NYC During The Blackout

The following is from an e-mail I sent to my family after the August 2003 NYC Blackout:

Ah, the fun adventures I have traveling….let me tell you how my last couple of days have been. I flew into New York City late Wed night. I had a full day on Thursday including a presentation that I hadn’t had time to prepare, but I figured I’d just stay up late because I could tough it out for one day since I was flying back home Thursday night. So, I stayed up working until the wee hours of the morning.

I was already feeling a little jittery because my hotel was a block from ground zero. My meeting was 9-12 with 8 people from Merrill Lynch at the World Financial Center. The presentation went well and I had a car service waiting for me at 12:30 to take me to my lunch meeting with Ernst & Young people from New York and London and a representative from a big bank in Ireland. We had a nice power lunch at Schula’s, which is a steakhouse. The other guys were all planning a big lavish dinner later, so they only had salads for lunch. I was starving and was planning on eating dinner in the airport, so I ordered a chicken and lobster oscar entree. The ironic thing was that none of us got dinner that night, so they were regretting their salad choice later!

Lunch ran late, so we didn’t have time to get my luggage from the EY offices, but instead walked straight to the Morgan Stanley office about 10 blocks away. Gerry, one of the EY people, wanted me to work with them since they’re in the process of making customization decisions about Risk Navigator. The plan was that I would stay until about 4:30, then would go back to the EY offices and get my luggage, then take a car back to Laguardia and head home…no such luck. Eleven minutes after 4 the electricity went out. At first we thought it was just our building, but then we could see that people in the building across the street were looking out the window, so we figured that they had lost electricity as well. Then the announcement came that we should evacuate the building. The phones in the building weren’t working, but I was able to get through to my office on my cell phone. I talked to Amanda and also left a message for Tim. Of course, in the back of my mind I kept hoping that this wasn’t like the messages people left and then didn’t make it through 9/11. I was trying not to think bad thoughts, but all sorts of things go through your mind.

Before we left the Morgan Stanley building, we figured that we should probably use the restrooms because hard to say when we’d next have an opportunity – which, I can tell you by the rank smell in the NYC streets later that night, people were going wherever they could. There’s a new play in NYC called Urinetown that stars the guy in the TV show Ed. That name has never been more appropriate…but I digress… So, it was still daylight and there were windows in the conference room so you could see there, but the bathroom was pitch dark. I felt like a blind person trying to figure out where everything was. Now, it was a women’s bathroom, so you would think that the toilet seat would be DOWN, wouldn’t you??? No, I found that out the hard way…

We took our stuff and headed down 10 flights of stairs to evacuate the building. I have never seen such a mass of humanity on the streets as every skyscraper was belching people onto the streets below. And no one had any idea what was going on or where to go. So, we decided that regardless of what happened next, I needed to get my luggage from the EY offices, so we hoofed it over there. We thought that we were going to have to walk up 30 flights of stairs, but they had enough backup generator power to keep a couple of elevators running until 7:15. Now the time was 5:00 and I figured it was a long shot that I’d fly home that night. Someone had a battery powered radio, so we heard that it was more than just NYC and that it didn’t appear to be terrorism, so I felt a little better about that. However, by this time so many people were using their cell phones that it was impossible to get through and the land lines in the building were based on electricity, so they were useless. Gerry had been through 9/11 and told me that his saving grace that day had been the fact that he drove his car that day and could eventually drive home. Unfortunately, even though he had driven on Thursday, he had parked in a parking garage that used an elevator to move the cars around, so without electricity they were holding his car hostage.

I lobbied really hard to just stay all night in Gerry’s office, but then the announcement came that they wanted to evacuate that building as well. So, I took all my stuff and we went back outside. Since Gerry couldn’t get his car and couldn’t call his wife, he suggested that we walk to the Port Authority to take a bus. We walked there with about a million other people, only to find it closed. Then we walked to the ferry. Took us half an hour to walk there. Remember, I’m in a suit with dress shoes and it is hot and dirty and smelly and crowded. Also, none of the streetlights were working and people were walking right down the middle of the same streets that people were trying to drive down. It was chaos. By the time we get to the ferry it is painfully obvious that there was no way a fraction of the people there were going anywhere. I estimated it at several thousand people, but was later told that the news reported 100,000 people – not counting those like us that took one look and turned around. With no other plan of action, we walked back to the EY building on 42nd street. I was fully prepared to spend the night on the lobby floor, as were the other 200 people there. I figured it was better than the thousands of people that I saw already picking out their places on the sidewalks and curbs. I had already ruled out getting a hotel room due to the sheer number of people who needed rooms and also because we’d already tried those that we’d walked by and they’d turned us away.

The EY security people did bring down some pop and chips and candy bars for people in the lobby, so that’s what we had for supper. At 8:00 we knew that it was final decision time because it would start to get dark soon. Gerry’s cell phone was useless, but mine actually made a connection. EY has an account with American Express Travel, so we asked them to book 2 rooms anywhere in NYC. They said that they had 2 rooms in the Hilton on 53rd. We weren’t sure whether to believe them or not, but we picked up our stuff and walked over there. On the way, Gerry warned me that the rooms would be expensive. I think I probably looked at him like he was from mars since at that point I would have paid anything for a safe place to sleep. I wasn’t very encouraged once we got there. Hundreds and hundreds of people trying to get a room. The problem was that their reservation system was not running, so they were trying to fill rooms via a manual system. When we finally were being checked in, a woman cut in front of us to tell the check in person that the room she had the night before and had not checked out of was occupied by strangers when she went in. What we didn’t know was how incredibly lucky it was that we had picked that hotel. They had a master key system that they were able to use since the normal method for the electronic key cards didn’t work. We found out the next day that the Marriott did not have such a backup system, so no one, including people who already had rooms there, could get into their rooms. Marriott brought out pillows and blankets and everyone was sleeping in the lobby and the carpark out front.

We waited in line for almost 2 hours, but we did finally get rooms. We had to walk up 15 flights of stairs with all of our luggage, but at least we weren’t on the 40th floor like others were. When we got to our room, it was of course pitch black, so they gave us a glow stick to help find our way around.

Next morning I woke up at 6:30 and the electricity was on! Still couldn’t take a shower because I knew the water wouldn’t be hot and also because they’d asked us to conserve water when we checked in. But, I was able to change clothes since I had my luggage with me and also had my other toiletries, so I was way ahead of most of the people in the city. Unfortunately, the power wasn’t on everywhere, so after we walked to the garage we found that we still couldn’t get Gerry’s car out. But now the cell phones were working again, so we were able to call his wife who drove from New Jersey to pick us up. We walked one last time so she wouldn’t have to drive into the city streets. By this time my feet felt like hamburger.

After his wife picked us up, we went to Laguardia because we heard on the radio that the airports were open. I don’t know what their definition of “open” means, but there was no electricity in the building, people were sleeping all over the floors, and there wasn’t a single plane in the sky. End result is that I spent a couple of hours at their house in New Jersey and then went to Newark and got on a plane to Milwaukee and finally got home last night around 9.

I thank God that it wasn’t an act of terrorism and certainly realize that things could have been much worse. I was heartened to see that people still behaved well even though we were all hot, scared, tired, hungry and thirsty. And once again I know that I never want to live in a big city!!!

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