One of 55 Million

Ten years ago, on 14 August 2003, and less than two years after 9/11, a power outage affected 45 million people in eight US states and 10 million people in Ontario. There were 55 million stories in the darkened cities. This is one of them.

I look up as the overhead light brightens, briefly. Then, sudden twilight: late afternoon light filters through blinds closed against the heat. The ceiling light is dark; the air conditioner (its hum from two levels below comforting, if somewhat ineffectual) is quiet.

I turn off the desktop, knowing it will scold me later, and wonder how long the outage will last. As always, there is that moment of disbelief: What do you mean, there’s no power? Foolishly, I toggle a switch in another room. Yup, the whole house is affected.

As I step outside, checking the traffic lights, I betray my slight paranoia: Is it just me? But a neighbour is doing the same thing, so now I am just scoping the problem, as any reasonable person would. Since this problem is outside my circle of influence, I determine to wait with what patience I can, thinking unkindly about Stephen Covey.

Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. Seldom found in woman; never found in man. (Unknown)

It’s 157 minutes later and my womanly patience is wearing thin, but my container gardens have benefited from some weeding. As I go back inside for the 23rd time to check — exhibiting something more like persistence than patience — I get a call from family in Calgary. They want to know if I’m all right.  How did they know?

This blackout is not just about me and my neighbourhood. Thousands are stuck in the NYC subway, hundreds in elevators. People are walking out of Manhattan. Again.

Enemy action? This is, if not my first thought on learning of the extent of the blackout, then my second. My first is this: I’m participating in a CNN event and I can’t even watch it on TV, damn it.

My situation, however, looks good in comparison to what might have been: no kids or old people to worry about, no high-rise stairs to climb, no cows to milk. Nonetheless, as the probable duration sinks in, I wonder what to do. Over the next hour, I fill the tub; find flashlight, candle, matches and a tinny battery-operated radio; and pull out the main-floor sofabed. Without air conditioning, the third-floor bedroom is unthinkable. I try not to think about people in highrises.

Through the evening, the news airs conflicting claims. Politicians in Albany and Ottawa engage in a “did so, did not” exercise about the failure’s origin, helping not at all. Technical experts disagree about what happened but agree that it will be hours or even days until restoration. I’m sorry: Did someone just say “days”?

With the exception of one jewelry-store robbery, the police report no infractions. It sounds like a kindergarten report card: “Ottawans are orderly and well-behaved, but somewhat lacking in initiative.”

Buses are on schedule; trains aren’t running at all. Airplanes are puzzling: domestic flights are grounded but overseas flights are still departing. How does that work?

Friday morning starts as early as Thursday night ended. The radio reports power restored to some parts of the city but not to all. If they can light up some parts of the city, why can’t they light up some parts of my house? This interruption of an essential service reminds me of my basic helplessness in the complex world someone else has built.

At 7:30 I stroll along the downtown streets, which are operating at one-twentieth their usual rush-hour load. Some blocks have power, some don’t, seemingly at random. A few office towers and businesses are open; most are not.

I’ve never seen the city like this. It looks like a science-fiction movie of a city after a plague, except that people aren’t afraid of each other. Other wanderers smile ruefully at me as they pass; a woman tells me where she found hot coffee; the owners of the corner store chat with me as they add up my purchases with a calculator.

Back home, I settle in for what could be a few hours or even a few days. My phone rings. It’s my young friend from Venezuela, with whom I practice Spanish. Living across the river in Quebec, she has electricity. Come over anytime, she offers.

Here is the most important reminder, and it has nothing to do with the technological complexity of our society or my own technological incompetence. What started with a legitimate concern about enemy action has become another reminder of the importance of our links to each other, of the value and strength of community.

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8 Responses to One of 55 Million

  1. Alison says:

    It’s one of those “I remember where I was when…” moments. We were approaching the toll booth at the top of the Coquihalla Highway in BC, when my cell phone rang – it was Mark, tell me “he was OK”. We had NOT heard the news, and my response was “OK from WHAT??” He lived on the 17th floor of a high rise in Ottawa at that time – so he really got his exercise! I love the silence and dark of a power outage, although I soon regret our reliance on it for everything we do. Makes us wish we still had our wood stove

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Yes, nothing quite so disconcerting as hearing that a loved one is safe from a hazard you hadn’t known about. Living in the city, the silence that accompanies a power outage isn’t my overwhelming impression, but the loss of artificial light sticks with me. the things you can’t do without it…

  2. Jim taylor says:

    Living in a more-or-less rural environment, we have power failures about every year — usually because of lightning strikes, but sometimes because the winds toppled a tree onto the power lines or some driver plows into a pole. What impresses me is the silence. There are so many motors running in a modern world that we’re not aware of them, until they stop running. Oh, yes, and how many stars one can see when there are no electric lights diluting the night sky.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – We went ‘up the Valley’ a few weekends ago and were hit by a series of violent lightning and wind storms – and, of course, power outages from all the branches and trees on power lines. Power was out for the better part of two days and the steady drone of generators at other properties along the lake became like a sore tooth. Since the 1998 ice storm in these parts, many rural dwellers have opted to install generators. What is a lovely convenience in summer when the power goes out can become a life-necessity in winter (assuming, of course, that one’s wood stove has decamped).

  3. Greta Horton says:

    I remember this very unexpected blackout well. I had an uncle visiting from England and an elderly mother living in a six story building. Our patio became our dining room with the barbeque cooking up our meals and our camp lantern beaming down on us.
    The quietness was beautiful and the sense of community among the four of us awesome. A day later when electricity was restored we all resumed our “normal” lives.
    My mother and uncle have since passed on but the memory of that special closeness lives on in my memory. The inconvenience was “outshone” by the closeness of the moment in time.
    Greta Horton

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Greta – What a fabulous memory to have of that event! (Me, I remember whinging because the Big Guy was in Goose Bay or somesuch, instead of suffering along with me.) I wonder if your uncle took home unexpected stories of life in the colonies.

  4. My first instinct was to water, then cover, the soil in every plant — more than 15 — on the balcony to preserve the moisture. Then our neighbours came over and we sat companionably for an hour or so, in increasing gloom, then candle light, listening to their wind-up radio. But the only stations that came through clearly enough were French. In great frustration, after another hour of no news, my neighbour yelled at the radio, “Speak English! — it’s an emergency!” As a progressive person, she instantly regretted what she had said.
    We live on the 22nd floor. The elevators worked, as did the hallway lighting — after the ice storm, our condo put in a huge generator costing big bucks, but well worth it we all agreed.
    My only regret is that we did not go walking downtown; I heard it was lovely, with strangers actually talking to each other!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Interesting. I hadn’t thought about high-rises installing generators, but why not? As for strangers talking to each other – I *was* downtown and can attest to some of that happening. Shared tribulation is a great ice-breaker.

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