Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Looking Back At NYC Outages During Sandy

Oct 29, 2013
Originally published on October 29, 2013 1:18 pm

One year ago today, Superstorm Sandy left part of Manhattan completely in the dark and without cell coverage.

One coffee shop owner, just opening a new shop, drew many new customers because he had a generator.

Jamie Rogers, owner of Pushcart Coffee speaks with Here & Nows Jeremy Hobson about those days without power and how his generator idea has paid off.

Also joining in the conversation is Frank Felder, director of the Center For Energy, Economic & Environmental Policy at Rutgers University, to look at how the city’s electrical infrastructure suffered.


Copyright 2013 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit



This is HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson.


HOBSON: And as you can hear, I am standing here in midtown Manhattan, right at the corner of 39th Street and 3rd Avenue. This is a very dense, very modern business district. There are towers that are 30 and 40 stories tall. There are taxis going by. There are cars going by, and people walking by. This is a normal day in New York City.

Well, a year ago, this was the dividing line because 39th Street was the point at which the electricity stopped if you went to the south. There was absolutely no power. There were no traffic lights. All the buildings were dark. There was no way to charge your cell phone, which became a symbol of what New Yorkers were going through, because they would line up anywhere there was an electrical outlet that worked in order to charge their cell phone, and there was no cell phone service to the south. So if you walked south of 39th Street, your phone just said no service on it. And this lasted for four days.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: An explosion at a Con Edison plant. More than 250,000 people across the city lost power. New York University's hospital was one of them. Doctors and patients were forced to leave late last night when backup generators there also failed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're trying to move these patients as fast as possible. Hopefully, we're going to be able to evacuate them in a number of hours.

HOBSON: Now, power outages are nothing new. They always happen when big storms hit. But in this case, the outage happened in a city where most people don't have cars, the subway was shut down, train tunnels were flooded, so were the airports. New Yorkers were stuck.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The latest numbers from Con Ed, the power company that serves in New York metropolitan area, are that 670,000 people are without power in New York City and Westchester County. A spokesman for Con Ed says this is the single largest storm-related outage in its history.

HOBSON: That sound from CBS News. And down in the powerless part of Manhattan, you started to realize all the things you relied on electricity for - that electronic key for your apartment building, the doorbell.


HOBSON: Just think of the poor FedEx guy who was, by the way, still trying to deliver packages. Credit card machines - restaurants that were open were only accepting cash. But you had to hoof it uptown to get cash because, oh, by the way, ATMs rely on electricity too.


HOBSON: Just a couple weeks before Sandy hit, Jamie Rogers opened up a little coffee shop on the corner of 21st Street and 2nd Avenue. Foot traffic was light. But when the storm hit, Rogers had a secret weapon.

JAMIE ROGERS: We had a small gas generator that we'd use for outdoor events and sort of small catering. And we brought it up to the shop the morning of Sandy, and we put it outside, and we ran the generator, which was, you know, generated enough electricity to power lights and a portable espresso machine and a stereo. And then - and this was really what drew in the crowds - was, you know, it could charge cell phones. And so we - I remember I found about 10 surge protectors and sort of strung them together in a daisy chain. And I mean, we probably charged like a couple hundred cell phones every day.


ROGERS: People coming in and kind of gathering around the surge protectors. It just became, I think, a wonderful way for people to get a little bit of sanity in the chaos. And also, we're able to provide something that, you know, honestly people really needed to be able to call loved ones and, you know, (unintelligible) go on with their lives.

HOBSON: Although they would have had to go - many of them - above 39th Street to use their cell phones.

ROGERS: Yeah. That was an additional problem. I mean, some carriers, you could get spotty service, depending on where you were. You get service if you walked over to the river or up in to sort of, you know, out of the blackout zone. But for many, it was just sort of the strange sense of comfort to have a charged cell phone, you know? And especially in this world in which we're never more than three feet from our cell phones at any given time. I think having that solace meant a lot to people, even if they couldn't use them.

HOBSON: Did they buy coffee while they were at it?

ROGERS: Absolutely. Yeah. And, you know, we just sort of sold coffee like normal, and people were very appreciative. And I think people actually preferred the kind of normalcy of the fact that they could walk into, you know, a place that had electric lights and, you know, and music, and they could sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee while the rest of the world was, you know, was dark.

HOBSON: And ever since that moment, it's been pretty packed in Pushcart Coffee?

ROGERS: It has. It has. It certainly provided some goodwill. And really, for a lot of people, it became their neighborhood coffee shop at that moment, and it had stayed ever since. So, yeah, we're doing very well. We're actually opening our next store on the other side of town in Chelsea. We don't hope obviously for the same spark that ignited our success but we do hope to be successful there.

HOBSON: That's Jamie Rogers, owner of Pushcart Coffee in Manhattan.

So looking to the future, what can we learn from what happened to our modern infrastructure in Manhattan during Sandy? We put that question to Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University.

FRANK FELDER: It was the size of the storm and the fact that most of the electrical infrastructure of Manhattan is underground. And therefore, when these 14-foot or so hit the island, the stuff below ground is below sea level, and that caused massive outages. And, of course, it takes a long time to repair something when you're first trying to get rid of the water and then, secondly, replacing equipment, repairing equipment below ground.

HOBSON: And the only way to keep the water from coming in in the first place, I assume, would be to have walls around Manhattan to keep it from coming into the island.

FELDER: Yes, which is a long term and expensive proposition if that's the best way to go. Other solutions include redundancy, additional equipment and better supply chains, better communications. But, yeah, it's, you know, you got to wall off these large storm surges, and that's tough.

HOBSON: Another problem was that a lot of people's generators were in the basement.

FELDER: Yep. And same idea, whether it was the equipment own by Con-Ed or electrical switchgear or, you know, generation units, water and electricity don't mix.

HOBSON: Well, has anything been done to improve the infrastructure, the electrical infrastructure and the communications infrastructure, since Sandy so that this wouldn't cause such an outage in the future?

FELDER: Yeah. Lots have been done. A lot more needs to be done. Remember, the electrical infrastructure of Manhattan and elsewhere was built over the last 100 years or so. So it takes a long time to improve it. But what's been done, for example, by Con Edison is to harden various critical facilities, substations by building floodwalls, watertight doors by adding additional equipments, switching-type equipment so that you can limit the outage and repair selected circuits more quickly. On the telecommunications side, it's a little bit easier of a problem. It's really making sure that the cell towers have a back-up power, having mobile cell towers.

Now that being said, I think this is a long-term problem, in part due to climate change. And I don't think there's going to be one quick fix that can just be done in a year.

HOBSON: Frank Felder is director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University, talking to us one year after Superstorm Sandy hit. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.