Mayor Bloomberg asked, and my answer is: in the office. There can’t be a less common answer than that, but everything else is uncommon.

ConEd, the utility company for New York City, came to our building in the morning and reset the meter, so we were asked to turn off everything, and the power went out for less than one minute. With our CEO on vacation, the rest of us chatted happily with sunlight seeping through the blinds. So when the power went off at about 4:10pm, we had no other thought than that it’s another meter reset. Our office manager went out to check with the building owner, and she came back quickly to tell us that the whole block was out of power. Soon everyone found out that no one’s cell phone can connect a call.

Of course the first thing that came across my mind was that it’s 9/11 all over again. The Empire State Building must have been hit. I ran down to the street. There were not too much more people on the street, and no one was panicking. I walked half a block and saw the tip of the Empire State Building through the forest of buildings under a bright blue sky. No smoke, no fire, no siren. It’s just a blackout.

And it’s a big one! There was a blackout in 1965 that affected 25 million people in Northeast US. In 1977, 9 million people in New York City lost power. This time it’s reported that 50 million people throughout southern Canada (Toronto and Ottawa), Michigan (Detroit), Ohio (Cleveland), Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York may have an answer to the Bloomberg Question.

We soon learned about the blackout from a battery-powered radio, the same good old one that brought us news on 9/11. Fortunately our cordless phone base station has batteries in it, and the whole phone system must have an independent power supply, so we were able to make phone calls as usual. I called Ding Qi, and learned that her building was operating on backup power and she still got Internet on her laptop. The cell phones were actually working, only that the networks were too overwhelmed.

As we learned from 9/11, we need to get out of Manhattan as quickly as possible. There’s a ferry station right beneath Ding Qi’s building, and she would take the ferry across the river to Hoboken. We four Chinese engineers at BrainMedia would go to Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was about 5pm when we started walking. The streets were jammed with no traffic light. Lots more people were on the streets, and more every minute. People were popping out of the ground through evacuation wells from stranded subway trains. I couldn’t help but have Bob Marley singing “Exodus/movement of the people” in my head.

We got to the bus terminal in less than an hour, not much longer than it usually takes. It was closed. We continued to the entrance of Lincoln Tunnel two blocks further away, wondering if we could walk to the other side. It’s also not far from the midtown ferry stations, where we could use the ferry to get across the river (later we learned from other people who went to the ferry that it’s a huge mess and the waiting was 3-4 hours). Turned out that it’s not allowed to walk in the tunnel, but we saw cars and buses moving, slowly but indeed going through the tunnel. Most drivers were kind enough to give people a ride, and we got on a New Jersey Transit bus going to northern New Jersey and upstate New York. I asked the driver to drop us off before getting onto New Jersey Turnpike, where it’s just a couple of miles from our home. When I saw the light at the New Jersey side of the tunnel, I knew it’s nothing like 9/11.

We got off the bus, slide down a few meters on a slope from the highway to a fenced area, and found ourselves on the street of Secaucus through a door secured only by a bungee cord. There happened to be a taxi company close by, and 5 minutes later we arrived at the basement of our building. It’s surreal that everything was normal in our building because of the powerful backup generators. Next month I’ll feel much more at ease when I pay the maintenance fee.

Meanwhile Ding Qi was waiting to get on a ferry with at least one thousand people. It’s grueling under the sun, but it’s orderly and she got to Hoboken in 1.5 hours. We drove to the ferry station to picked her up, and had a nice big dinner with our colleagues celebrating the easy escape.

When I turned off the light before sleep, I still forgot to remember that it’s quite a privilege to be able to turn off the light by yourself.

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