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The day we went dark 20 years ago – The Northeast Blackout of 2003

14 August 2023

Well, not exactly the world, but it was still big. It was 14 August 2003, when a widespread power outage hit the Northeastern and Midwestern parts of America, and a big part of the Canadian province of Ontario, beginning just after 4:10┬áp.m. EDST. Now known as the Northeast Blackout of 2003, it was at the time, the world’s second most widespread blackout in history.

On that day, I was in at the end of a week-long vacation in Manitoba. I was in Winnipeg and due to fly back to Toronto that afternoon. As I was driving to the airport in my rental car, I heard on the radio that there was a massive power outage in Ontario, Ohio and New York State.

The Winnipeg Airport is a shared civilian-military airport. The military side is the headquarters of 1 Canadian Air Division and the Canadian North American Aerospace Defence Command headquarters. As I had time before my flight, I decided to head to the Junior Ranks Mess (cafeteria) to have lunch. Since I was a retired Royal Canadian Navy reservist, I still had access to certain military services, and I knew a mess was a great place to get a good meal for a reasonable price (unless actively employed or on course, you are required to pay for meals).

There was a TV on in the mess and as I watched the news, my eyes rapidly grew wider and wider, as I now realized the scope of the black-out, which was A LOT bigger than I realized. I made a phone call to a friend, who lived two doors down from my house, to ask her if the power was out in Barrie, where we both lived, and she said that it was. I told her that I didn’t know if I would be able to fly home, as I heard on the news that it was possible that all flights in and out of Toronto would be cancelled, and I didn’t know when I would be able to get back home. The only concern that I really had was food in my fridge spoiling, so I told her that if I wasn’t home for several days, to go to my house (she had a key) and throw things out that would spoil, including my ice cream, of which I had visions of it forming a sweet, sticky goo in the freezer.

I also made a call to a former girlfriend, Susan, who lived in Winnipeg, whom I had spent the previous day hanging out with, to let her know that I might not be leaving that day after all. She said that I could spend the night at her house if I needed a place to stay. I was grateful for this, as when I got to the airport terminal, I was officially informed that my flight out was indeed cancelled. As I was leaving the terminal, I overheard many people on cell phones and pay phones expressing frustration that they couldn’t find a hotel room for the night. If not for Susan, I still could have stayed in the Transient Quarters at the air force base (another perk of being retired military), so I was doubly lucky on that point.

Fortunately, the friendly man at the car rental office when I returned my rental car, had told me that he would keep my car available for me, in case my flight was cancelled, so I still had transportation.

My run of luck continued the next day, when I was able to get on a late-afternoon flight back to Toronto. The power had been restored to parts of Ontario, including the Toronto Airport and Barrie, where my house was located, so no spoiled food and ice cream turned into a sticky goo.

By 16 August, power was fully restored in New York State and parts of Toronto, and most areas had their power restored by 18 August.

Sources: Northeast blackout of 2003 – Wikipedia, 20 years later: Insider looks back on worst blackout in North America – Barrie News (barrietoday.com).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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