The 2003 Blackout

Where were you when the lights went out? Ten years ago today, Thursday, August 14, 2003, the largest electricity blackout in North American history occurred in Ontario, Canada and 8 U.S. states affecting 55 Million people. First reports blamed Ontario but in fact it was later determined to be overloaded transmission lines hitting some trees in Ohio U.S.A.. Electrical corporation operators there were unaware of the need to re-distribute power because of a software problem. This led to a cascading failure of the electrical system which caused the widespread blackout affecting 508 generating units at 265 power plants.
Now remember, that this happened less than 2 years after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on 9/11 so many people wondered if this wasn’t some kind of terrorist attack on the electrical grid especially when it became clear that it was SO widespread.Sat image
So where was I? Actually we were on our way home from town just after 4 p.m. on a beautiful hot, sunny day. As we were crossing the bridge over the river, the truck radio suddenly went silent. Hmmmm. When we got home the kids came running out announcing that the power went out…….. again. Around here, it’s not unusual for the power to go out but usually it’s because of a bad winter storm or a wicked summer thunderstorm. Today, the sun was shining in the clear blue sky! I got out our battery operated radio, which I save for emergency situations like this, and got alot of static for a while. Then it was announced that it seemed like the entire province was without electricity, then New York state, and then a whole bunch of U.S. states!
Of course, neighbours were calling wondering if our power was out too. And my sister Faye called from across the province wondering what to do – they got a generator and plugged in the essentials like their freezer and fridge. Meanwhile, my husband Chris figured he might as well start our 10 kilowatt generator which runs the whole house normally (*important note: always turn off the main power breaker first). Remember, we experienced the 1998 Ice Storm when we went without electricity for two weeks in January (read about it here). After that experience, we prepared ourselves better. We took our small 3,500 watt genny over to our neighbour’s house since she was home alone with the kids while her husband was on a business trip. It would run some lights, the fridge, the TV, and VCR.

Blackout 2003

Blackout 2003

Then we invited the neighbours over for a ‘patio party’ which we usually reserved for Saturday nights. Over the distant hum of the generators at everyone’s houses, we sat out on our back porch under the patio umbrella lights, playing guitar, singing along, munching on snacks, and swimming in the pool, without concern. Everyone went home around 10 p.m. lighting their way in the clear, dark skies with flashlights. The silence was kind of eerie…..but calmly comforting. ‘Out there’ some back-up generators failed, telephone and cell service was overloaded because of the sheer volume of calls, people were stuck in elevators, some cities experienced a drop in water pressure affecting fresh and water treatment plants, and some TV stations’ back-up generators failed. Fortunately for us, our local TV station had a back-up to their back-up generator since they also lived through the Ice Storm.
The next day, the power came back on briefly but then went out again, then back on again, then out again…… almost 24 hours after it all began, our power – and the whole province – was restored. Over the next week, we experienced ‘brown-outs’ for the first time while nuclear power plants were restarted and the electricity system was stabilized. The government asked everyone to use only essential electrical consumption to conserve power. Many people experienced an extra long weekend off work.
I heard that in many areas, people really stepped up and helped others, from directing traffic in downtown Toronto to simply checking in on neighbours.
In the 10 years that has since passed, many improvements have been made to the power grid including better monitoring systems, ‘failure Simulations’, rigorous vegetation trimming along hydro lines, and enforced reliability Standards in the U.S. (Ontario already had them). But others wonder whether a Blackout of such magnitude could ever happen again: our aging infrastructure is a legitimate concern;  rapid climate change causing more and more severe storms which affect the grid (like the floods in Calgary and Toronto this summer);  Solar flare;  accidental;  or deliberate terrorist attacks; etc.
So where were you when the lights went out?


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Fred Schueler
    Aug 14, 2013 @ 21:47:49

    how about the great Bishops Mills blackout of yesterday? Four hours in the afternoon (one generator was running down at the Store), and then again at night in the middle of an important e-mail – and while there was talk of significant thunderstorms on the radio, we had only showers and about 5mm of rain here.


    • grammomsblog
      Aug 14, 2013 @ 21:54:17

      Yes I was in a store in town when the power went out yesterday…… people started leaving like zombies lol….. it was ‘cash only’ and even then the ‘computerized’ cash registers were having difficulty rebooting.
      Don’t you just get so upset when you lose an email like that!!


  2. df
    Aug 14, 2013 @ 23:17:32

    We always laugh about the blackout, because we were visiting an elderly family friend at the time and my husband chose to reboot her computer (which he was fixing) at the exact moment the power went out. We thought the outage was only at her house until we drove home and suddenly realized there were signs of a much larger event going on around us.


  3. Betty
    Aug 15, 2013 @ 02:09:25

    I honestly don’t remember!!… LOL …


  4. Fred Schueler
    Aug 15, 2013 @ 09:35:29

    fortunately, Adam Zieleman has set up my e-mail so it automatically saves drafts, so I only lost 2 links and a paragraph. One thing I did discover is that we no longer have (or know where to look for) a battery-operated radio – so in order to determine, after a few hours, that it wasn’t 2003 all over again, I had to go out to the van and listen to the World at Six.


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