April 1, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Worst Power Outages in U.S. History

The Worst Power Outages in U.S. History

America has seen its fair share of blackouts over the years, some of which have made history.

With millions of people affected, billions of dollars in damages, and extensive durations of power loss, there are 9 specific events that stand out as some of the worst blackouts in America.

NYC blackout split image

America’s Electric Grid

America’s electric grid is made up of more than 450,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines.

Including the West, East and Texas power grids, these grids supply over 140 million people—including industries, businesses, and residents—with electricity.

Power grid, ArizonaGPA Photo Archive, Flickr

Difference Between a Power Outage and a Blackout

A typical power outage lasts a few minutes to maybe a few hours, at most.

A blackout is the total loss of power to a wider area and for a long duration. It is the most severe form of power outage that can occur.

Blackout in the cityhpphtns, Shutterstock

Consequences of Blackouts

Aside from your home’s lighting and heating, power outages instantly disrupt many things, including: communications, water, and transportation.

These disruptions can last days or even weeks, and seriously hinder relief efforts and restoration time.

Blackout conceptadriaticfoto, Shutterstock

Causes of Blackouts

There are many causes of blackouts, including: storms, fallen trees, cyberattacks, equipment failure, high energy demand, damaged power lines, and natural disasters.

The most common causes are natural disasters, human error, and overload.

Woman complaining during a blackoutAntonio Guillem, Shutterstock

Blackouts in US History

The worst blackouts in U.S. history affected millions of people, across numerous states. They ranged in duration from several hours to several weeks, and some even caused costly damages and risk to people’s lives.

Here are the 9 worst blackouts in U.S. history, starting in the 1960s.

BlackoutMushrooms Art, Shutterstock

Northeast Blackout (1965)

On November 9, 1965, over 30 million people suddenly lost power after a major disruption in the power supply for the Northeast.

Northeast Blackout (1965), BostonBoston Globe, Getty Images

Northeast Blackout (1965): States Affected

The blackout lasted 13 hours, and affected numerous states, including: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

Boston Blackout Of 1965Boston Globe, Getty Images

Northeast Blackout (1965): Cause

The cause of the blackout was human error.

A few days prior, a protective relay on a transmission line was incorrectly set near Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2, the Niagara generation station in Queenston, Ontario, Canada.

This error caused a trip in the circuit breaker, resulting in an overload.

Sir Adam Beck Station No. 2dpmitchell, Flickr

Northeast Blackout (1965): Time of Year

Due to the time of year, weather was cooler which meant that people were using a lot of power to heat, light, and cook in their homes—putting an incredible strain on the system already.

When one line tripped, the power diverted to other lines, causing immense overloads in numerous directions.

Blackout In BostonBoston Globe, Getty Images

Northeast Blackout (1965): Affects

The blackout took many hours to fix, and in the meantime, people were stranded in office buildings, subway tunnels and trains with no way to get home.

Communications took a major hit.

Boston Blackout Of 1965Boston Globe, Getty Images

New York City (1977)

On July 13, 1977, all of New York City lost power after numerous circuit breaker trips occurred. When the biggest generator in the city shut down, the city shut down with it.

New York City blackout of 1977Allan Tannenbaum, Getty Images

New York City (1977): Cause

The cause of this blackout was lightening. A substation by the Hudson River was struck by lightening resulting in two tripped circuit breakers, which diverted power elsewhere.

However, this caused 340,000 volts of electricity to convert to a lower voltage—which had consequences of its own.

Bird's-Eye View Of Hudson River From Walkway 5Juliancolton, Wikimedia Commons

New York City (1977): A Second Lightening Strike

A second, and then third lightening strike is what did us in. Almost an hour after the initial tripped breakers, New York’s biggest power generator went down, resulting in the citywide blackout.

Scenes from the New York City Blackout of 1977WWD, Getty Images

New York City (1977): Unlawful Activity

Unlike the blackout in 1965, this one happened during a time of economic struggle and people instantly took advantage of the blackout to commit unlawful acts, including looting, arson, and rioting.

Scenes from the New York City Blackout of 1977WWD, Getty Images

New York City (1977): Casualties

As a result, four people lost their lives, over 550 people were injured, and a whopping 4,500 people were apprehended by authorities.

Damages in and around the city cost over $300 million, with about 1,616 buildings destroyed or looted.

New York City blackout of 1977Robert R. McElroy, Getty Images

West Coast Blackout (1982)

On December 22, 1982, an estimated 2.5 million homes and businesses lost power, affecting people in San Francisco and San Diego, all the way to Las Vegas, Nevada.

San Francisco Skyline With Embarcadero Feb 1982GeraldPHawkins, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

West Coast Blackout (1982): Cause

Extremely high winds—averaging 90-mph—knocked a key transmission tower into a line tower causing three other towers to fall. In total, six towers were knocked over, resulting in a massive loss of power.

When communications went down, workers were unable to receive instruction, which caused further delay.

high voltage power linesRicardo Reitmeyer, Shutterstock

West Coast Blackout (1982): Duration

The duration of the blackout varied by location. Most people regained power by the following day, but power outages continued for up to three days for most rural areas.

BlackoutBARANOV OLEKSANDR, Shutterstock

West Coast Blackout (1982): Causalities

The storm, which included extremely high winds—the cause of the blackout—wreaked havoc in many ways.

Over 7,000 people at Disney Land had to be evacuated when the power went out, the Gold Gate Bridge was shut down after trucks were blown over, and a massive traffic jam resulted in various crashes.

Golden Gate Bridge 1982S.Fujioka, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Western North America Blackout (1996)

This blackout actually refers to two blackouts that occurred during the summer of 1996, six weeks apart, in the same areas—Western Canada, Western United States, and Northern Mexico.

Blackout conceptluchschenF, Shutterstock

Western North America Blackout (1996): Magnitude

Believe it or not, both power outages only lasted minutes or hours, depending on location, and were mostly an inconvenience as opposed to an emergency.

Even so, two million people were affected the first time, and 7.5 million were affected the second time.

Blackout concept, energy crisisProxima Studio, Shutterstock

Western North America Blackout (1996): Cause

Both incidences were said to be caused by an overload to the systems due to an incredibly hot summer where the excess use of air conditioners called for a high demand of power.

Electricity power stationTerelyuk, Shutterstock

North Central U.S. (1998)

On June 25, 1998, over 152,000 people were suddenly caught in the dark after a blackout affected the areas of the upper Midwest, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

energy crisisMarian Weyo, Shutterstock

North Central U.S. (1998): Cause

The cause was a lightening storm in Minnesota that initiated a transmission failure.

Multiple lightning strikes caused an overload in the lines, essentially separating the entire northern Midwest from the Eastern grid.

power grids lighteningTom_Sanderson, Shutterstock

North Central U.S. (1998): Duration

The earliest people got power back was after 19 hours, though many rural areas went without power for much longer.

BlackoutYevhen Prozhyrko, Shutterstock

Northeast Blackout (2003)

The Northeast Blackout of 2003 is the second most widespread power outage in history. In America alone, this blackout affected 45 million people in eight states, and another 10 million people in Ontario lost power.

2003 New York City BlackoutGlitch010101, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Northeast Blackout (2003): Cause

This massive blackout was caused by a software bug at FirstEnergy Corporation in Ohio. When overloaded transmission lines hit untrimmed trees, the alarm did not sound to warn maintenance workers.

Ohio Edison Energizes New Substation in West AkronFirstEnergy, Flickr

Northeast Blackout (2003): Duration

The blackout began on August 14th, and the duration of the outage lasted anywhere from four hours to two days, depending on location.

Northeast Blackout (2003)Brendan Loy, Flickr

Northeast Blackout (2003): Utilities

Water systems in several cities lost pressure, forcing boil-water advisories to be put into effect, and cell services were interrupted due to an increase in the volume of calls.

Toronto On 2003 BlackoutCamerafiend, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Northeast Blackout (2003): Chaos & Price Gouging

With the extensive loss of power, cities were left in complete chaos.

Gas stations that still had power started charging double, and cars reluctantly lined up for hours to get it.

Toronto Copes With Power OutageDeborah Baic, Getty Images

Northeast Blackout (2003): Traffic Control & Evacuations

Street lights were out, and since there weren’t enough officers to cover all intersections, volunteer civilians were given fluorescent jackets to help out.

Numerous evacuations occurred, including subways, government buildings, and large tourist areas.

Northeast Blackout (2003)Steven Henry, Getty Images

Northeast Blackout (2003): Recovery Period

Although the actual blackout only lasted two days, the effects lasted weeks.

During the recovery period residents across the U.S. and Canada were asked to reduce power consumption, and numerous businesses continued to experience rolling blackouts.

two electrical engineersBELL KA PANG, Shutterstock

Northeast Blackout (2003): Causalities

In New York, 3,000 fire calls were reported, many from using candles. EMS responded to over 80,000 calls for help—more than double the average.

Even worse, the blackout contributed to almost 100 fatalities. 

2003 New York City BlackoutBrecht Bug, Flickr

Northeast Blackout (2003): Fatalities

In Ontario, a previous burn victim lost his life when his AC unit failed to keep his skin grafts adequately cooled.

In New York, wo people passed from carbon monoxide, two others from fire, one from falling off a roof while breaking into a shoe store, and another from a heart attack after climbing stairs due to no working elevators.

ontario blackout 2003John R. Southern, Flickr

Southwest Blackout of (2011)

This blackout is considered to be the largest in California’s history, and is often referred to as The Great Blackout of 2011.

Over 2.7 million Americans were affected.

Southwest Blackout of (2011)slworking2, Flickr

Southwest Blackout of (2011): Areas Affected

In the afternoon of September 8th, a widespread power outage affected the San Diego–Tijuana area, southern Orange County, Imperial Valley, Mexicali Valley, Coachella Valley, and parts of Arizona.

Blackout of 2011 San DiegoFronteras Desk, Flickr

Southwest Blackout of (2011): Cause

The outage was the result of 23 distinct events that occurred on five separate power grids in a span of 11 minutes. 

Basically, it was a combination of human error, an overload to the system and transformer failures.

power grids problempenofoto, Shutterstock

Southwest Blackout of (2011): Duration & Loss

The blackout lasted 12-24 hours, for most of the affected areas. This caused significant losses to restaurants, grocery stores, and residents who had to throw away large amounts of perishable foods.

Total cost of food loss alone was estimated at $18 million. 

blackout of 2011 San DiegoSandy Huffaker, Getty Images

Derecho Blackout (2012)

On June 29, 2012, a 4.2 million people across 11 states and the District of Columbia lost power for close to two weeks.

Electrical power gridMenna, Shutterstock

Derecho Blackout (2012): Cause

The cause of this blackout was a destructive fast-moving severe thunderstorm complex—called a derecho—and this one was one of the deadliest in North American history.

North American derechoJarek Tuszyński, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Derecho Blackout (2012): The Blackout

The storm itself resulted in a total of 22 fatalities, property damage upwards of $2.9 billion, and millions of power outages that lasted well over a week.

An Appalachian Power representative described the power outage as the worst the company had ever seen.

power grids problemStock Holm, Shutterstock

Derecho Blackout (2012): Heat Wave

This storm occurred in the midst of the record Summer 2012 North American heat wave, which only made things so much worse.

Many of the states affected declared a state of emergency. The storm was more damaging to the power grid than Hurricane Ike.

Broken electrical utility pole and power lines due to severe weatherJ.J. Gouin, Shutterstock

Derecho Blackout (2012): Chaos

As with the other major blackouts, chaos ensued—and this time, for much longer than the others. Especially considering the cause of the blackout was an insane storm during a record-high heat wave.

Looting, fires, and unlawful activities filled the streets.

2012 North American derechorisingthermals, Flickr

Derecho Blackout (2012): EMS

In many of the states affected, the 9-1-1 services experienced outages, calling for increased help from the American Red Cross, who shipped tens of thousands of meals and drinking water to isolated communities across the country.

American Red CrossU.S. NAVY, Picryl

Derecho Blackout (2012): The Worst Hit State

West Virginia was the worst hit state in terms of power outage. About 672,000 residents lost power, and restoration was very slow as a result of the scattered population, mountainous terrain, and extreme heat.

Most of the state’s power outage lasted longer than two weeks.

Virginia Derecho 2012Kipp Teague, Flickr

Hurricane Sandy (2012)

Hurricane Sandy hit the Caribbean and the coastal Mid-Atlantic region of the United States in late October 2012.

It was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, and caused flooding, immense property damage, fatalities, food shortages, blackouts, and more, everywhere it touched.

Hurricane SandyMaster Sgt. Mark C. Olsen, Wikimedia Commons

Hurricane Sandy (2012): United States

In the U.S. Hurricane Sandy affected 24 states, hitting New York the hardest. Total damage across the U.S. was estimated at $65 billion.

new york blackoutFelix Lipov, Shutterstock

Hurricane Sandy (2012): Blackouts

Blackouts spread across the country wreaking havoc in all forms. Trains, planes, busses—all were shut down. EMS services struggled to operate. Numerous shortages took place including gas, food, and water.

Looting and unlawful activity were at an all-time high.

East Village blackout, during Hurricane SandyDan Nguyen, Flickr

Hurricane Sandy (2012): Closures & Advisories

Numerous businesses closed as a result of the hurricane, either due to damage or power loss. Hospitals struggled to run on generators, requiring international relief assistance.

Residents were advised to find a safe place and stay put, boil-water for drinking, and ration food.

Hurricane Sandy (2012) BlackoutsReeve Jolliffe, Flickr

Hurricane Sandy (2012): Duration

Because of the magnitude of the situation, it is difficult to say exactly how long blackouts lasted, but it is estimated that most of the U.S. had a continued blackout that lasted at least two weeks. 

Some residents, particularly in New jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut had power outages for even longer.

Hurricane Sandy (2012) BlackoutsLisa Bettany, Flickr

Hurricane Sandy (2012): Fatalities

Overall, Hurricane Sandy directly contributed to 233 fatalities, with the U.S. accounting for 157 of them. Haiti recorded 54 fatalities and 21 missing persons, and Cuba recorded 11 fatalities.

Bermuda, The Bahamas, Canada, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico accounted for the rest.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, debris and destructionDefense Visual Information Distribution Service, Picryl

Sources: 1, 2


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