DETROIT – It was a typical summer day until, in a matter of minutes, 50 million people were without power. That was 20 years ago.
We’re talking about the 2003 Northeast Blackout. By 4:15 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2003, millions of people had lost power after a tree branch in Ohio sparked an outage that reached seven other states and Canada.
People from Michigan to New England had intermittent phone service, no lights, and no air conditioning in the summer heat. More than 100 power plants were shut down and hospitals and prisons were forced to operate on backup generators.
Amtrak operations were down between Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, and Pontiac, Michigan.
The blackout caused chaos and immobilized much of New York City. Flights were canceled and commuters had to sleep on steps, hitchhike, or walk home, as trains were powerless and gas pumps stopped working. This was all happening less than two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The outage was fixed for most within about a day, but had lasting effects and cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Watch WDIV footage from day of 2003 blackout
The video below includes more than six minutes of archive footage from the day of the 2003 blackout.
Paula Tutman recalls covering 2003 Blackout
Local 4′s Paula Tutman recalled the event in a 2020 report: Oh my Gosh, it HAS been 17 years, hasn’t it? I remember the big blackout so well for a variety of reasons, but in terms of ‘where were you when it happened...’
I was on Woodward getting ready for a live shot on the Dream Cruise. A man walked up and tapped on the window of the live truck and said, “The street lights are out!” I was on deadline and very annoyed that someone was interrupting my work to talk about a ‘street light’. I said, “Yeah, okay. Got it,” and kept working.
When I stepped out of the livetruck and onto Woodward, I could see it wasn’t a single street light, but the whole darned avenue. That’s when we started hearing from the studio that there was a major blackout and NOBODY had power.
I have no idea how they did it, but somehow, our engineers got the transmitter up and working and we were instructed to start going live. We were doing what we call, wall-to-wall coverage. Reporters giving updates from wherever they are, as it’s happening. And after about an hour of back to back to back liveshots, I had just done a live hit and IT hit me. I said to my photographer, “Nobody has power. Who the Hell are we talking to?”
I called the studio, and asked that question and was told that there might be people, “out there in pockets with power and we were talking to them.”
So we kept talking to the cameras. As we wrapped up our liveshots, my photographer and I started driving south on Woodward and noticed there was a Chicken Shack that was open. It was packed. We pulled over to check it out because no other businesses or food establishments seemed to be open, but they were--and they were doing a booming business. We pulled over to find out how this was possible and found out that the franchise, almost instantaneously, had pulled in generators to keep cooking for its big locations.
We stopped right there... set back up and did a live shot and then I ordered a broasted chicken dinner to go with BBQ sauce.
As I walked back to my livetruck a woman in a pick-up with her feet on the dash, waved her half-eaten drumstick out the window and said, “Hey, I just saw you on TV.” I asked her how--and she showed me her battery operated television.
Question answered. Who the Hell was watching us during a massive power outage? I laughed and said, ‘You’re the one.”
Rod Meloni reflects on 2003 blackout
Local 4′s Rod Meloni’s shared a reflection on the 2003 blackout in a 2020 report: I vividly remember this day. I was standing in the Newsroom when our chief engineer said the entire Eastern seaboard was without power. I had just tracked (voiceover) two pieces, then immediately had to run, physically, over to DTE’s headquarters, which is about four blocks from the station in Downtown Detroit, to start going live, because we went into wall-to-wall coverage.
Remember, though, that even though we were going in wall-to-wall coverage, nobody had any power. They called the chopper, and as soon as I did my first live hit, they immediately had me physically run back to the station, up to the helipad, and then put me in the helicopter. I spent the next three days flying around in the helicopter doing live shots.
Remember, we were largely servicing CNN, for anybody could actually see what we were doing. No one in Metro Detroit could watch us because they didn’t have power.
I remembered flying over an apartment complex in the Ann Arbor area that burned, and while we were in coverage, I remember saying to DevIn that the people who were living in those apartments were waiting for the locusts, because not much more could go wrong.
One of the things that happened because, everything, and I mean everything was off (no water, no toilets everything was off), all the refrigerators were down. This is the time before whole home generators were a thing for you. People were lining up for blocks around the ice companies looking to buy ice. It was quite a scene. It was one that we regularly showed as we were flying around during the outage.
That day my parents were driving from Massachusetts to Michigan, to spend a couple of weeks with the grandkids. They were driving through Niagara when the power went out and didn’t even know. When they got to our house, my wife packed them up with the kids and took them all to Lansing, because believe it or not, they had power.
They stayed there for three or four days until they could come back. I remember that we literally didn’t even have water because the pumps didn’t work in the bathrooms, the toilets, nothing worked in the house, and I was flying all day, and then coming home, sleeping, and then going back and flying some more.
We flew in the dark. One of the most eerie moments was when we were flying over the city of Detroit for an 11 p.m. newscast, and it was entirely dark on the Detroit side, except for maybe a couple of terminals that had their own generator truck. And then you look across the river to Canada, and they had lights as far as the eye could see. Quite bizarre.
I was asleep on a Saturday morning when it ended, because I could hear the faucets running in the house, because after four days the water finally turned back on. Quite a time.
Michigan Public Service Commission report
The Michigan Public Service Commission shared the following report on the blackout of Aug. 14, 2003.