Canada's Energy Problem: Interlude - Do You Remember the Night of the Blackout?

First, some videos and questions to preface my blog entry. Where and what were you doing during the Northeast Blackout of 2003? What are you going to do when you realize nothing is in place to prepare for a protracted infrastructure failure, be it a blackout or a lack of oil?

Personally, I think a more accurate commercial would be a bunch of teens staring at monitors wondering why they can't see the latest juicy gossip about [insert celebrity name here].

This actually reminds me of a video tape of a man stuck in an elevator for 41 hours. You can see it here but the story behind it is probably more dramatic (although it is eight pages long).

To be honest I'm not sure what I would have done in his situation. I do know my typically sweet, understanding and reasonable self would be very, very PO'd by the 12 hour mark. Interestingly, White was not compensated a large amount for his troubles. I think this is telling...when the elevator stops and no one seems to care you're inside, who's going to come to your aid? Personally I can't help but compare this to the current state of Canada's energy infrastructure and power sources. Who is going to save us when we're stuck without power or a proper infrastructure in place to prevent the same disorder that occurred 6 years ago?

Perhaps you were at a home during the blackout and simply did as most of my friends did. They had a barbeque! Afraid the meat would spoil, their parents cooked up steaks (and whatever other meat they had in the freezer) and had plenty of ice cream for dinner. The general consensus was that everyone in the neighbourhood was quite friendly, despite the occasional commuter nearly collapsing on their porch when they finally reached home. As time passed and they grew hot and bored, they wondered how long they would have to last until the air conditioner and television would turn on again.

The blackout of August 14th, 2003 affected Northeastern and Midwestern United States as well as parts of Ontario. The numbers of affected residents were estimated to be approximately 55 million (Please note, according to Statistics Canada there are a little over 33 million Canadians). There was a lot of good will during the black out. Average people would direct traffic while motorists and pedestrians listened willingly. Neighbors had barbeques and speculated about the source of the blackout, as well as their various horror stories involving their trek home. It was kind of nice actually. Everyone went outside because it was too dark to stay at home.

But it wasn't all nice of course. While several gas stations could not operate without electricity, a rare number of Burlington, ON stations were selling gas for 99.9 cents (with lots of ready and willing customers lining up), claiming their supply was limited despite prices being in the low 70s prior to the blackout. How's that for blatant price gouging? At one point the Canadian government was seriously considering rationing the gas supply. The supply chain system was also disrupted, for example transport trucks could not proceed on their routes because they required refueling before making the long journey to Manitoba. Oh and those that believe they can survive using their cellphones and 3G networks should probably consider how the generators powering cellular towers ran out of fuel.

To be honest, sometimes I do wonder if Jeff is right to say we'll plunge into chaos as soon as we run out of oil and gas to power our technology obsessed lives. A surprising fact that I discovered through my research was that there was looting in...Ottawa, Ontario. Can you believe it? Actually, my naive self believed (at the time) that Canadians were too polite to loot and pillage as their cars stalled on the highway and became useless roadblocks, while their fellow drivers tried to maneuver through the mess.

According to this Slate article by David Greenberg, for NYC it was a mixture of technical and socially-motived reasons. The most important reason was 9/11. Conscious of the blackout's source not being from a terrorist attack, New Yorkers nonetheless recalled how they banded together to ensure their city did not succumb to the same events that overtook them in 1977. What happened you ask?

The infamous New York City Blackout of 1977 resulted in looting, arson, vandalism and assaults all over the city. It was chaotic, but here are the stats for a brief look at what occurred (Source):

In all, 1,616 stores were either looted or damaged during the blackout. More than a thousand fires were set, 14 of them resulting in multiple alarms. And in the biggest mass arrest in city history, 3,776 people were thrown in the jug. The jails were so overcrowded that the overflow had to be held in precinct basements and other makeshift gaols...A congressional study later put the damage caused by looting and vandalism at $300 million.

Experts generally offer the following (probable) reasons for the chaos:
  • NYC was in the middle of a harsh heat wave,
  • United States was experiencing a nation-wide economic downtown (I suppose when you get the chance to get the TV you always wanted...), with NYC struggling with bankruptcy
  • General public's fear stemming from the Son of Sam murders
  • When the blackout occurred, most store owners had gone home and were not there to defend their property
  • NYPD morale was low due to the Mayor's attempts to assign only one officer in each patrol car (During the summer of Sam!), and the night of the blackout only 8,000 of 25,000 police officers reported for duty, while some just stood passively by*

Alright, I will admit that with the right conditions (which I feel we are a few steps away from) I do believe a protracted blackout or other energy related infrastructure failure will result in chaos. I'm just not sure how long it will take for people to realize that they're like Nicholas White in his claustrophia-inducing elevator with just a lighter, a pack of cigarettes and Rolaids. Not only are they not prepared, their cries for help are going to go completely unheeded as the authorities scramble to maintain order when someone decides that a five finger discount isn't so bad during this recession. At least White didn't have to worry about anyone else in the elevator with him...you have all your unprepared neighbours to deal with.

As for being prepared, here is a bit of an extreme example. My friend's father stocks up two cellars, a freezer and two fridges full of food as well as a power generator in preparation of an impending oil crisis. Many people laugh and marvel at the amount of food and drink he constantly keeps restocking, but to be honest if I'm in the area during a blackout, I'll probably head their way. I also don't laugh, especially after watching that documentary on peak oil (and because I'd rather they let me in when I run out of food and water at my own home).

So tell me...what were you doing in the Blackout of 2003? Are you ready for another?

The truth is we're probably not. The mindset is also that we shouldn't need to be. The government will take care of this. Well you should probably pay more attention to how the government seems to be screwing up on a consistent basis lately (For more current examples, feel free to Google: Lisa Raitt, cancer treatment and isoptopes, AECL sale, eHealth)

*(Please note: The truth is that the NYPD were ordered to act slowly, to be deliberate when dealing with the mobs of looters (this was due to a National Riot Commission advising against a heavy hand when dealing with riots because they proved to make situations worse than better). Ultimately there were only two civilian deaths despite all the rioting. Perhaps it was a poor consolation to store owners but by the end of the blackout the streets were not littered with dead bodies as some would expect. Especially when the looters of '77 began to loot each other, many brandishing weapons to defend their ill-gotten gains. Technically there should have been more arrests, but police chose to try to maintain order than arrest every single offender.


skyler said...

indeed we are ill-prepared i our precious technology and basic necessities were stripped from us. And yes the high levels of faith and psycho-complacency with which we treat energy is scary. My greatest fear isn't the power going out, it's that when it comes back on how much more are we all paying. We love to pat our own asses about earth-hour and eating locally but seriously we are the most wasteful people on the planet. And green washing a energy plan, (which is exactly what the liberals are doing) does nothing to change that. We need to get real about our energy predicament and look at the nuclear option by far the best thing to base-load with. For those who don't want our energy porduction to be mitigated by a bunch of wind industry hacks go and sign the petition here.

Alexander James said...

I distinctly remember working for a retail store at Yorkdale the day of the blackout...as soon as the power vanished, no fewer than FOUR people froze, grabbed whatever was close by, and bolted out the door, assuming our non-existent security systems would be rendered inoperative. It didn't really fill me with an awful lot of faith in humanity at that point. Security didn't even step in, because there was no point -- the cameras in the mall proper were done. I was kind of disturbed by how quickly our culture disintegrates as soon as somebody turned off the lights: and that's exactly the portent we're facing now. Buckle up...

simonsays2 said...

Was at work when the power went out in '03. Went to a friends place and had a few cocktails to celebrate. Went home after. Watched a movie on the aptop and went to bed. Power was back on in the morning. Not keen for another.

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