodman, author of “Blackout,” which chronicles the epic 25-hour New York City outage of July 13, 1977, admitted “my heart skips a beat” when considering an outage this summer.

“After the double apocalypse of the pandemic and the incredible unrest following George Floyd’s death, a blackout now would qualify as, if not a triple, at least a two-and-three-quarters apocalypse,” said Goodman, who lives in Manhattan.

During the summer of ‘77, “The city had recently escaped bankruptcy, youth unemployment was extraordinarily high, and people felt ripped off by life, by the economy,” Goodman said.

“It was a miserable, tough time, so I do see parallels. I sure hope Con Ed can keep the power on.”

How to Save Energy

Blackouts are catastrophic power failures. They are more likely during summer as high temperatures, humidity and demand for electricity to power air conditioners can cause cables to overheat and lead to outages. Storms with lightning or high winds can also bring down electrical poles.

When demand is high, a utility company may intentionally stanch the flow of electricity in certain areas, resulting in a brownout. In that case, electricity is still on, but at lower than usual voltage levels, resulting in a dimming of lights.

To prevent outages and lower bills, Con Ed urges customers to make the following changes:

  • Clean air-conditioner filters so the unit runs at peak efficiency.
  • Set thermostats to the highest comfortable temperature. Each degree lower increases cooling costs.
  • If you have a room air-conditioning unit, close off the rooms not being used. If you have central air, block the vents in unused rooms.
  • Run appliances such as ovens, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers in the early morning or late at night when it’s cooler outside. Use a microwave to cook, if possible.
  • Keep shades, blinds and curtains closed during the day. About 40% of unwanted heat comes through windows.
  • Turn off air conditioners, lights and other appliances when not at home.

Customers can report outages and check service restoration status at http://coned.com/out or text REG to OUTAGE (688243) and follow the prompts to sign up for notifications. Customers can also call 1-800-75-CONED (1-800-752-6633).

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