Wingham Advance-Times editorial
When Ontario’s lights went out Do you remember Aug. 14, 2003, when lights went out across eastern North America?
Around here, the event caused little more than a modest ripple.
Some communities lost power for only a few hours, barely enough time to crank up the barbecue and start the steaks thawing. Others had no electricity long enough to treat the kids to barbecued breakfast.
City dwellers had a more frightening experience, with people trapped in high-rise apartment buildings and traffic jams.
There were few incidents of looting – people seemed more interested in looking at the stars than breaking into stores – but the general opinion was that had the blackout continued another day, things would have degenerated.
As it was, everything got back on track with few lasting changes, apart from ramping up plans to upgrade our province’s electrical system.
In rural Ontario, municipalities got into emergency planning in a big way. Farmers who had neglected to have backup for such things as electric fences and feed systems bought generators.
In individual households, many of us went out and bought flashlights and batteries, manual can openers and a couple of board games to keep the kids amused if it happened again.
Some of us went so far as to stock a suitcase with copies of important papers, money in small denominations (in a blackout, cash transactions continue, but debit is dead in the water), tinned food and bottled water, medication, a first aid kit and anything else recommended in disaster plans.
We started keeping the gas topped up in the car (gas pumps need electricity). Some of us even invested in things like a crank-operated radio, small solar panel or camping stove.
But apart from a few individuals who started formulating plans to go off-grid, most of us left it at that.
By now, the flashlights have disappeared, the cash has been spent and the stash of tinned food expired years ago.
We are once again running the car on fumes too often for comfort, and the copies of important papers need to be updated. And are we concerned? No. Complacency rules.
News of massive power failures in India last week reminded us of what we went through in 2003.
India’s power failures may have been caused by certain areas using more than what they are alloted and overloading the system, by faulty equipment or human error. At this point, no one knows.
What is known is hospitals had to switch to auxiliary power, and many did not have enough diesel fuel to power generators for more than a few hours.
Road traffic in India’s cities is chaotic at the best of times, and one can only imagine what it was like without street lights and traffic signals.
People were trapped in elevators, and no one had air conditioning.
The response of that country’s government to the situation remains to be seen.
For us, it was a wake-up call, a remainder that despite all the upgrades to our province’s electrical system, it is still vulnerable.
Most power failures around here are weather-related. When it gets too hot (like this summer), air conditioner use goes up and the stress on the electrical grid increases.
We are in a better position in regards to electrical system infrastructure than we were in 2003, but we still need to remember, the system has limits.
In the summer, the main weather threat to our electrical system is tornadoes.
This summer in particular, with the jet stream much further north than usual, Canada has been hit with the devastating storms that usually occur in the American mid-west. Saskatchewan alone has had more than 30 tornadoes, more than in the United States.
It is approaching the first anniversary of the Goderich tornado that left many without power for days. There is no better time than right now to think about Goderich and the blackout of 2003, and restock the emergency kit in the front closet. It will take only a few minutes to toss in a working flashlight, spare batteries, some bottled water, a deck of playing cards, updated personal papers and a bit of cash in small denominations. And maybe a couple of blankets.
Just a reminder – ice storms and wintery blasts can leave us not only without light, but also without heat. The time to play “what would happen if” is when the weather is warm, skies are clear and the lights are on, not when the clouds are black and debris is swirling in the wind.