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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is the President of Intermat, Inc., a consulting practice that specializes in the intersection of media, technology and marketing. For two years, he produced the Emmys on the Web and supervised web related activities for the Academy, including for the 50th Anniversary year of the Emmy Awards. In addition to its consulting engagements, Intermat recently sold METEOR’S TALE, an unpublished novel by Michael O’Rourke, to Animal Planet for development as a television movie. Visit his web site at
Lessons from the Darkness

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that this is one of the
world’s largest cities, with all those attendant glories and dangers, New
Yorkers tend to be fairly aware of their environment.

And, as a city always just slightly on edge, everyone around me in the lobby
of 55 Broad Street, where I had just arrived to attend a meeting, noticed
when the lights in the lobby flickered. Actually, it was more like a wave,
up and down, in and out, for a few seconds before they went dark.

But they did go dark and all of us in the lobby looked around with the kind
of facial expression that means: what the hell? There was a ruffle of
anxiety as everyone looked out onto the street to see if the power failure
was related to some loud noise or some external event that could be

The same thought was in everyone’s mind: was this the result of a terrorist

But then, the lights flickered back on and I got on the next elevator and
went up to the 29th Floor, where my meeting was to be held. When I got off
the elevator, I stepped into a dark corridor with many of the employees of
Stevens Travel Management staring out at me through the thick glass doors
they couldn’t open because there was no power.

Innocently, I had stepped aboard the last regular elevator to ascend that
day, powered by a sudden surge, I discovered later, of emergency power that
took it and then kept it on the thirtieth floor.

It appeared to all that simply that building had lost power and so I entered
through a back door and went into my meeting where we commented upon the odd
fact that the building, one of the most wired in downtown New York, didn’t
have better back up.

Then, a voice came out of the emergency communication system, a small red
box with remarkable volume, informing us that the power failure was not just
the building but also much of the downtown area.

We did our meeting; interrupted regularly by the voice in the red box,
informing us that the power failure was statewide. Then region wide. Then
it became international. Not just the United States but Eastern Canada was

I decided then it was time to leave and I walked down twenty-nine flights of
The streets were filled with the milling crowds, looking around anxiously.
People were frustrated as their cell phones wouldn’t work and there wasn’t
any information flowing out.

It was anxious because everyone was afraid that this might well be an act of
terrorism and there wasn’t anybody at that moment saying it wasn’t.

What it was, ladies and gentlemen, was what has become known as the Blackout
of 2003, the worst power failure in the nation’s history.

Luckily, 55 Broad Street is not a far walk from the apartment and I headed
there, every block or so trying Tripp on his cell from my cell. When I
walked into the building, Jose, the afternoon Concierge, was heading past me
to help an older woman. As he passed me, he gently touched me on the arm
and said to me softly, “Mr. Tripp is upstairs.”

As I walked on toward the stairway, I felt myself choking back tears. The
most important thing for me to know was known.

So, as we passed through the day of darkness, I learned the first of my
lessons from the darkness.

Lesson number one:
The safety of those we love is at the top. Know that, and you can manage a
lot else.

Lesson number two:
Have a battery-powered radio handy. Television doesn’t work without
electricity. When Tripp and I left the apartment we carried his small,
battery-powered radio. We were very popular as a source of news for people
on the Esplanade. That’s how we heard that the President had declared this
NOT an act of terrorism.

Lesson number three:
Fill your bathtub with water. We were lucky, as our building didn’t lose
running water. Most other buildings in the city did. You need water to
flush a toilet.

Lesson number four:
Have an emergency supply of drinking water. By the time the power returned
the shelves of bottled water in stores looked like a ravaging army of
carpenter ants had cleaned them out.

Lesson number five:
Candles. Have a supply of candles around. It’s amazing how comforting a
little light is when there is only darkness. Not to mention you can use
them to read.

Lesson number six;
Remember to have flashlights [but have candles, too]. The emergency lights
don’t always last as long as the emergency. That was one of the things we
discovered as we descended the stairs without our flashlights.

Lesson number seven:
There is nothing like a pair of comfortable shoes. A pair of fashionistas
from SoHo, stranded in mid-town, paid fifty bucks apiece for ratty rubber
flip flops off the feet of strangers to replace their expensive heels to
ease the pain of the fifty block walk home.

Lesson number eight:
Have food, non-perishable, food. You get awfully hungry waiting for
something as simple as electricity. Besides, you need something to power
you on the walks you will take foraging for the food you don’t have.

Lesson number nine:
If you are about to leave to go someplace, if you have the slightest urge to
go to the bathroom, do it. There were people stranded for up to nineteen
hours in elevators. Something like a million people were on subways and
trains in the greater New York area and those in subways had a particularly
trying time.

Lesson number ten:
Have cash. ATM’s don’t work with out power. Nor do credit card machines.
Cash is king. Keep some in an envelope in the same place you store the
food, the water, the flashlights, candles and every other emergency supply
you can think of.

Lesson number eleven:
Have something to read. It got awfully boring under the emergency lights in
Penn Station if you had nothing to read.

Lesson number twelve:
Have a cell phone that lets you carry a spare battery. The service returns
before the power but it’s electricity that charges those little batteries.

Lesson number thirteen:
When in doubt, throw it out. The city has been rife with food poisoning
from spoiled food.

There are many more, I’m sure, but these are the lessons that come to mind
while writing this.

Once we thought it wasn’t terrorism, there was a sigh of relief and everyone
sort of shrugged and went: power failure? Well, hardly a reason to be
hysterical [unless you were one of those trapped in elevators or on the

Before the beer could get warm, restaurants and bars were selling out.
Tripp and I sat with our neighbors on the sidewalk, listening to our radio,
sipping Amstel light while waiting to see how long the lights would really
be out.

In our case, it was a little over twenty-four hours. The city was getting
just a little testy but the major crisis of Friday morning was finding
coffee for the caffeine-addicted population.

I got mine from the little cart on Liberty Street; they brought in a
generator to power up and had a steady block long line of people waiting
patiently for their caffeine fix as well as an egg sandwich.

By mid-afternoon, a few people were beginning to whine on NPR’s call in
show. But after the whining started, one woman phoned in, reminding
everyone listening that we had been without power for less than twenty-four
hours. How would we like to be in Baghdad where it was 122 degrees in the
shade and where they haven’t had power or water for months?