Residents cope with heat, power outage

BY CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM | NEW YORK | July 8, 1999


NEW YORK (July 8, 1999) -- First, the streetlights burst on and off, like

flashbulbs. Then, everything went off, except for the traffic lights.

"Everything was dark, but the traffic lights kept blinking," said Cesar

Ferreira, 21. "It was beautiful. Then, a minute later, the whole thing went

down."

The northern Manhattan neighborhood known as Washington Heights, notorious

for its high crime and poverty, was blacking out. Scorching heat and record

demand for electricity had burnt its connection to the rest of the world.

"There was screaming and howling, and people jumping up and down, and

people running out of their houses," said Ferreira.

A group of a dozen teenagers tried to raid a local grocery store, but the

owner locked them out in a frantic dash for the door. Another group set a

car aflame and spread burning garbage into the street.

One eyewitness said kids bombarded passing cars with bottles, which

shattered off hoods and windshields.

The police later reported nine arrests. But for most of the 300,000

Manhattanites who suddenly found themselves drowning in darkness at 10:11

PM last Tuesday, the night was dramatically peaceful, if eerie and stifling.

"There's been scattered reports of looting," said Sergeant Sheila Dillon,

one of hundreds of police and firefighters called to the neighborhood to

set up command posts, keep order and direct traffic in the hours after the

lights fell. "But most of our calls have been aid cases, helping elderly

people down stairs."

"It's actually been pretty calm," she added.

"The community here is great," said Juan Castillo, who kept his Valdez

Grocery open until 2 a.m., dispensing drink and food to those who needed

it. "I sold out most of my stock tonight. Some people didn't have money,

but we gave them what they needed anyway. We have no problem trusting

people here, they live in the neighborhood."

Castillo was joined by a passing car service driver, who lit the storefront

with his headlights for most of the evening. The grocer said he would spend

the night on the street with his mother, who has a pacemaker and was unable

to manage the oppressive heat in the low-rise apartments that dominate this

primarily Hispanic neighborhood.

As a yellow crescent moon rose over the Harlem River, families by the

hundreds joined Castillo, pouring into the obsidian streets, bearing

flashlights, candles, pillows and blankets. On 175th St., there was inky

blackness, and behind the blackness, a suggestion of many human shapes.

The smoke-blue searchlights of police helicopters lit families curled on

lawnchairs against the cool walls of apartment buildings. "It's a furnace

in our place. Can't even sleep," said John Cabarez, sitting with his mother

and seven brothers and sisters on a corner.

"Muy caliente," said the mother.

Others held quiet babies who were unable to sleep. Nearby, orange flares

lit the streets like jagged airport runways. Clutches of young men in

tank-tops hugged the corners.

"It's an oven up in my apartment," said Ronny Estrella, 20. "All the food's

going to spoil."

On one corner, a group of men played dominoes under the light of a humming

blue mosquito lamp.

Men and women draped themselves on strangers' cars, trying to sleep. People

slept in doorways, on the sidewalks, on stoops and on fire escapes.

On many streets, the only light was the scattered yellow and red of police

and ambulance crews trawling through the neighborhood. With traffic lights

down, cars slowed to a crawl, and drivers hunched over their steering

wheels, watching for kids playing in the misty jets of open fire hydrants.

Despite City Hall's desperate pleas to conserve water, the fire hydrants

remained open. "If we shut the hydrants down," said one police officer,

"the kids wouldn't have anything to do."

On a nearby street corner, a truck dispensed ice to residents, courtesy of

Con Edison, which worked through the night to restore power.

"We distributed 2,000 pounds of ice in an hour," said Louis Sigmund, a Con

Ed worker. The sweat poured from her forehead and her hair clung in snaking

clumps. She threw a forty-pound bag of ice over her shoulder and handed it

off to a young boy, who thanked her and veered away towards home under the

burden.

"The people have been very respectful, very grateful, very nice," said

Sigmund. "Their major concern is for the elderly. They're coming down to

pick up ice for the old people."

A group of three young women, one carrying a three-month-old in diapers,

appeared out of the darkness asking for ice. They dumped the bag in a

stroller.

Cool breaths came from the ice truck, but then, from the west, came a

breeze almost as cool. The heat was breaking, just as forecasters had

predicted. It was 3 a.m.

"That's it," said one man, throwing up his arms and looking at the sky.

"It's done. It's over."

Posted July 8, 1999


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