Toronto blackout lessons to learn

At 4:42pm, an explosion at a Toronto power facility caused a blackout which darkened the centre of the city and touched over a quarter of a million people. While electricity was restored 4 hours later, a somewhat minor inconvenience, the ensuing end-of-day dinnertime chaos saw many of us either scrambling to get out of downtown to get home or trying to figure out what to have for dinner which didn’t require power. This was a gentle reminder of how all of our lives are very much connected to electricity: the glue which binds us together, the light which keeps the bogeyman at bay and the force which keeps our civilization humming along.

Of course, the papers the next morning had to make mention of the big blackout of 2003. The summary of that story is that on August 14, 2003 at 4:11pm EST, the largest outage in North American history cut power to 50 million people. While some people had power back the next morning, many had to wait 2, 3 even 4 days to have it restored. I was personally without power from that Thursday at 4:11pm until Saturday afternoon.

This all reminds me of 2 things.

First of all, on that Thursday, August 14, 2003, once my family had settled in to dealing with our lives without power, we carried on as best one can under those circumstances. While our stove was electric, we did have a gas barbecue so meals were not always cold. Around 9:30pm, my wife and I took our dogs out for a walk around the neighbourhood as we always did at that time. It was oddly dark or should I say eerily dark? In any city area, there is always ambient light, actually a great deal of ambient light. I don’t think we realise how much of it there is as it is never really dark per se in a city. Only when you head up north to the cottage does anybody see what "dark" truly is.

It was during this walk with the dogs I had an amazing moment. I looked up at the stars and saw the Milky Way. I was surprised. I had never seen the Milky Way in Toronto before. The quantity of ambient light is always so great that one can only see the brightest of stars in the sky but you certainly can’t see that magical twinkling dust of tiny far off stars which spreads across a swath of the sky. For that moment, I realised I was looking at a phenomenon I would classify as a once in a lifetime experience. I would probably never again have the circumstances of being in the middle of Toronto, a major metropolitan area and all the electricity would be cut so that all ambient light from the city was turned off. That was quite a moment; something I always remember when I go up to the cottage and once again have that opportunity to clearly see the Milky Way.

The second thing which comes to mind is my preparedness for an emergency. A couple of years after the big blackout, somebody at a company staff meeting brought up the idea of us all being prepared for a crisis. Such preparations would cover various basic necessities anyone would need to "ride out the storm" so to speak. We should have bottled water for a couple of days, flashlights, possibly candles, food which would not require refrigeration, etc. Yes, it does sounds a tad apocalyptic but I realized that it’s not until I have an actual emergency I think of even needing a flashlight. I’m not being a very good boy scout which is odd in that I actually was a boy scout. Obviously I have completely forgotten everything I learned about the scouts’ motto "be prepared".

The web site below from the federal government offers tips and ideas about being prepared for the usual sort of emergencies any of us might be faced with. When I think about it, this is all common sense. A rule of thumb on the site is that we should be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. When I think back on the big blackout of 2003, this seems like an appropriate period of time to be living "off the grid".

As I tuck this morning’s paper about yesterday’s blackout into the recycling bin, I consider making a stop at Canadian Tire to see about getting a flashlight. That might be a good first step in turning me back into a good boy scout.

References

Government of Canada: Is Your Family Prepared?
http://www.getprepared.gc.ca

Electricity
http://wqebelle.blogspot.com/2010/06/electricity.html

Click HERE to read more columns by William Belle.

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