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In the midst of the monumental clean-up and recovery after the biggest Atlantic storm in history, Hurricane Sandy, killed hundreds of people and left a path of destruction and grief from the Caribbean to Appalachia to New England, LIFE.com looks back at a far smaller disaster: a blackout in New York City in the summer of 1959.
In photos made in August that year, a significant area of the Big Apple eerily recalls recent scenes in downtown Manhattan and other parts of the city — as well as in hundreds of other towns and communities in a dozen states — in Sandy’s wake. Streets that are ordinarily bright with light and filled with people well into the night are, here, dark and largely deserted. The landscape holds patterns and shapes that look vaguely familiar, but that don’t cohere into anything that we really recognize.
The scale of the change from “normal” to “not normal” in these pictures is miniscule compared to the devastation left by a hurricane (13 hours of no power, compared to days and even weeks without electricity in the post-Sandy world). But there is nevertheless something disconcerting — even in scenes from a minor, long-forgotten blackout — that reminds us how tenuous the barrier sometimes is between light and dark, power and powerlessness.
For its part, LIFE described the blackout in its Aug. 31, 1959, issue this way: