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BLACKOUT: THE RECOVERY

New Yorkers View Perishables in a New Light

Power is back on, but residents have issues about food and spoilage. Dare they nosh on that brie or order the fish when dining out?

August 17, 2003|Valerie Reitman, Walter Hamilton and John Goldman | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — A city that relishes its restaurants and delis was in a "hold the mayo" frame of mind Saturday.

The power was back on, but New Yorkers viewed deli cases and menus with jaundiced eyes.

"Oh yeah, now it's cold," said one dubious man as he prowled Morgan's market in Manhattan eyeing the same milk, cheese, yogurt and very limp Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream that had been there during the blackout. "I'm not eating anything fresh from here for another week. The milk's a little chunky."

The concern about food safety -- and the assurances from city and state leaders that they will increase inspections -- marked the city's return to near normalcy Saturday after the lights went out shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday.

With trapped suburbanites finally able to make their way home Friday night, New Yorkers reveled in having the city to themselves and bonded in a collective sense of having overcome another crisis -- this one with few casualties.

And they drifted back to more mundane activities, like cleaning out their refrigerators and deciding whether it was safe to eat the brie or order the fish at dinner.

"If this had happened before Sept. 11 without the bigger sense of needing to stay calm and working together, it would have been so different," said Andrew Karle as he dined with a companion at the Luca Lounge in Lower Manhattan.

The entire city was without power for at least 12 hours, but some neighborhoods stayed dark for nearly 30 hours.

Sanitation trucks worked overtime Friday and Saturday, picking up the piles of discarded food from city streets. Many -- though far from all -- stores and restaurants reopened Saturday. Subways and trains ran normal weekend schedules, and for once, jaded New Yorkers gave thanks for things they often gripe about, like the subway.

"I can jump for joy," said Tammie Smith, 32, a juvenile justice worker, as she stepped out of the 33rd Street subway station en route from her Brooklyn home. "No more $45 cabs."

Maureen Moran smiled as she entered the subway Saturday afternoon. It had taken the attorney four hours Thursday night to walk from her Midtown Manhattan office to her home in Brooklyn.

"You never appreciate [the subway] until it goes down," she said. It was a refrain heard frequently.

Still, some New Yorkers took nothing for granted.

John Thompson, a 42-year-old promotions manager from the Bronx, went to the office for a few hours Saturday. He rode the subway, but took his bike along after walking a long way home Thursday night.

"This was my backup option, just in case," Thompson said.

Ray Venezia, a sales manager at a sporting-goods store, was one of the last people in the city to get his electricity back. Like others, he grumbled about the seemingly random order in which power came back to various neighborhoods, with his Chelsea neighborhood among the last, getting power restored 29 hours after it went out.

Elsewhere, workers scrambled to put the finishing touches on the recovery.

Ernesto Perez, a technician for an air-conditioning repair company, began work about 7 a.m. and figured he'd be lucky to finish by 10 p.m. before doing it all over again today. Thermostats in many businesses had to be reset for the air conditioning to function, he said.

The New York airports were one of the last remnants of the city still suffering the after-effects of the blackout.

LaGuardia and JFK airports each canceled about 600 flights, said Dan Maynard, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airports. Some additional flights were canceled on Saturday, and those that took off were delayed an average of 30 to 45 minutes -- mostly because of bad weather elsewhere, he said.

The situation was better at LaGuardia than JFK, Maynard said. Many people who had been forced to sleep at LaGuardia on Thursday and Friday were finally able to fly out, he said. At JFK, a backlog of passengers waited to get going.

Many beaches were closed because of suspected contamination from sewage.

Government officials stopped short of assuring New Yorkers that there would be no further electrical problems. Gov. George Pataki urged people to remain cautious in their energy use -- especially on Monday when millions of riders are expected to crowd subways for the morning and evening rush hours.

Meanwhile, both Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have promised that health inspectors will be making rounds at stores and restaurants to check that all the perishable merchandise has been discarded.

Many restaurants and markets tossed out thousands of dollars' worth of meat, dairy products and produce. At the Food Emporium in Lower Manhattan Saturday morning, workers were hosing down the deli meat counter and hauling all the spoiled milk and beef away.

"The only milk that's good is at the end of the row," a worker called out to customers, assuring them it had just been delivered.

Workers directed customers to eggs and milk they said had just been delivered.

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