The blackout of 2003: A 20th anniversary retrospective

By Ian McKechnie

The author's family hosted a backyard barbecue for the Model "A" Owners of Canada on Aug. 16, 2003, when a caterer could no longer provide the group with supper due to blackout-induced food spoilage. Photo: Jim McKechnie.

Do you remember when the lights went out – along with the refrigerators and AC units and much else besides – for more than 24 hours? When it was next to impossible to get gas for a couple of days? When an otherwise “normal” summer weekend ended up generating story after story of neighbours helping neighbours in trying circumstances?

Twenty years have passed since the Northeast Blackout, which plunged much of southern Ontario and over half a dozen American states into darkness from Aug. 14-16, 2003.

Traffic lights went dark in parts of Lindsay not long after 4 p.m. on Aug. 14, leading motorists to treat intersections like four-way stops. This was no routine power outage. Backup generators enabled a few folks to tune into the television news, where various theories were being floated to explain the what, where, why, and how of the blackout. Was it a lightning strike? An overloaded electrical grid? (As it turned out, a mix of human error and equipment malfunction at an Ohio generating station, together with untrimmed trees interfering with hydro transmission lines in that state, combined to create a domino effect in which 55 million people were left without electricity.)

Over 640 km northeast of the blackout’s epicentre, backup generators at the Ross Memorial Hospital were kicking into gear. One shut down the following day, forcing the hospital to issue a Code Green – meaning that all patients were to be evacuated. Fortunately, auxiliary power was soon restored at RMH and the evacuation was cancelled. While this was a relief, various diagnostic appointments had to be postponed in a concerted effort to conserve limited power.

The Advocate’s Lisa Hart was working at Zellers when the blackout occurred. “I was working the evening shift the night everyone lost power, but we only realized something was happening when we closed the store,” she remembers – adding that unfounded rumours led some to believe Zellers was drawing its power from the hospital’s system. “I went into work the next morning uncertain what protocol would be for the day. In the end we were allowed to go home provided we remain on call and agree to return to the store as soon as the power came back on.”

A few blocks away, Rob Drury was getting ready to play summer hockey at the Lindsay Recreation Centre. “Most of us assumed the power was off, but phone calls went out saying a small segment of Lindsay still had power, and that included the arena,” Drury recalls. “We gathered and played hockey that evening. Power was lost to this segment of town later that night.”

Out in Omemee, hundreds of vehicles lined up for gas at the Cango filling station on Highway 7 when word got around that it was the only such facility in the municipality with working pumps. Everyone was asked by emergency officials to “do their bit” in the interests of conserving electricity. As late as Aug. 18, residents were being asked to avoid using air conditioning and other indoor appliances. Many of us felt as though we had to live like our forebears, for whom electricity was a novelty.

Apart from remembering where you were and what you were doing on Aug. 14, 2003 – to say nothing of the challenges involved in going for a day and half without electricity – what is often remembered are those instances where people helped each other until power returned.

One of those Good Samaritan stories has stuck with me to this day.

The Model “A” Owners of Canada, a vintage car club with which my father and I are involved, rolled into Lindsay on Aug. 15 for their annual Get-Away Tour. While our car happened to be out of commission that weekend because of mechanical trouble, our backyard would become an unexpected dinner venue when the caterer scheduled to provide our group with supper on Aug. 16 was forced to cancel, because of blackout-induced food spoilage. With the cooperation of local grocer David LaMantia, we were able to feed hamburgers, hot dogs, and watermelon aplenty to people who had travelled to Lindsay from as far away as Michigan. Vintage Model “A” Fords filled either side of our street, creating something of an impromptu car show, and everyone had a great time – especially when power was finally restored during dinner and a pot of coffee could be made.

“We were fortunate that we had our refrigerated trailer that runs on diesel and is not dependent on electricity,” LaMantia remembers of those uneasy twenty-four hours. “We transferred perishable product to the trailer to maintain it in tip top condition. Of course, all of this was a great deal of work and made for a sleepless, worrisome night.” A 300-kilowatt generator was subsequently installed at the store should an extended outage ever occur again. “Since the 2003 outage we have had many power interruptions that we have weathered without incident,” LaMantia says.

Twenty years on, the Northeast Blackout of 2003 – like more recent events – stands out as an example of resilience and resolve during uncertain times. When the power went out and the lights grew dark, the power of community continued to shine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.