18 years ago: Blackout hits Metro Detroit, Northeast putting 50 million in dark

Detroit, New York, Toronto among worst hit cities in 2003

The blackout of 2003 map (WDI)

DETROIT – It’s been 18 years since a major power outage put 50 million people from Detroit to New York in the dark.

About 50 million people lost power Aug. 14, 2003, when a tree branch in Ohio started an outage that cascaded across a broad swath from Michigan to New England and Canada.

Related: 16 years since Blackout: Metro Detroiters recall moment power went out

Commuters in New York City and elsewhere had to sleep on steps, hitchhike or walk home as trains were rendered powerless and gas pumps stopped working; food spoiled as refrigerators and freezers thawed; jugs of water sold out as supply plants lost their ability to supply consumers; minds were set to wandering about terrorism fears less than two years after 9/11.

The outage was fixed for most within about a day, but the outage had a lasting effect and cost hundreds of millions in damage.

Amtrak stopped all trains leaving the New York city area.

Amtrak operations also were down in Michigan between Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, and Pontiac, Michigan.

President Bush was in California for a fund-raising dinner but addressed the outage in a short speech for reporters.

"I want to thank the people for their calm response to this emergency situation," he said. "It's been remarkable to watch on TV how resolved the people have been in dealing with this situation. I know their neighbors are thankful for the proper and calm response."

Bush said communication between local, state and federal officials was "quick and thorough."

"We're better organized today than we were two and a half years ago to deal with an emergency and the system responded well," he said.

The last big blackout in the United States took place almost exactly seven years prior, August 11, 1996, when some 4 million customers in nine Western states and parts of Mexico lost power for as long as 10 hours.

Check out some of the news coverage from the 2003 blackout:

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About the Authors:

Ken Haddad is the digital content and audience manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013. He enjoys suffering through Lions games on Sundays in the fall.