Today in History: The Blackout of 1977 in NYC
A catastrophic electricity blackout spanning 25 hours hit most of New York City on July 13-14 in 1977.
The Blackout of 1977 was caused by a succession of lightning strokes that "just never happens," according to then Consolidate Edison president Arthur Hauspurg. The New York Times reported that the lightning knocked out three pairs of power‐importing high-voltage lines north of New York City within half an hour. The City, which was already using a lot of electricity with air conditioners to combat the humid conditions, was overwhelmed. The power officially shut down at 9:34 pm that Wednesday night.
The power loss caused mayhem in the City, with widespread destruction. According to a Daily News article on July 14, reports of widespread looting and major fires occurred just minutes after the blackout hit the City. One teen was shot dead that night, which remains a still unsolved case. Firefighters did their best to extinguish the fires in the darkness, and some youths tried to help direct traffic at various city intersections.
David Frum wrote in his book "How We Got Here" about the damage. He wrote that thieves in the Bronx stole 50 new Pontiacs from a dealership, and the cars were later found in the City stripped of parts. Molotov cocktails and eggs were thrown at passing patrol cars. People tied chains from the back of car bumpers to store protective gratings and drove the car away to get the grating off the storefront in order to allow full access to looters. According to Frum, over 550 policemen were injured, and 4,500 looters were arrested.
The New York Times reported that LaGuardia and JFK airports were closed for about eight hours, and tunnels on the road had to be closed due to a lack of ventilation. Four thousand people had to be evacuated from the subway system. New York City officials estimate the blackout cost businesses $135 million to $150 million in damage, equivalent to around $750 million today.
There are many opinions as to why the blackout was so destructive compared to others that came before and after the 1977 blackout. Most theories point to the outage happening when the City was in the midst of a severe financial crisis. The weather also played a part in what occurred as the City was going through a particularly brutal July heat wave - all interesting theories looking to shed light on the many hours that New York City was left in the dark for 25 hours.