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Lessons from the Northeast Blackout of 2003

November 08, 2018 0 Comments

Sometimes, the smallest of actions can create a ripple affecting an extremely large system.

That’s exactly what happened in 2003 when the northeastern United States was hit with a major power outage.

What became known as the Northeast Blackout of 2003 was the largest blackout in North American history to date.

The numbers speak for themselves...

  • 50 million people were without power for up to four days.
  • 11 people died.
  • There was a reported $6 billion in damages. 

Though technology has significantly advanced since 2003, we’re still prone to another widespread power grid collapse. 

In order to help prepare for inevitable worst-case scenarios, I’m sharing more details surrounding what happened in 2003. If we can learn from how people coped, we’ll be more equipped to handle similar situations in the future.

But first, let’s get clear on the details of what caused the blackout in the first place...


What Happened to the Power in 2003

A little after 3 p.m. on August 14, 2003, a high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed against overgrown trees, causing the line to shut down.

If operators had been alerted, they could have quickly fixed the situation and avoided a major problem.

However, the alarm system at FirstEnergy Corporation failed, leaving operators unaware of the need to redistribute the power load.

What started initially as a downed power line in Ohio eventually became an entire electrical grid collapse. In fact, 508 generating units at 265 power plants shut down. Southeastern Canada and eight northeastern US states lost power.

As we’ve seen from history, blackouts like these will continue to happen—whether they’re a result of a tropical storm, solar flare, or a system failure.

The US has been hit by many sizable, widespread outages lasting as long as two weeks and affecting tens of millions. Here are some more notable events:

  • 1965: Northeast blackout
  • 1977: New York City blackout
  • 1982: West Coast blackout (parts of San Francisco to San Diego to Las Vegas)
  • 1996: Western North America blackout (Idaho, Montana, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona)
  • 1998: North Central US blackout (upper Midwest)
  • 2003: Northeast blackout (Ohio, New York, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania)
  • 2011: Southwest blackout (California)
  • 2012: Derecho blackout (Ohio; Pennsylvania; West Virginia; Washington, DC; Maryland; New Jersey)
  • 2012: Hurricane Sandy (Florida, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) 

Considering how many circumstances can disrupt our power grid, we need to pay attention to what people did to deal with the blackout and continue living their lives. Doing so will show us how to prepare for similar situations in the future.

Read on to discover a few preparation lessons from the 2003 blackout...


Prepper Lesson #1: Find Ways to Stay Cool without AC

The temperature on August 14, 2003, was 88 degrees Fahrenheit or so across much of the affected region. That’s not exactly a comfortable temperature to live in without access to air conditioning or fans.

In order to stay as cool as possible, many people cooked their meals and slept outside.

As one woman shared, “I was almost six months pregnant with our first child, and it was certainly not easy to try and keep cool in the August heat. We wheeled our grill across the street to the neighbors' house and cooked all of our meals outside.”

In case you experience a similar crisis during hot summer months, it’s wise to invest in a grill and other outdoor cooking solutions. You can also stock up on battery-powered fans and wear damp bandanas around your head to stay cool.


Prepper Lesson #2: Check In on Neighbors

If your power goes out for an extended period of time, check in on your neighbors. This is especially important if they are elderly. Make sure they are healthy and safe.

Better yet—take the time now to connect with them while things are calm. Discuss your emergency preparedness plans so you know what you can do to work as a team and share resources in case you all lose power.


Prepper Lesson #3: Have an Emergency Overnight Plan

Major cities reliant upon public transportation, such as New York, were greatly affected by the power loss. Commuters couldn’t make their way home by using standard transportation systems.

The New York City subway wasn’t able to operate. Additionally, most of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor service was disabled, stranding tens of thousands. Passengers had to sleep on subway platforms or on street corners. Many people were seen trying to hitch rides heading in the direction of home.

If you commute for work, it’s advisable to identify where and with whom you may be able to arrange alternative sleeping plans. If you have friends or coworkers who live near your work, develop an emergency plan to stay with them in the case of a major blackout.

Don’t forget to create an additional emergency plan for your children. In the case that both parents aren’t able to get to a child’s school or home for an extended period of time, you’ll want to designate someone you can trust who will be able to take care of them.


Prepper Lesson #4: Use Battery-Powered Radios to Stay Updated

Without access to television, people had to rely on less traditional sources to get news on the power outage. One woman shares that they “kept abreast with the news on a battery-powered radio.” It wasn’t uncommon to see people on the streets of New York gathered around communal radios.

If you don’t have one already, stock up on a battery-powered radio now. Look for a model that can recharge the batteries by a hand crank or sunlight.


Prepper Lesson #5: Stock Up on Alternative Light Solutions

Events like this are called a blackout for a reason. Like televisions, traditional light sources were no longer available when the power went out in 2003. Take the time now to stock up on kerosene lanterns, flashlights with batteries, and candles with matches. Many stores quickly ran out of these high-demand items during the blackout.

Whether using them to…

  • Navigate a darkened house
  • Play games or read in order to stay entertained
  • Prepare meals

...these alternative light sources are sure to come in handy.


Prepper Lesson #6: Order Backup Prescription Meds

As Reuters reported on the 2003 blackout, “Most food sources and pharmacies were closed, which could be a serious problem for someone with diabetes or someone who is low on prescription medicines.”

If you suffer from a chronic condition requiring medication, ask your doctor to write you a prescription for a backup supply in the event that pharmacies are closed or supplies run out.

In case you or your family members experience injuries or illness during a blackout, it’s also important that basic first-aid supplies are handy, such as...

  • Band-Aids.
  • Aspirin.
  • Gauze.
  • Hydrogen peroxide.

Blackouts aren’t the only situations in which you should heed this advice. These precautions are important for a wide range of events, including blizzards. It’s best to put a plan in place and stock up sooner than later.


Prepper Lesson #7: Have Water Decontamination Supplies on Hand

According to CNN, the mayor of Cleveland at the time “warned residents to boil drinking water because sewage might have contaminated the city's water system” as a result of the blackout.

This can often happen during widespread blackouts that affect water systems.

Aside from boiling water, it’s advisable to have other water purification supplies on hand, such as the Alexapure Pro Water Filter. This unit removes the need to boil water. Requiring no electricity, the filter transforms water from virtually any fresh source into cleaner drinking water.

Energy and utility analysts say that “changes made in the aftermath make a similar outage unlikely today, though shifts in where and how power is generated raise new reliability concerns for the U.S. electric grid system.”

That’s why it’s still important to take the time to prepare for “grid down” scenarios. Have a plan and supplies in place.

Have a great weekend. Stay alert, friends.

In liberty,

Grant Miller

Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply



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