by Matthew Porcelli

Reflections of Preparedness - The 2003 Northeast Blackout

Major metropolitan centers such as New York City, remains a focal hub for global commerce, academic learning, and a gateway into the United States for business and leisure travel. According to Weaver (2022), “More than 1 million people commute into New York City daily, making up 20% of New York City’s workforce.” As the numbers have fluctuated since the COVID-19 pandemic with a hybrid lifestyle, an abundance of the New York Metropolitan workforce, especially essential workers, must use vehicle or mass transit means to reach their destinations. Bridges, tunnels, and waterways, for instance, act as veins and arteries for the transportation infrastructure. However, what happens when one of these veins are arteries are clogged, and not just in the sense of rush hour traffic? What if a natural or manmade crisis shuts down the Holland Tunnel or the Brooklyn Bridge? What if vehicles are abandoned on the New Jersey Turnpike or Cross Bronx Expressway making it difficult or impossible for emergency service vehicles to pass? These questions are just a few that substantiate how reliant commuters, and not just in the New York Metropolitan area, are on transportation systems, structures, and power. Furthermore, crises involving closures of bridges, tunnels, roads, and waterways, are not a singular problem and must not be treated as such, especially in the preplanning stages.

Over 20 years ago, in August 2003, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, were four of the eight states affected by the 2003 Northeast Blackout, which stranded commuters as transportation systems ceased to operate. The New York subway system, for tunnels and 400,000 commuters stranded in passenger tunnels, and caused about 90 deaths. (DeBlasio et al, 2004).


Figure 1. Courtesy of Volpe National Transportation System Center (2004). Shaded area representing regions affected by the 2003 Northeast Blackout.


Crises of this magnitude undoubtedly created many questions as to what could have been done differently to soften the impact and hardships of hundreds of thousands of commuters and residents. Experience is a harsh teacher. September 11, 2001, for instance, encouraged many transportation managers to draft primary emergency response plans, which were not readily available, (DeBlasio et al, 2004). Furthermore, crises such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2003 Northeast Blackout forced organizations and especially our critical infrastructure systems to conduct vulnerability assessments and preplan with all those managers and frontline employees in the form of drills and tabletop exercises. Finally, the most important is the connections and communications between local, state, and federal agencies to harden not only transportation systems but also local organizational partnerships. The firmer the partnership, the more equipped the organizations and supporting entities (i.e. – transportation infrastructure), can adapt to crises and start to pave the way for the return to normalcy.