On Thursday, August 14, 2003 at 4:11 PM, everything stopped.

In my memory, two big events occurred in Toronto that summer of 2003: one was SARStock and the other was the power blackout that affected all of Ontario and parts of Northeastern and Midwestern United States. It was the world’s second most widespread power blackout in history, with 50 million people affected by the outage. For some, the blackout lasted a couple of days, for others it was as long as 14 days, depending on where you lived.

Ontario originally caught the blame for the gigantic outage, but over time the source would be traced to a stretch of road in suburban Ohio. Weak areas in the electricity grid of U.S. and Canada further exacerbated the situation.

For a high-level technical explanation of the situation, I’ve borrowed some text from blogTO.com.

Cause

August 2003 had been a scorcher. Hot weather and heavy demand for electricity had put the local grid in Ohio under unusual strain, causing power lines to sag into overgrown trees and short out. When the Eastlake coal-fired station near Cleveland went offline it was like knocking over the first in a line of 50 million dominoes.

One by one, power stations across the northeast U.S. became overloaded then automatically powered down as they tried to compensate for other downed stations in neighbouring areas. The blackout rolled northeast from Ohio, round Lake Erie into Ontario, knocking out power to cities and towns as it went.

Systematic faults meant tools used to track and monitor blackouts either failed or didn’t work as intended. Ontario was left 8,000 megawatts short – 500 megawatts usually spells trouble – as nuclear plants in Bruce, Pickering, and Darlington became hopelessly hobbled. When the blackout finally stabilized, 50 million people were left without power in the United States and Canada.

Maybe now they’ll learn to shut the lights off up there…

An American woman on a local newscast, trying to blame the outage on Canada’s power consumption


In Toronto…

My memories of the 2003 blackout in Toronto

At that time in my life I was still working at Canada Life Assurance in the downtown core of Toronto, at Queen Street and University Avenue. I remember the outage hitting just at the start of everyone’s commute home from work. It foiled a lot of attempts to get home that Thursday afternoon – the GO trains weren’t running, there was no subway, the downtown core was so clogged with cars that no one could move. Out of our team of about a dozen people at work, I was the only one who lived downtown so guess where everyone came for food, rest and some strategic planning to get home.

It was Vince’s day off that day so he was at home. He had put on a huge slow cooker of stew early in the day, which luckily was now ready. I had been unable to reach him to let him know that there would be a dozen of us descending on the house but the phone lines were all overloaded and jammed so it was impossible to get through. It was a big surprise for him when a dozen people showed up on our doorstep for dinner! Over the course of the next 4-5 hours we all ate stew, had lots to drink and watched the Jarvis Street pedestrian parade and revelry from our balcony – oh, the sound from the streets! It was one really big party out there – the streets were jammed with people, cars and party fiends who were simply making the most of the unusual event.

Cell phones did not work, as cell towers are powered by electricity, during the blackout, so there were only land lines available (imagine no cell phones for a day!) Using my one wired phone on a land line, one by one my guests for the evening took turns using it to call home to arrange a pickup or to give a status update.

When you have a dozen guests who are eating and drinking for any length of time, there is an inevitable need to use the bathroom. When you live in a high-rise, one of the downsides of a power failure is the lack of water (the water is electrically pumped up to the units), so guess what – the toilets can’t flush. The bathroom turned into a communal toilet during the course of the evening (was I ever glad when the water came back on!). It was all good though, as by the end of the evening everyone found their way home, be it by cab, shared ride or pick up by a family member (no Uber or Lyft in those days).

Along with many other things that day, the streetcars came to an abrupt halt.

For about three days, the hustle and bustle of Toronto came to a stop. People slowed down, became friendlier, and just seemed to enjoy life a little more during this unusual time. I have memories of Vince and I sitting in the food court in College Park, just killing time along with so many others. These were calm, happy, patient people – something you rarely find in downtown Toronto. Our part of the world, or so it seemed, had stopped all its rushing about and bustle.

There was a definite party atmosphere on Toronto streets during the blackout
Darkness descends on Toronto

Meanwhile, In New York City…

Chaos reigned supreme:

It was an amazing and unique time no matter where you lived in the blackout region. I’ll never forget that hot summer of 2003 when the lights went out.

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