Saturday, August 13, 2005

Blackout Anniversary: August 14th

Following is a letter my wife wrote to a friend two years ago after a widespread blackout caused mayhem in southern Ontario and northern-eastern United States. Since August 14th is the anniversary of the blackout, I thought it was worth printing - if only to remind us of how dependent we are on things we take for granted - like electricity!

My Blackout Adventure
M. Broadbent

You may have heard it all started in Cleveland. This is incorrect.

It started with a loaf of bread and a computer programme.

The truth is, my husband Richard caused the blackout. He was trying to install a new programme on our computer at 4:14 PM. The instant he pressed ‘Enter’, the computer made a terrible grinding sound, flashed very bright, then went black. After that, 50 million people were in the dark.

And now for the rest of the story:

We were out of bread, so at about 4 PM I left home to go to the supermarket. You know the slide-y kind of doors that open automatically? Well, they would not open! I stamped my feet, jumped and waved to get the sensor's attention, but to no avail. A customer had to pry the doors open to let me in.

About two dozen people were standing with their carts in the eerily dark front entrance of the supermarket, but the manager would not let us proceed. Customers, their carts loaded with groceries, were emerging from the black bowels of the store like zombies from “The Night of the Living Dead”. But – they had bread. Dark thoughts wormed through my carbohydrate-crazed mind. "HAND OVER YOUR BREAD, AND NOBODY GETS HURT!!!" I concocted a scheme to grab a loaf and make a run for it. However, I restrained myself with my Superior Restraining Ability (plus, the manager was way bigger than I am).

While waiting for the lights to go back on, I spotted a friend and we had a nice chat. The manager told us the power was out all the way to Kitchener, 45 minutes away. A fellow customer figured somebody must have hit a hydro pole. I called Richard on my cell phone to tell him I would be late. Richard told me my brother had just called and informed him the power was out all the way to Windsor, 3 hours the other way! I mused, that had to be some telephone pole! Using great wisdom and foresight (to avoid triggering a riot right there in the supermarket entrance), I whispered my news to the manager. I felt very important. His eyes widened. He then suggested we all go home, because it looked as if the situation was going to take a while to resolve.

I made two new friends in the parking lot. We each informed the other of whatever information we had, chatted a bit, then went our way. I'll likely never see them again.

I got in my van and turned on the radio. The announcer said the station was in 'emergency mode' and was relying on battery power. I started to get concerned. Nobody knew what the heck was going on! Was North American under some kind of terrorist attack? There was a rumour there had been an explosion at a Con Ed plant in New York. Land lines were no longer working. Within minutes of calling Richard on my cell phone, I tried again, but even it wouldn't work. The only contact we had with the outside world was by car or battery operated radios.

I decided to go to a convenience store to buy bread, but found our local variety had already closed down (I did, however, peer into the darkened store and spied the clerk crouched down behind the counter). I travelled four blocks to the next one. It was open, but the tiny parking lot was crammed with cars. I went in, and found a line of people snaked all the way to the back of the dark, sweltering store. People were buying whatever they could, especially batteries and ice. To my dismay, I found the store was already out of bread…groan… but in true Canadian style, everybody was being so nice, joking and using very good manners. I was impressed with my fellow countrymen. Since I had to wait in line anyway, I also bought batteries and ice, two very hot commodities.

I travelled across town to three other stores. All were closed.

Bank machines were inoperable, all planes were grounded at every airport, nobody could get gas at the service stations, it was an extremely hot and humid day and there was no electric fan or air conditioning to be found, anywhere! Fridges, freezers stopped dead. The most dangerous thing was that there wasn't a working traffic light in all of southwestern Ontario, and the Blackout occurred at the beginning of the rush hour. The radio announcer was advising everyone to consider every intersection a 4-way stop. Citizens jumped out of their cars and began directing traffic. Dairy Queen gave away their melting ice cream cakes. Officials were advising people not to drink tap water. This was getting very serious and more than a bit scary.

There was nothing to do! Couldn't watch TV or get on the computer. The local swimming pool shut down because the pump wasn't working. When I got home, I ate some cheese and crackers washed down with lukewarm milk for supper and listened to the radio. Then I went outside to read "East of Eden" until the sun went down.

It was really remarkable how people were helping each other out. Because bank machines didn't work, thousands of people were caught not having enough change to buy anything to drink, so strangers were just giving them money. Grocery stores gave away cases of bottled water. I noticed a whole lot of people outside walking their dogs or just chatting with neighbours. Kids were playing ball, riding bikes or running around - many more than usual. I walked down to the park to see the stars. It was pretty cool without the urban glow - the stars were magnificent. We lit some candles and navigated with flashlights.

We were really lucky, because our power came back on at 9:30 PM Thursday. However, in London, an hour away, power was not restored until Saturday. Our Ontario premier declared a state of emergency. He told anybody who was not an essential worker to stay home Friday to cut down on the amount of energy being used by factories and office buildings. Toronto, Canada's largest city, was absolutely and totally shut down. Subways didn't work, people were stuck in high-rise elevators, and streetcars were inoperable. Nobody could get home, yet everybody was very nice about it - patient and good-humoured. Most spent the night sleeping on the sidewalks or in city parks (Toronto has many beautiful parks).

So, as soon as the lights came on in most Ontario cities, guess where people headed in droves? Can ya guess?

Tim Hortons! People were waiting more than half an hour in line just to get a cup of coffee, and the line to go for the drive-through was several city blocks long!

Many things I learned from the Blackout. We, like most people, were totally unprepared. I will buy many emergency candles and ensure we have plenty of matches. I will replace my flashlight batteries twice a year. I will always have the fuel tank in the van full. I will have a sufficient supply of soup, water and dry packaged goods. I will fill my freezer with bread. I will buy stock in Tim Hortons.

And Richard is forbidden from installing any more computer programmes.

1 comment:

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