Surviving without power

Last week’s blackout showed just how dependant we all are on electricity. Local blackouts are common and usually short-lived. But when half the country (and a quarter of the country to the south) goes dark, the things you take for granted become serious issues. For those of you that weren’t in the affected areas, here are some things to think about:

Transportation – With traffic lights out, the intersection is supposed to be treated as a 4-way stop. In the early minutes after the blackout hit, it’s amazing how many people forgot this simple rule. After repeated pleas over the radio, most people eventually figured it out. All subways and streetcars shut down. Commuter trains are diesel powered, but the track switches aren’t. Millions of people were stuck with no way home. Airports were shut down, not only because of the air-traffic control and runway lights, but also because the security and x-ray devices weren’t available.

Radio, TV and Gossip – With no power, you couldn’t watch TV, and about half the radio stations were off the air. In your small part of the world with no communication, you wouldn’t have known the huge magnitude of this outage. Amazingly, most people knew that it was widespread, affecting locations including New York, Detroit, Toronto and Ottawa. Telephones continued to work throughout the outage; the cell phone networks continued to run, but were often busy and with weak signals. If you had a UPS, Internet access was fine (at least mine was until my UPS conked out 75 minutes in).

Shortage Fears – These events usually result in rampant fears of shortages of everything from water and gasoline to bread and meats. Quite a valid concern.

  • Water: We were told not to worry, that we had enough water in the city’s supply to last 24 hours. Hmmm.. that begs the question of what happens if the power doesn’t come back. Better go to the store and pick up some water just in case. Store is sold out? Ahhhh!
  • Gasoline: Gas pumps wouldn’t work. When the power first came on in small pockets, people came from all over to get gas at a small number of stations. At one, I waited in line for an hour, and they ran out of gasoline when I was 4 cars from the pump. I went to another where I successfully gassed up afer only a 45 minute wait. The power outage shut down the refineries. Stations that ran out are still waiting for the trucks to replenish them.
  • Food: Health officials came on TV cautioning that food will be okay in the fridge for 5-6 hours, in the freezer for no more then 12 hours. So, you empty out your fridge and freezer, hop on down to the grocery store and realize that their fridges and freezers were out too. Even their warehouses were out. So now you have to wait a week or more before new supplies come through the system. Pasta and soup again tonight.

On the other hand, it was a welcome change of pace, not unlike a “snow-day.” Most people took the inconvenience in stride. While waiting in an hour-long lineup at a hot-dog vendor on Thursday night, I was able to talk to other Torontonians about the “surreal” environment we found ourselves; the streetlights and traffic lights dark, the silhouette of the dark Toronto skyline at dusk, the people walking down the street with flashlights in hand, and the dark abandoned streetcar sitting still and empty on the tracks.

Best of all, absent of the usual “urban-glow” which normally prevents you from seeing anything in the night sky, except for the moon, I was able to sit on a bench by the harbour gazing at the stars, and the brilliant sight of Mars as it approaches us.


  1. The best part for me was sleeping out on our deck underneath the stars to escape the oppressive heat inside our apartment. Not only could you clearly see the milky way because there was none of the usual light pollution in the sky, but there were some awesome falling stars.

    All in all, I enjoyed Blackout 2003. It took me about half an hour to get home (pretty much normal), I went for a nice long walk Thursday night, and I worked from home with off and on power on Friday (working on my laptop meant that when the power went out, I could continue on).

  2. Wow. When I think about blackouts, I think about the 20 minute blips that happen from time to time. You drive down the street and everything is fine.

    I couldn’t imagine the type of problems you are talking about! Fortunately, everything stayed running here in Calgary. Hang in there!


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