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Cast into Darkness – Day by Day (part 1)

Posted on January 1, 2014

(above photo from Wobblycat Photography)

Anywhere in the world can be hit by severe weather events, be it hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, etc. As the population grows, more and more people can be affected each time a major storm hits and aging infrastructures can be more easily damaged. We hear about such events on the news quite often but most people don’t really put much thought into it happening to them. Most people are not prepared.

In 2003, North America was hit by a massive power failure which affected most of Southern Ontario, Quebec and most of north eastern United States. Millions and millions of people were affected and if memory serves, it came down to a blown relay in Michigan that caused a cascading failure across multiple power grids (you may have to look that up though). Although in that case, most customers had power back in 2-3 days and nobody really panicked because it happened in the summer time. The most serious concern for most people was to cook all the food in their freezers and have street BBQ’s with their neighbours. The same thing happened back in the 60’s I believe.

Recently Toronto suffered another power failure but this time it was caused by a freezing rain storm. At the height of it all, Toronto had over 300,000 homes without power. According to Toronto Hydro, about 2.5 people per home was affected which would mean about 750,000 people lost power to their homes. When compared to the massive black-out 10 years ago, that doesn’t seem too bad. However, this time, it happened in the middle of winter.

Like hundreds of thousands of other people, our lives would be thrown into darkness. Some people were prepared…some were not. Many only suffered for a few hours. Many would be powerless for days. For some people, it became a matter of survival as they fled their freezing homes. Some would die in their attempts to stay alive. This was our experience…

Storm Brews

On Sat. Dec. 21, news broadcasts warned the public of the pending storm and warned that it may result in some power outages here and there but we weren’t left with a sense of major concern. Ok, we thought, no big deal, we can handle a day without power should it happen to us. That evening, the rain started falling and froze quickly wherever it landed. Temperatures were below freezing and as the rain fell harder, it was getting colder outside. We had all gone to bed around 11pm just as some areas around the city started loosing power (at this point we hadn’t). It would have been shortly after we went to bed when we lost power but we weren’t aware of it until about 3am.

We were alerted to the situation in two ways that occurred at nearly the same time. First it was my son who was woken up by a low battery alarm from the Carbon Monoxide detector in his room. It must have been running off its backup battery for many hours (well…about 4 hours perhaps since we still had power when we went to bed). Right around this time Fiona and I were woken up to the sound of loud cracking as tree branches started splitting and falling into our backyard. The trees simply couldn’t handle the added weight of all the rain freezing on their limbs and branches. We got up and watched in awe as more and more branches fell into our backyard as well as into the backyards of our neighbours. At times, the splitting branches sounded similar to gun shots. We stood there and cringed as we watched a branch fall on a car parked by the apartment building behind our house. As we peered down the street, we realized that our whole street was without power, although the apartment building behind us still had lights on. All we could do was go back to bed and hope our roof, car and motorcycle parked out front, wasn’t hit by falling branches as well.

It would be the beautiful and plentiful trees of Toronto that would turn out to be the ‘Achilles Heel’ of our power grid. We learned days later, that even when we were going to bed (totally ignorant of what was going on), the grid was systematically being torn apart by the falling trees and Toronto Hydro went into a state of emergency.

At this point, we had no electricity but the power line to our home seemed to be intact. We also had no phone. The falling trees in the backyard had ripped that down along with our cable line.

First Morning (Sun)

Ice Storm2

Downed trees in the yard

When we awoke on Sun morning, we were presented with a very different view out our windows. On one hand it was very beautiful with the trees glistening in a thick layer of ice. Yet on the other hand, the destruction in our backyards and on the street left us speechless. All you could really say was “Wow”.

We turned on our battery powered radio (which is a hand-crank model should the batteries run out) and we listened as the media provided as sense of scale. At this point, over 200,000 hydro customers were off-line (this number would only increase as more trees succumbed to the weight of the ice on them). Representatives from Toronto Hydro and the Mayor filled us in on what to expect. They advised us that it may take a couple days for everyone to have their power restored (this number would also increase). Two hospitals were running off backup generators and so was the water pumping station. I told my son to go fill the bath tubs. Should the pumping station go fully offline, we would have a tremendous amount of water reserves stored in two bath tubs, a hot water tank (which was going cold) and all the water stored in the radiator pipes. Using the water from the pipes would be a last resort and that water would have to be either boiled or filtered first. We have water filtration kits here for when we go camping, so no worries there.

Ok…we can handle a couple days. We have a wood fireplace to keep us warm and enough wood for a couple days but that could run out fast if we weren’t careful. Our stove was the gas type and could still be ignited with a match. Even if our stove didn’t worked (had it been an electric one), we have a couple of camping stoves that we could use. So we had the means to cook, make coffee and boil our emergency water supply. We had a lot of non-perishable food and what was in the fridge went into a camping cooler and was left outside on the deck so that it wouldn’t spoil. Some food had already spoiled so it was promptly thrown out. Our freezers were packed full and could last for a couple days so long as we didn’t open it and we knew that. Being regular campers, we had a lot of survival gear on hand. At this point, we really didn’t have any concerns but we knew it was going to start getting cold in the house. The first things we reached for from our camping gear were the headlamps. At least we wouldn’t have to stumble around in the dark.

Like most people I suspect, we hunkered down, wrapped ourselves in blankets, lit some candles and played cards late into the night. Thankfully we had a fire going and that helped a lot in keeping us warm. I thought about the thousands of people across the city who didn’t have a fireplace and I knew they would be in for a chilly evening. We went to bed but my son slept on the couch (wrapped in lots of blankets) in the living room because it would be warmer than his room downstairs. The basement was getting rather cold.

Second Morning (Mon)

We had put out the fire late in the evening so it was starting to get a bit chilly in our living room. The rest of the house was very chilly but we all stayed warm while we slept.

We turned on the radio again and learned that the number of affected households was up to 300,000. The radio advised us that some areas may not get power until Christmas Eve. The City opened up some community centres where people could go get warm, get something to eat and if needed, spend the night. By midday, we had the fire going again to keep us comfortable and warm. The rest of the house was getting colder and colder (especially the basement). At least power had been restored to the water pumping stations and to one of the two hospitals affected.

As the day progressed, the media continued to deliver bad news and it wasn’t long before I realized that we might be one of the last areas to have powered restored. We’re on a small street and it looked like all the streets around us weren’t affected. Ok…we’re not going to be a priority and we only have enough wood for another night. The temperature downstairs was getting very cold and we started having concerns about pipes bursting.

Fiona and I hopped in the car and went looking for some sort of gas heater that was safe to use indoors. As we drove around, we could see the vast damage from the fallen trees. Some neighbourhoods had power, some did not. Some areas had no cell service. We went store to store and everyone said the same thing “We sold all our heaters and ice salt yesterday”. Many stores were running with limited lights but were at least open thanks to their own backup generators. Eventually we found something. It was a large area heater and the box said “Outdoor and Indoor Use”. I really didn’t want to spend the money on something that may not be safe to use but the cost of repairs to the house would have been far greater should the pipes burst. This thing was massive and could heat an area of 3000 square feet. I didn’t feel good about using it though but we bought it anyway and I would just read the instructions carefully. Besides, it’s not like we couldn’t bring it back if we decide to not use it.

Many of the gas stations we passed were closed due to the lack of electricity. However the ones that were open had a line-up of cars nearly one hour long. I’m glad we filled our tank on Saturday before the storm hit.

Our next priority was wood. We went to our local supplier and they too had no power. It was at this point that I realized that the outage in our area was more extensive than just our one street (despite the streets on either side of us being un-affected). The shop owner was just arriving and trying to assess his own situation. All he was able to sell was his supply of wood and Christmas trees. After a short discussion, he agreed to deliver a load of wood later in the afternoon and may even buy our newly purchased heater should we decide to not use it.

The temperature was dropping fast and the City issued a cold weather alert and warned of strong winds. Great…whatever trees that were only just barely handling the loads would surely snap now making for further damage. I was concerned about the massive tree in our front yard. Many branches over hung the house and driveway. We had already gotten permission from one of our neighbours to park in his driveway so our car wouldn’t get crushed. There wasn’t much we could do about the motorcycle though (the Ural is pretty wide with that sidecar).

Once home, we unloaded the heater and it wasn’t long before I read the material. Yeah…I don’t think so! We would have to open all the windows in the basement to use this thing to keep our pipes from freezing and bursting but that wouldn’t provide the ventilation required based on the instruction manual. The gases emitted from the heater would collect, fill the basement and eventually work its way up to us. This thing was designed for garages or outdoor work areas…not basements…and using it like this could be a fatal mistake. We decided to just sell it to our wood guy since he said he wanted it for his employees who were working out in the wood yard.

As the day wore on, it was getting much colder outside and of course, inside too. We were burning our wood fast just to keep the living room warm but the rest of the house was getting very cold. I knew the pipes wouldn’t burst until the internal temps in the basement got to freezing but we had no way of knowing what the temperature actually was down there. The upstairs thermostat said it was about 11C yet you could feel it was much colder downstairs. Time to call the heating company for an opinion. We discussed the furnace that they installed last year and he informed me about how it would re-fire once the power came back on. It was all automatic so no need for a service guy to come out to re-light it (which is what I suspected but it was nice to have that confirmed). The bigger concern was the pipes. I figured that keeping the taps running a bit would stop them from freezing but it if the basement got too cold, we would have to shut off the water (once again it was nice to hear that thoughts on all that was correct). First it would be the copper domestic lines that needed to be turned off and drained. That would end our water supply but once the power came back on and the pipes were re-heated, it would be an easy task to turn those pipes back on. I wasn’t too concerned because we had already established a reserve of water that we could use for cooking, personal hygiene and for flushing the toilets.

Second would be draining the heating pipes and that was going to be a huge hassle, take a long time, and would use up a huge amount of our water reserves (drained pipes and empty water heater). If that had to be done, there were a number of procedures and precautions that we would have to follow for not only draining the system but also when it came time to refill it and re-light the furnace. I was less concerned about needing to do this though. The steel pipes can handle sub-freezing temps longer and better than copper ones. I lit a bunch of tea candles in the laundry room to slow the rate of cooling. It’s the coldest room in the house and the radiator in there was getting damn cold. Tea candles are a staple in any good winter survival kit for your car because they can easily keep the interior of a car warm should you get stranded somewhere. The volume of air in the laundry room is more than the interior of an average car (a bit more than a minivan really). I lit six candles and kept them burning until the heat came back on, making sure they were in a pot and no chance of starting a fire if left unattended. Not the safest thing but it can be done safely with some precautions. This trick worked nicely and slowed the rate at which the room was getting colder.

By early afternoon, my son’s mother had power again. Although my son was quite content staying with us (despite not having power or heat), at least I knew I could take him home to his mom’s place if things got really bad for us here. Sure we had the ability to survive the sub-freezing temps, but it would have become miserable for him, especially if we had to shut off the water.

Well after sunset, our wood delivery finally arrived and was unceremoniously dumped in the driveway and the heater was loaded into the truck. At least he would be able to get some use from it. Now it was time to move and stack all the wood along the side of the house. It was also time to stoke the fireplace more now that we didn’t have to conserve wood to last through the night.

Time to hunker down for another night by the fire and play more card games to keep us busy. All the while the radio provided information about the power crisis and what others were dealing with. It was becoming obvious that people would soon become desperate for food, water and heat. The elderly or those with medical conditions were especially vulnerable. The City keep trying to keep us updated but the information wasn’t really useful. It would have been nice to hear what areas are currently being worked on so that people in those areas would at least know that they only had to suffer a few more hours. I wasn’t expecting much resolve for us though even though I realized today that our area is pretty large and would in fact be a priority to the power company. Only once during all this was that type of information provided…at 1am. Not many people are listening at 1am guys! (At no point again was info like that provided).

Third Morning (Tues)

The morning of Christmas Eve and still 172,000 are still without power…including us. I stayed awake nearly all night to keep the fire burning while listening to the radio. Fiona took over around 4 or 5am so that I could get some sleep. We’re both pretty tired at this point and the rest of the house is getting worryingly cold. The radio reported the death of two people for Carbon Monoxide poisoning (they brought a BBQ in from outside and used it as a heat source). With hearing that…I was very glad about not using that heater and being able to get rid of it. The radio is also now reporting that some people may not have power until Christmas Day but some may not have power restored until the weekend.

Some serious thought will have to be given to shutting off the water and draining the domestic pipes since we have no idea where we are on the list and Toronto Hydro isn’t sharing that info to the media and nobody can reach Toronto Hydro by phone. They only get automated messages. This was the worst weather related power outage for Toronto Hydro in its 100 year history.

My son was to spend Christmas Eve at home so I took him home around noon. Many roads are still blocked off. Power lines still lay strewn across the streets. Many stores are closed. In contrast though, the areas that were unaffected, people are walking and driving around like on any normal day. We needed more candles because they were running out fast and there was one thing I really needed to find…a thermometer. I needed to keep a close eye on the temps in the laundry room because that was our coldest room. Having a thermometer in there would help us decide when to start shutting off the water. After going to five different stores, I was finally able to find all the stuff I was looking for. I got home around 1pm and the first thing I did was get a temperature reading in the laundry room…it was only 4C in there. Damn. It will surely drop to freezing by nightfall.

My son was supposed to return Christmas Day to spend it with us but I was giving some serious thought to how practical that would be. If we have to shut off the water, things are going to be pretty miserable around here. Before I dropped him off at home, I discussed this with him and told him I would touch base in the morning to let him know how Fiona and I are making out. I was keeping my phone off to conserve the battery and had charged it as much as I could while out driving around so I had the means to communicate to others.

As the afternoon wore on, we heard more and more reports of people suffering Carbon Monoxide poisoning and sadly there was another death as a result it. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if this outage affected everyone in the city. By now, the whole city would be getting pretty desperate and no doubt a lot more lives would be lost. Not to mention the social breakdown as people become desperate for food, general supplies and sources of heat.

I continued to carefully monitor the temperatures in the house while Fiona focused on the condition of the fireplace. The last thing we need is for a chimney fire and we’ve had a fire burning non-stop for days now. Talk about irony…worrying so much about the cold only to have the house burn down. (Later that night, I learned that this is exactly what happened to someone I know. Her house burned down yesterday night. Yeah…Merry Christmas indeed.)

Uggg…does nobody on this street know how to get their car unstuck? I’m not sure but I think this just made the 5th person I’ve pushed free or just jumped behind the wheel so that I could drive them out myself. The look on this one lady’s face was priceless. After 15min of trying to get free from her icy spot, I offered to give it a try. I slid into the driver seat and within 6sec her car was free. “How the hell did you do that?” she asked in wonder.

By the afternoon, it was getting time for us to discuss what our next steps were going to be and what the time lines may need to be. The number of affected homes was down to 97,000. The radio though was saying that more homes would come online today or Christmas Day. I knew we wouldn’t be able to keep the basement above freezing for that long. If we don’t shut off and drain the pipes soon, we’re going to lose them. There was no way to stop the temps in the house from falling below the freezing point and burst pipes would be inevitable. We had water reserves in the bath tubs and we could fill some buckets and pans before turning off the water and we would have to establish a ‘grey water’ system. *This is when you store waste water from cooking, washing, personal hygiene, etc (instead of letting it go down the drain) so that it can be used for flushing toilets.

We would also have to break out the camping gear for the sleeping bags, thermal survival bags, etc and the tent which could be erected in front of the fireplace which would further improve our ability to stay warm while the rest of the house froze over. The City was still under a cold weather alert and the temps would fall to about -15C. It was only a high of -8C today. The basement was down to 3C. We simply couldn’t stop this from happening now. At least we had a plan if we don’t get our power back within a few hours. Merry Christmas everyone, but for us, it’s about to be cancelled.

I can’t even count the number of times one of us has had to go outside to fetch more wood but we took turns at it just like we took turns at stoking the fire. It was around 3pm and Fiona headed out to get more wood. While she was outside, I heard the sound I was waiting for…the computer printer starting its warm-up cycle! YESSS!!!! Our power was back on! I ran outside without even grabbing a coat and shared the good news. Later that night, I touched base with my son and shared the news with him also (once I knew it wasn’t just the power company testing the lines). He was very happy to be able to come over on Christmas Day.

We knew it may not last though due to more warnings about high wind and now snow was added to the forecast. I was still concerned about the large tree in front of the house.

Our crisis however, was over and for us, it would stay over. As we basked in the marvels of electricity, light bulbs and heat, there were still 55,000 people without such novelties and comforts. We still had no phone line or internet but we can live without that and we probably won’t get crews out to repair that until the New Year.

The contents of one our freezers were just starting to thaw so we needed to cook the lasagne and have that for dinner or it was destined for the garbage bin. The turkey needed to thaw anyway and was moved to the fridge. The rest of the stuff in the freezers was still good and didn’t need to be tossed out.

Wednesday Morning (Christmas Day)

We woke to see a beautiful sight of fluffy snow covering everything outside. Although the branches of the tree out front were even heavier due to the snow, it seemed pretty solid. The winds didn’t cause any breaks and the wind had now dropped off. I was becoming less concerned.

Sunnybrook Hospital finally had power restored. They had been running off backup generators for days now.

Thursday Morning

37,000 are still without power. Some retirement homes and apartment buildings have had to be evacuated. More reports of people being rushed to hospitals due to Carbon Monoxide poisoning. The message has been out for days to NOT bring BBQ’s or generators into the home as a heat source but people are getting very desperate and ignoring the warnings.

Friday Morning

Six days after it started…nearly 30,000 are still without power. Those homes require individual repairs. I know that I could lose power again if that tree comes down and that is what’s happening in some areas. Some trees are still snapping and falling on the repair crews as they try and restore power to homes. Fortunately for those who got hit, they didn’t suffer serious injuries.

Saturday Morning

It’s the 7th day and still 18,000 homes are without power. Some streets are still closed due to fallen trees but more are being closed due to ice falling from buildings. One person suffered a serious head injury from falling ice and another from a tree branch that fell on her. Trees continue to snap and people who had their power restored are losing it again. I suppose that could still happen to us here and I can easily imagine how frustrating that would be for someone. There are still about 80 intersections without power to the traffic lights but those aren’t really a priority. Getting power to people’s homes is.

We should have our phone line repaired today once a tech shows up to fix it. We scheduled a cable tech to come out on Sunday to repair our internet connection (the phone and internet cables to our home still lay strewn along the ground in the back yard). Our whole street has a cable outage, so even if the tech shows up tomorrow, the problem may not be restored.

Afternoon

The day wore on rather uneventfully for us. Well…until the phone technician showed up. His name was Daoud from Somalia. A thin, soft spoken man who looked a tad bewildered. You could just tell how tired he was. He had been working very hard all day. Once he surveyed the job, he asked if I could help him out. “Of course” I replied. His language barrier and quiet voice made it a bit hard for us to communicate to each other but we figured each other out eventually. He needed to drive around into the parking lot of the building behind us so that he could access the trunk lines and toss me the new ‘Drop’ (this is the line that comes from the trunk lines and gets attached to the house. So off he went while I waited in the backyard. After a couple of attempts, he was able to toss me the Drop line and I pulled it through the backyard (climbing over the old fallen lines), along the side of the house and all the way to the front. I had to guess at how much line would be needed but it turned out in the end that I guessed well.

As the technician setup and climbed his ladder, he made a mistake. He was on an extendable ladder but didn’t lock it securely and it slipped resulting in both his feet being trapped in the rungs. He was well and truly stuck and unable to get free. “Hold on” I said “Don’t go anywhere and I’ll come around”. Yeah I know …it was a silly thing to say since he was obviously not going anywhere without someone to rescue him but it made him laugh. I ran around the block and jumped a fence to get to him as quickly as I could. Fortunately he wasn’t a heavy guy, even with all his tools and equipment attached, so I was able to lift him and the part of the ladder that he was trapped in. Ok…back to work.

I stayed with him and that was a good thing…he had someone to assist him and keep him company. It was a good thing I stayed because he got into trouble once again when he changed ladders and locations to climb the telephone pole. The panel box he needed to access was on the wrong side of the pole so he had to climb out on it and get to the other side. He didn’t have a good foot hold and was hanging by one arm around the pole. His arm was getting tired and started to shake. It would only be a matter of time before he slipped and fell. “My friend…you need to tie in” I shouted up to him. He got himself turned around but couldn’t release the belt from his harness, so up the ladder I climbed. As a rock climber, I am familiar with various safety harnesses and I knew what needed to be done. I was able to reach around the pole and around him to release the clasp of his life-line belt. I wrapped it around the pole and clipped it to him on the other side. Now he was safely tied in and wouldn’t fall from his perch 15 feet from the ground. As he tooled away, it was getting dark and there was still much to do. When he was finished on the pole…he had to reconnect the house. I helped pack up his gear and I met him back at the house. Now that it was completely dark out, I grabbed my headlamp and provided him with direct light on his hands while he was up the ladder on the side of the house. This was tedious work and his hands were no doubt getting cold. He didn’t complain though. Once all was said and done, he asked me where he could pick up a headlamp of his own. Had he not had any light, he would have taken much longer to get the job done. This poor guy was so tired at this point and he still had another service call to do. Hopefully it was something easy like a jack installation inside a warm house somewhere. I gave him a handful of chocolates and his face lit up.

Sunday

It’s the 8th day after the storm and there are still 6,000 homes without power. Most people who are still without power and without means to stay warm have had to abandon their homes. $1million a day for Toronto Hydro to restore power to all the affected homes and they figure the final bill could be around $10 million. Although the City claims that the tax payers won’t have to pony up for the bill, I have a hard time believing that. It’s far more likely that Toronto Hydro will slowly jack up their prices to cover the costs and it’s unlikely that once they’ve recovered their losses, they will lower the rates back down.

Prior to the morning press conference from the City, the cable repair technician showed up to restore our internet connection. Another friendly fellow but he had a similar look of bewilderment as he surveyed the task of repairing our fallen lines. Midi (from Iran) also expressed to me that this was the most difficult repair job he’s had since the storm started. Once again I helped out to make the job easier and faster and once again, my assistance was much appreciated. 1hr and 10min later and our internet service was restored. Thankfully this repair went off without any drama.

The crisis is coming to an end and hopefully by morning, all the affected homes will have their power restored. However, cleaning up the roads of fallen trees and branches will take weeks. I’m sure there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of homes that will have serious flooding issues from burst pipes.

 

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