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.