Some Thoughts and Observations on the Great ‘Lights Out'

Initially I was barely aware that trouble had developed. I’d been drowsing in my apartment on a hot summer’s afternoon when I gradually became aware that my bedside fan had ground to a halt and sweat was breaking out all over my body. Rising groggily to my feet, I snapped on a nearby lamp… nothing.

At first there were no alarm bells. Brief power outages (a few seconds to a few minutes long) are nothing terribly unusual in my area and I waited patiently for the juice to return so I could re-set my alarm clock and perform a few other minor maintenance tasks. Five minutes passed, then ten… still nothing.

Made my way down the four flights of stairs to the street… a bunch of my neighbors were milling around and traffic was beginning to stack up. All the stoplights were dead.

The rumor mill was already cranking up by then. The outage was in most of downtown Toronto. No, it extended into North York and Etobicoke as well. Yadda, yadda…

Then one of my neighbors, who’d been waiting for a lift to an evening job, leaned out the window of a passing van and shouted “It’s Ontario-wide!”

Surely he was jesting.

Next, I decided to get on my bike and do a bit of scouting around. So, it was back up four flights… then right back down again, with the two-wheeler on my shoulder. Saddling up, I made my way cautiously west through an increasingly chaotic traffic situation.

Yonge Street – thousands of pedestrians were milling around, spilling out of the stalled subway system and from the neighboring office towers. A uniformed security guard was engaged in a largely futile effort to direct traffic. It was gridlock from hell, with things becoming increasing hot and stinky under the blazing August sun.  A block west (at Bay St.)  a lanky youth in a T-shirt and baggy pants was having a similarly strenuous time of it in his own attempt at traffic control.

Eventually I arrived at my ‘second home’ in Kensington Market. All kinds of people milling about, and a party atmosphere appeared to be evolving, with folks wandering about chatting, eating and openly drinking beer in the streets. Most of the small food stores were still doing business, using pocket calculators and even pencil and paper to tot up purchases. One place was selling off their stock of ice cream at distress-sale prices. I actually got some for free when a stranger who’d bought too much for her own use offered the surplus to me, refusing payment.

By then I was learning of the true scope of this thing, thanks to a friend with a radio who informed me the outage wasn’t just Ontario-wide, but extended into a large chunk of the northeastern United States. Speculations about possible terrorism were starting to find their way into the burgeoning grapevine.

At this point, it was clearly time to think about making my own supply run.  I started visiting some of the local stores, stocking up on fruit and veggies, canned fish, bread, candles…

Back home again, early evening. After three hours or so of massive congestion, the vehicle traffic had virtually melted away. There were lots more pedestrians than usual, along with seemingly zillions of people on bicycles. Everyone was walking about, with the atmosphere starting to take on the character of an impromptu ‘meet and greet’ as neighbor encountered neighbor. This would continue until late that night.

Darkness then fell… real darkness, for probably the first time since I moved downtown in the late 1970’s. An incredible sprawl of stars, like I’ve only seen before when well away from the city. For the first time the Milky Way could be seen from downtown Toronto!

On some of the smaller streets a flashlight or candle became necessary to get around. As the evening progressed, I began using my own light to ‘beam’ some of my fellow tenants up the darkened stairs to their apartments. I’d left my bike locked up in the building lobby, where it was eventually joined by two or three others.

I’d been using a battery-powered Walkman in an attempt to glean what bits of info were to be had. Ontario’s Premier Ernie Eves had announced a province-wide state of emergency, urging all non-essential workers to stay home Friday. (After all, it wasn’t ol’ Ernie who would be losing a day’s wages). I could actually envision both the temperature and bacteria count soaring in my refrigerator. As an additional precaution, I’d filled my bathtub with water in the event that system failed as well.

By then terrorism had been ruled out. It was thought at that time that Mother Nature herself had sought to teach humankind a humbling lesson, with the speculation being the whole mess had been triggered by a lightning strike near Niagara Falls, NY. While this was later discounted, one must consider the lessons on the limits to human omnipotence posed by this situation. Clearly, human systems are no less fallible than are the people who create them…

Ten PM – the financial district just to my southwest was once more lit up like a Christmas tree, in a graphic display of where this society’s priorities lie. It would be another seven hours – at five in the morning - before the renewed whirring of my fan would waken me after a bare two hours of sweaty sleep. It was not to last, as a couple of hours later all went dead again.

I used a tiny camp stove and metal peculator to make my days’ supply of stimulant, pouring the surplus into a Thermos for later consumption. Wandered back down to the street at about eight AM, where the proprietor of a local variety store was giving away the contents of her freezers to whoever was around – I ended up eating an ice-cream sandwich for breakfast. A quick buzz around the area by bicycle revealed that the blackout zone currently ended only two blocks west of where I lived. At Church and Dundas Streets, the gas station was open for business and a double lineup three blocks long had formed of car addicts desperate for their petroleum fix. This would last the entire day. The subway was, of course, still kaput.

Ten AM – the boundary of the blacked-out zone crept east once more, and the lights returned – for about four hours. When the power failed once more at around two, a frantic pounding could be heard from the building’s stalled elevator. Not long after that, the firemen arrived… and a woman who lived on my floor was safely released. She was pale, trembling – obviously badly frightened.

Downtown Toronto was a ghost town that Friday. The only time I’ve seen it quieter is on Christmas mornings, or as happened in January 1999 when a massive dump of snow brought everything (including the subway) to a grinding halt. The opening of the CNE had been postponed at least a day. The streetcars had been replaced by shuttle buses as the power supply continued to prove inconsistent. Even though it was a hot, muggy day the air quality seemed to have improved , probably due to the reduction in car traffic.

The local hot-dog vendors had done a booming business Thursday due to people being unable to cook and restaurants closing down. This had been a one day wonder, as I found out when I stopped for a sausage at about six Friday evening. The vendor I chatted with was lamenting the possible loss of his entire stock due to his freezer being incapacitated.

Undoubtedly many low-income people will be finding themselves in even worse straits, with the end of the month still two weeks away and no immediate means of replacing spoiled food. It was reported on this evening’s news that the already overtaxed Daily Bread Food Bank was bracing for a major run on its supplies.

The political fallout from this thing has been fascinating to say the least. The Ontario Government has suddenly hopped on board the conservation bandwagon… but only after they’d mismanaged the system almost into the ground through a failed attempt at de-regulation. For years these clowns have been on a free-wheeling campaign to encourage irresponsible energy use, and now they are demanding that ordinary people bite the bullet for their screwups.

It’s not that individual energy conservation isn’t a good and important thing, because we can  (and should) all contribute. I’ve always considered myself to be reasonably responsible when it comes top conservation, although this situation has shown me there’s still plenty of room for improvement in my own performance. If nothing else, this mess has driven home just how electricity-dependent we've all become.

It’s just that I find it impossible to envision Ernie Eves and the rest of these shysters abandoning their own air-conditioned comfort or gas-guzzling transport for the common good… and the same apparently holds true for many major businesses.

When the lights were finally restored to most areas late Friday, the city was once more ablaze with megawatt-eating electric signage as the advertisers’ assault on our senses and pocketbooks resumed without so much as a pause for breath. It seems that some people will never learn… or that they are secure in their knowledge that it is the rest of us who will continue to bear the burdens of their foibles

We are being threatened with rolling blackouts for the remainder of this week at least. The subway finally came back online this morning. The forecast is for more hot-and-sticky as the week progresses… which undoubtedly will put peoples’ resolve (and the electrical grid) to the test.

Stay tuned…

Graeme Bacque
August 18, 2003