Thursday, 14 August 2008
The Big Dark
Today marks the fifth anniversary of The Big Blackout.
"At 4:11 p.m. ET on Aug. 14, 2003, Ontario and much of the northeastern U.S. were hit by the largest blackout in North America's history. Electricity was cut to 50 million people, bringing darkness to customers from New York to Toronto to North Bay." - CBC online news
I usually work a half day on Thursdays and on that day I was in Toronto with my daughter, shopping at a specialty store for her new school uniform. After our transaction, we left the store and got in the car. I think that was the exact time the lights went out, because when we left the parking lot the traffic lights were out. I thought it was just a localized problem, so we inched our way through and proceeded north.
Every light was out! Obviously, treating a downed intersection like a four-way stop is great in theory, but much harder in practice when dealing with six lanes of rush hour traffic in each direction.
I was running low on gas and we dodged into a gas station. The owner shrugged and shook his head. The pumps weren't working. We switched on the car radio and discovered the power was out in a widespread area. My daughter tried the cell phone but the signal was garbled and whiny.
We felt isolated although we were surrounded by hundreds of other motorists. At a rural intersection north of the city, a Hydro worker in his bright orange overalls directed traffic. It took three surreal hours for us to make it back to my home thirty miles north of Toronto. By then the car was on fumes.
Everyone in the neighbourhood dragged their barbecues to front yards, and an impromptu street party ensued. When the sun went down, the clear sky revealed more stars than I could ever imagine. My neighbour Carol brought out a bottle of Crown Royal and we sipped and talked late into the night. It was too hot to go inside anyway.
I waited Friday morning for a call from my boss before going in to work. I work for a newspaper, so we didn't have the luxury of just not showing up! At 11:00 am I got the call to go in. They had restored power at one of our offices in Richmond Hill. I told my boss I didn't have enough gas to get there, so I went to our local office and helped a colleague stuff our Classified server and a few Imac workstations into his Honda hatchback. We looked like a couple of looters.
We set up in the boardroom of the Richmond Hill Liberal office and managed to put together a decent number of pages by about 11 pm. My boss dozed on a sofa in the foyer, waiting to take me home when I was done.
One printing press that had power got the papers out for the weekend editions. What a team!
Several barbecues and thawed Popsicles later, the power was finally restored by the end of the weekend. I look back on that weekend with fondness, although I'm sure it was a nightmare for a lot of people.
Does anyone else remember their experiences during The Big Blackout?
Edited to add: Our newspaper, The Era-Banner was just awarded Newspaper of the Year (Non-Dailies, Over 37,500 Circulation) by Suburban Newspapers of America! What a team!