In 'Blackout City' - a quieter, emptier version of Manhattan

NEW YORK Thu Nov 1, 2012 3:40am IST

A largely unlit downtown Manhattan stands under a night sky due to a power blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York October 30, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

A largely unlit downtown Manhattan stands under a night sky due to a power blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York October 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Kelly

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The residents and business owners of lower Manhattan who have lost their electricity this week are beginning to adjust to life in an unfamiliar place: "Blackout City."

It is a largely quiet place, empty of the crowds that would normally gather to shop, eat, and work there, patrolled by slow-moving police cars with flashing lights and peopled by the lonely bicyclist or dog-walker.

Cars pause at most small intersections and line up to cross the large avenues where a steady stream of traffic moves, unbroken by any lights. There is plenty of parking, because few people want to hang around.

Inside as well as out, it is a chilly place. Hot showers and cable TV are a dream for people living in darkened apartments, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and canned beans. "Blackout City" dwellers are unable to connect with their friends and relatives elsewhere, as the power outage has cut most cell phone reception.

Most important to the restaurants and grocery stores was the food that would soon begin to spoil in idle refrigerators.

"We're about to buy a couple of grills and start cooking food and giving it away," said Shane McBride, chef for the tony SoHo restaurant Balthazar as he directed staff on the sidewalk outside. "But our first priority is to get everything clean."

Like nearly all businesses and homes in the lower part of Manhattan island, Balthazar lost power late on Monday after damage from the giant storm Sandy triggered an explosion in a Consolidated Edison power station on 14th Street. The power company has said it could take four days to restore electricity to the area.

The storm, which killed 64 people, knocked out power for millions and crippled transportation systems along the U.S. East Coast, left a foot of water (.3 meters) in Balthazar's basement, which McBride and his crew were in the process of cleaning out. He said the roughly $70,000 worth of food in the freezers was still good because of dry ice, but time was running out.

"Our goal is not to let any of the food go to waste," said Erin Wendt, Balthazar's general manager.

CASH ONLY

On the second full day of the power outage, business owners in "Blackout City" were beginning to assess the damage to their stores and try to reopen, even without power.

Two retail workers crouched in the dark in an OMG Jeans clothing store on Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street. They had been told to open the store and write down any purchases in a ledger - cash only as they had no way to take credit card payments. At 10 a.m. (1400 GMT), they had not made any sales and were hoping to persuade the store's owner to close the shop.

A worker in a locksmith's shop a few blocks away had a similar story after opening for business. She said she could not operate any of the key-making equipment without power and was considering closing again.

On Varick Street in the Tribeca neighborhood, four people loaded food from a darkened McDonald's into an SUV.

The owner of the Gourmet Deli, a corner store on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, said he was planning on shipping back spoiled food in his store to the distributor, who would reimburse him.

But the man, who declined to identify himself, said he stood to lose business while waiting for the power to return, adding that most of his customers on Tuesday and Wednesday only wanted coffee.

One of the customers, Toby Ludwig, said he was tired of staying in his nearby apartment without power and was heading to his father's house in Pennsylvania. He said he had been charging his cell phone in his car and had let neighbors do so as well.

'SO EERIE'

On a shady block of Charles Street in the West Village, Eileen Robert was sweeping up leaves in front of the brownstone where she has lived for 23 years. She said she has never seen such an extended blackout.

"It's pitch black at night and I've been afraid to walk my dog," She said. "It's so eerie."

Unlike the blackout that struck New York City in 2003, this time there are no neighbors hanging out on stoops or restaurants opening their doors in the dark.

Robert, a senior vice president and director of townhouse sales at the Corcoran Group real estate firm, said she decided to stay to protect her house instead of going to stay with her daughter who lives further uptown.

"I want to be here in case anything happens," said Robert, whose office is without power and closed.

A few doors up the street was a man who offered a different take on the situation in lower Manhattan.

"It's great," said Tony Villamena, who lives in Brooklyn, where there is power, and has been working on a renovation job on Charles Street.

"It's good to be reminded that not too long ago we lived without electricity."

Villamena said there wasn't much work he could do without power, but he was enjoying the quiet. It reminded him of his time living on the Navajo Indian Reservation outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.

"I liked living there - no power, no plumbing," he said.

Another example of the throwback to earlier times is the importance of radios, which provide the main source of real-time news and information, such as school closings and updates on the city's transit system.

On Tuesday night, music floated out of the tiny speaker of a hand-cranked radio behind the bar at 2A, an East Village bar. Every so often, the radio went silent and had to be wound up again.

Dim light from a row of candles on the bar flickered. Conversation focused on the storm and the task of getting through the day without power. A customer came in with plastic bags to carry ice from the bar to his refrigerator at home.

Nearby, the Dorian Gray had fired up a generator. A neighbor convinced the bar's staff to let him run a line to his refrigerator. A small group of people waited outside hoping for ice.

(Reporting By Emily Flitter; Editing by Martin Howell and Paul Simao)

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