Blackout: 20th Anniversary Edition

20th Anniversary of the East North America blackout
A rare glimpse of Toronto without lights.

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the massive blackout experience by most of eastern North America in 2003.

For those that experienced it, I’m sure they’ll all agree it was quite the event and everyone seems to have a story about it.

Here’s ours.

At the time, both my wife and I worked downtown in separate buildings. Shortly after the black-out, there were no communications, which meant we were faced with the prospect of walking home alone. After about 30 minutes or so of sitting in the dark in an office building in downtown Toronto, I was excused from work and went outside to make my way over to my wife’s office. As fate would have it, we met up with each other, despite the massive crowds and not having pre-planned where to meet, and decided to walk home.

My wife Lisa was visiting her doctor doing an ultrasound when everything happened. She left the building at the corner of College and University (again, in Toronto) and proceeded to walk to where I was at the corner of Wellington and Front.

We still feel somewhat dumbfounded by how we managed to meet up amidst the chaos of thousands of people trying to figure out what to do with no cell phones, telephones, power anywhere, trains, buses, street cars, retailers, etc. But we found each other and proceeded to walk home … about 14 kilometres away in the west end of Toronto, near Jane and Bloor.

We walked up Dundas and continued through all of the various villages that Toronto has to offer. It was a great reminder of the culture and diversity that Toronto proudly represents. People were kind. Respectful. Supportive. Generous. All along the way, we felt like marathon athletes, as people passed us water, ice cream and other treats to keep us going.

Of course, it wasn’t until about halfway through our walk that I realized that there was no point in people trying to keep ice cream locked up in a freezer that wasn’t working. They used the moment to either be generous or possibly make a few bucks from people as they made their way to their homes.

What really got to me was the sense of calm that Torontonians projected. There were no riots or looting that I remember. Just lots of people wandering and waiting for electricity to return.

It was a lovely evening, but the walk was probably 2 to 3 times what we might normally walk on any given day, so we were both aching and tired when we finally got home.

The night sky before and after the 2003 Northeast Blackout. The power of  light pollution is astounding
Not our house, but example of night sky, 2003

When we finally arrived at our place, we filled our tub and sinks with water, as we knew that municipal power was also out and it might mean we’d have to wait a while before water was flowing again. After ‘settling in’, we started to cook a few things from our freezer, thinking we either watch it thaw and go to waste or cook it and share with anyone that needed it.

As we cooked, our neighbours came out, as did the wine and lots of other appetizers and munchies. We waited through dusk and within a short time, the night sky shone unlike anything we had ever seen since being kids at camp. It was a splendid evening and a great chance to bond with new friends.

Of note was that we could actually see the planet Mars with our bare eyes, as it was the closest it would be to Earth for a very long time. It seemed like there was an astrological event happening that would affect so many people, including us.

First, my wife was pregnant. After nearly 3 hours of walking home, she showed signs that made her think that she might have miscarried, adding to our stress. We would have to wait more than a week before discovering that all was OK. As a side note, our son is healthy and is now 19 years old (2023).

Second, we had plans to leave the city. All through the next day (Friday, Aug 15), we heard news about how the airport was struggling and how airlines were unable to bring people to their destinations. This caused some concern for us, as we were scheduled to leave the next morning (Saturday) to visit my parents in Kelowna. It was a special occasion: my family was getting together to help my parents celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

We were lucky. We opted to fly with Westjet and, while I don’t mean to promote them unduly, their system must have been more ‘modern’ as it was not affected by the black-out and backlog the way their competitor was. As we flew away from Toronto, we hoped we’d find a more relaxing environment with my family’s home in Kelowna.

Did I mention we were going to Kelowna? Quite literally, as we flew overhead from Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley, there was a violent storm and the lightning that would strike the provincial park would ignite one of the worst forest fires to threaten this little BC town in decades.

Not much happened the first day, but late Sunday, we could see the aura of the flames to the south as they were kindled by the dry pines.

By Monday night, the sky had a blood-red aura to it, the sunset masked by the ash and flames that surrounded the valley.

UPDATED: Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire evacuation alert lifted - Kelowna  Capital News

As part of our plans, we would leave Kelowna for Victoria to visit my brother and his family. We departed on Wednesday morning, August 20, a day before the official evacuation of Kelowna and my parent’s neighbourhood, Crawford Estates.

If you don’t recognize this name, you might recognize it from the pictures. This is the area of Kelowna that was burned to the ground as the flames spread north along the lake.

I encouraged my parents to collect all of their immediate personal possessions – the irreplacables – but they seemed to muster a ‘devil may care’ confidence that comes with people of the previous generation. What would happen would happen.

So, on the Wednesday morning, flames easily within site and visibly tearing through house after house, we locked up their home, loaded up their trailer and left for Victoria.

As we drove down the Coquihalla Highway, we all strained to our left to see the fire burn along the provincial park, thinking we were waving goodbye to my parent’s home forever.

We chose to drive through Manning Provincial Park through to Vancouver. If you haven’t taken it before, you should. It’s a beautiful road, but is fairly sparse and unpopulated.

The truck was full. There was 7 people in all in the vehicle: myself, my parents, my wife, my sister and her two kids.

Half-way up the mountain, the truck overheated. We stopped immediately, fearing that if the car ignited, which truly frightened us when my dad acted as though it would, we’d be at cause for starting even more fires in the forests ruined by the Japanese beetle. The mountain was already a shameful red. We’d be mortified if we caused it to turn to ash.

He ran to the trailer and got his fire extinguisher and sprayed at the engine. In the back, my neice Robyn seemed to sum up everyone’s thoughts nicely: “are we gonna die?”

But everything was under control and we crept along the shoulder until we started downwards into the Fraser Valley, found a gas station and took care of the necessary repairs.

For two days, all of my relatives kept calling my brother’s house, basically telling my parents that they were pretty sure the house was kaput. They were trying to help, but the anxiety accumulated to point where no one was talking and we stopped taking calls.

We enjoyed the Friday night celebration and returned on the Saturday, wondering what we’d find.

My parents actually drove us to the airport in Vancouver, so we never saw the extent of the damage. However, the older generation bravado seemed to pay off: they were relatively unaffected by the fire. While my dad occasionally gripes about the grapes that were singed and ruined by the heat that came up the ravine, the house was untouched. They live to the north of a physical break in the tree line, manufactured to accommodate a hydro line, so it became the defensive position of the fire department as they fought back against the awesome force of nature.

The 20 year anniversary of ALL of these events remind me of how susceptible we are to the whims of our planet and how delicate the balance is between civility and survival.

What’s your story? Feel free to post your experience in the comments section.

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