Powerless

Yesterday I made plans to go see S.W.A.T. with Jason and his girlfriend, Helene. We went during the late afternoon to take advantage of the matinée prices. A simple enough plan, I thought. But no, the largest blackout in North American history has to come along and spoil it. The previews hadn’t even finished when the presentation stopped and the emergency lights clicked on. We thought it’d be back in a few moments so we sat patiently. An obviously harried usher came in and told us things would be back in a few moments after the power returned. He sounded completely distracted and perhaps a little afraid to give us this news, which I found very curious. Ten minutes later another usher told us the power was out and they had no idea when it would be back. The emergency lighting would only last for another ten minutes so we could all go out to the lobby and get vouchers for a free movie. We got vouchers and took off.

I think these two people had the best idea on how to pass the time without electricity ... at least while the sun was up. There's nothing like a good book and a comfy chair to while away the hours!

I think these two people had the best idea on how to pass the time without electricity … at least while the sun was up. There’s nothing like a good book and a comfy chair to while away the hours!

After we got to the car and turned the radio on, we began to realize the scope of the outage. The announcer mentioned Toronto was out, and even New York State and New Jersey were without power. The announcer also said since the whole city was out, traffic for the quickly approaching rush our would be nuts with all the stop lights non-functional. I suggested we go to my place and wait out the traffic because I was much closer to the theatre. Helene suggested taking the Queensway (the highway running through the middle of the city) because there are no traffic lights to slow us down. Almost as if in answer, the announcer suggested many figured the Queensway would be faster because of its lack of traffic lights, and the Queensway was already jammed. Instead we took the 417 east hoping to sneak around south rather than through the city.

The first part of our journey was really nasty. Bumper to bumper, inching along, it seemed we’d be in transit for an hour. Happily, we did select a good route and things started moving along quite nicely. We were at my place within a half-hour. Granted, the trip would’ve taken less than half the time under normal circumstances. Without power, my place was pretty hot but we made do. Since I had no battery operated radio, we were completely cut off from what was going on. Jason commented on this more than once and I agreed. After it started getting dark, the temperature came down nicely. I was wondering if this outage would be like the other huge black out that struck the north-east in 1977. I remember seeing archival news reports detailing the looting and rioting. Seeing the darkness approaching, I was hoping for the best, but feared the worst.

A police car rounds the corner in this eight second exposure. Although it looks almost light, it was nearly dark at this point.

A police car rounds the corner in this eight second exposure. Although it looks almost light, it was nearly dark at this point.

Almost as if in answer, the police sirens started. Surprisingly, a police car stopped at the mini-mall across the street from my building. We went out on the balcony and had a look. There was a city bus stopped with its interior lights flashing like a disco. It appeared empty … and the people who were in it seemed to have left to stand around the mini-mall. We figured the bus broke down or something because even in the mini-mall merchants wildest dreams, I don’t think they’ve ever had seventy-five people milling around in front of the six stores there. Either someone disabled the bus, or they were causing trouble after leaving the bus. Regardless, two more police cars showed up. I’d love to tell you what happened, but we never did find out. The people trickled away, the police left, and that was that.

Jason counts out the cash after he lands on Boardwalk.

Jason counts out the cash after he lands on Boardwalk.

Once the darkness struck full-force, it was time to break out the candles. With no TV and no radio to entertain us, we reviewed my board games and partook in a cut-throat game of Monopoly. At a far more sedate pace than the speed-games I’ve played in high-school, we played and had a great time. The most interesting thing about this match was the tide of the game changed many times. Despite being in a very good position early in the game, having three sets of properties with two developed to hotel-status, I was the first person out of the game. At that point, the odds were with Jason as he had eight hotels on the board versus Helene’s only houses on Boardwalk and Park Place. Sure he was hurting when he landed on them, but she landed on his properties more often and he eventually won. Not having played Monopoly in at least a decade, I was surprised at how much fun it was. I want to play again!

Just after midnight, they decided to head home and just before they left we noticed a few buildings in the distance had power judging by the lights within. Interestingly enough, those lights were back out within a half hour. I called Jason’s place hoping to leave a message telling him so, but his power was still out so his answering machine wasn’t functioning. He called me back later thinking something happened to me, but I happily reported everything was fine. I asked what the status of the world was, since I figured they surely would have clicked on the radio during their drive home. He was flabbergasted telling me they’d realized they didn’t check the news only after they got home!

Look at Mr. Showoff with the only light in the whole building. Why he felt the need to light his balcony is anyone's guess!

Look at Mr. Showoff with the only light in the whole building. Why he felt the need to light his balcony is anyone’s guess!

The power came on during the early morning while I was sleeping. The fire alarm bleeps once when power returns and while I recall hearing it, I was even more pleased to feel the breeze created by the fan I’m pointed at my bed before going to sleep. To my great disappointment, the power was off again by the time I woke up. It returned at 2pm but the news reports say only about ¾ of the electricity required is being delivered to our area so rotating black-outs will be needed until full generating potential is realized tomorrow or Sunday. It’s past 10pm now and I’ve still got power so I remain hopeful. I’m still pragmatic enough to save this file often as I type, however!

I talked to my mother today and was surprised to learn her power went out today for the first time at 6:30pm as part of the rotating black-outs in her area. It was great to see the riots of former blackouts were not repeated this time around. Here in Ottawa, there were twenty reported cases of looting, and two deaths attributed to the outage. One was a person hit by a car, and the other was a person killed in a fire. Amusingly, regular citizens did their part by taking on the role of traffic cop in busy intersections during rush hour all over the affected area. Toronto seems to have the most closet traffic cops as most intersections in the downtown core were adopted and managed much better than they would’ve been had they fallen to four-way stop status.

If anything about the black-out pissed me off, it was how quickly the blame started flying. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said the problem started in Canada and it was obvious to anyone who could see the readouts from the system. Despite it being so obvious, Michehl Gent, president of the North American Electric Reliability Council, said the outage definitely didn’t start here. The blame wasn’t limited to the Americans, however. Toronto mayor Mel Lastman said the problem started in New York State. No matter where the problem started, the system needs modification so one problem doesn’t cascade through eight states and one province! Certainly we need to figure out what happened, but not to place blame.

We’ve been asked to conserve electricity so all I’ve got running is the refrigerator (though I think the stuff in the freezer is ruined), the TV, a fan, and my computer. As much as I’d like to get out for some ice cream and milk, I expect the stores to be completely nuts for at least a few days so I’m going to sit tight for as long as I can. I figure the milk left in the stores will be questionable anyway.

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