Thursday, August 14. I was looking forward to the upcoming weekend. Not only was it my 40th birthday, but we were finally going to be moving into our new house. My new job had necessitated a move to Ottawa. Six long weeks had gone by and my husband and son were scheduled to arrive sometime the next day. It was my last night living in residence at Carleton University and I had a lot to do that day to get ready for the move.
4:10 p.m. Still at the office, I rushed to finish one last job at the end of the day. Barely noticeable, the office lights flicked once, twice, three times. I wondered if I had imagined it. Then it went dark. We waited. The power had gone out in our building the week before; we assumed that this time would be no different.
We were wrong. We soon found out that we were experiencing the largest power blackout ever to hit the eastern seaboard. Most of Ontario, and eight American states including the cities of New York City, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland had been affected by a failure somewhere in the power grid. An estimated 50 million people were plunged into darkness in a matter of nine seconds.
We patiently waited for the lights to come on. Some people in the building had access to battery operated radios. As the scope of the blackout became known, rumours began to spread; a blackout of this magnitude could only be the work of terrorists. My thoughts flashed to my parents. They would want to know that I was safe. I tried to call but neither my cell phone nor the office phone was working. I would just have to wait to get word to the outside that I was OK.
I looked out the office window and saw the growing traffic jam. Traffic control lights were out as well. I sat in the car and listened to the radio as the government assured Ontarians that the blackout was not caused by acts of terror. It was caused by a fault in the power grid at an undetermined location. Immediately, both the American and Canadian leaders began pointing fingers at each other, as if assigning blame would somehow reassure the people and restore the power. As I sat in snarled traffic, I realized that I had to get my room packed while there was still daylight.
Our recent move to Ottawa created some logistical problems, one of them being housing. Although I arrived in Ottawa on July 7, our townhouse was not ready until August 15. The residence at Carleton University had been a perfect short-term solution for my accommodation problem. I had planned to move out Friday morning, go to work as usual, and pick up the keys to our house at 5:00 p.m. Of course, I had not planned for a power blackout of such a massive scale. Luckily, when I arrived at the university, a back-up generator was functioning. The residence store stayed open long enough to sell basic emergency supplies to the residents, and I was fortunate to purchase a battery for my radio. The power still had not returned, and seeing no other option; I packed my room and loaded the car while there was still daylight. As night came, the residence hallways were lit by emergency power but there was no power in the rooms so the residents sat in the common areas under the emergency lights socializing, reading or doing homework. Needing to find some dinner, I ventured out into the streets. Ottawa’s skyline was completely dark; the lights from Gatineau across the river beckoned seductively. Any thoughts I had of going to Quebec quickly vanished. The bridges crossing the river were packed solid with traffic as Ontario citizens flooded to Quebec in search of a hot meal and a tank of gas. Instead, I listened to CBC radio on my battery operated radio and as the blackout continued, eventually went to bed.
I woke up early on Friday morning. Power had still not been restored. I was fairly hungry as supper the night before had consisted of Sun Chips from the residence store. Luckily, the university had used one of its generators to fire up what it could in the residence cafeteria. The staff had managed to cook hash brown potatoes and had a toaster working. They also had made some coffee. While I am normally not a morning person, I figured that I had better eat as who knew what the day might bring or when my next meal might be.
I checked out of the residence and considered my options for the day. The university had closed the classrooms, library and all other non-essential buildings to conserve power. All non-essential workers were advised to stay home. Now homeless, I went to work to see if I could find a working phone. I thought that perhaps, given the circumstances, I could move into our townhouse early. I managed to get a call into the rental company, who said that as long as I didn’t need an elevator, I should be able to move in as scheduled. I just had to wait and see.
Not knowing where else to go, I stayed at the office. I took advantage of the quiet to do some PHIL 333 homework. About 12:10 p.m. the phone rang. The power had come back, 20 hours after it went out. We had been warned to expect rolling blackouts all day; I hurried to make a cup of tea and microwave some lunch before I was plunged into the dark again. Luckily, the power stayed on. It seemed anti-climatic at the end of the day, when I was able to pick up my keys and move into my new place. I was extremely lucky that the blackout of 2003 had ended for me without one bit of drama.
Ultimately, I was reasonably unaffected by the blackout. Through sheer luck I had enough fuel and was able to have a meal. I did not have an emergency kit, but there was a flashlight in the car, I had access to clean water and I was able to buy a battery for my radio. It took a few days for cellular service to be restored, but I was eventually able to let my parents know that I was safe. This experience reminded me that a blackout can happen at any time and that I should be prepared. There are probably 50 million other people like me who learned the exact same thing.
Tips on how to prepare for the next blackout and energy conservation tips can be found online at the Toronto Star. Under Special Reports, click on Blackout.