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!


pjd said...

Nice story. Congratulations on the award!

Bernita said...

A lot of people were introduced to "stairs" that weekend, I understand.
Congratulations to your paper!

BernardL said...

Excellent narrative of your time in the dark. I always wonder at people who keep trying to force us all back to the Stone Age. The darkness can band people together for a block party, or set loose the monsters amongst us.

pjd said...

Ha, ha, Bernita. Puts me in mind of this.

Chumplet said...

That cracks me up, Pete.

If those two were just a couple of stairs closer, they could've had escalator sex.

Barbara Martin said...

Then I worked evenings and was on my way in. Although for some strange reason I dawdled at home and left about half an hour later than normal. Thank goodness I did that or I would have been stuck in the TTC subway when the power shutdown. As I took the bus to the subway, I stayed on that to the loop at Davisville where there were more people than seats available. Hearing the power was shut down all over Toronto I tried my cell to call in, only to find no signal. The ride back up Yonge to Lawrence took two hours as traffic was bumper to bumper.

Fortunately I lived on the first floor of a low rise walkup apartment and only had half a flight of stairs. My neighbours and I shared cold sandwich fixings and fruit for an evening meal.

It was a night of a full moon, and quite the experience to sit with neighbours who had never been out of the city to see the stars. They got a treat that night. The effect reminded me of growing up in Edmonton and walking down dark streets with only the moonlight to see your way.

When the power first went out I thought there had been a terrorist attack near Toronto.

There was no TTC up and running until Tuesday, so I had Monday off. It's a fairly long walk to downtown Toronto from Yonge and Lawrence.

With commenting on all of the above it is a reminder for all of us to be more prepared for the next time.

Deb Maher said...

Loved your post, Sandra. And the escalator video was too funny!

I guess the good thing about blackouts is that they let us think about life in a new way...if only for a short time. Barbecues and Crown Royal, shared beneath the stars. Thanks your story!

Chumplet said...

It's interesting to read the experiences of those who lived in the big cities during the blackout. Imagine seeing stars from the middle of Toronto.

I'm so glad you didn't get caught in the subway, Barbara, but the experience would have been a great thing to write about!

Hi, Deb. Nothing like a crisis to bring people together. I didn't really hear about any bad stuff. Did you, Bernard?

laughingwolf said...

grats to your paper for the award, sandra!

i recall that incident well, but it did not affect us on the east coast, different grid....

BernardL said...

The bad stuff I remember from a blackout came in 1977 when New York City lost power, and the monsters came out for arson and looting parties. In 2003, the NY police presence kept it in check. I assume they learned from the 1977 episode. I hope we never have an extended blackout to test us.

Kanani said...

Congrats on the newspaper award.

I've enjoyed reading about your time w/o power! The longest time I've been was a period of just over 24 hours. It was after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and we did the same. Sat around the Bbq, walked around by candlelight and tried to pull in news about the damage via transistor radio! (Obviously, this was before internet --a time most of our kids would fail to understand!!).

Chumplet said...

Wasn't there a movie about the big blackout in the 60's, called Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?

We used the car radio (sparingly) and my neighbour Joe went for batteries and ice while the store down the street was still open. He had to pay cash! No debits that weekend!

As I write this, I wonder if I have a supply of batteries. Nope. The kids used them all in their Nintendo DS.

Oh, well. At least they'll be entertained if it happens again.

Yesterday and today, our email went down, across the whole newspaper chain. It's amazing how much we depend on the grid. Fifteen years ago, we'd have couriered pictures and ads back and forth by car. Even now, the fax machine seems archaic.