The Great Blackout of 2003

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At about 16:11 Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday, August 14, 2003, much of the province of Ontario and the northeastern United States lost power.

Why? They're not quite sure (yet). But it has affected about 30 million people, including some h2g2 researchers.

The goal of this entry is to let researchers tell of their experiences during the largest power blackout in the history of North America. The entry is going to include both the facts of what happened and the experiences of those affected by it.

Post away!

The entry so far...

At 16:11 Eastern on Thursday, August 14th, 2003, 30 to 50 million people in Ontario and the northeastern United States found themselves without electric power because of something that happened in the span of nine seconds. While many people had their power restored within twenty-four hours, people continued to experience rotating blackouts as the power companies worked feverishly to restore power. Obviously, when you have a blackout of this magnitude, you can't just flick a switch and give everyone power simultaneously. It has to be restored section by section so that the system doesn't overload again.

So, what caused it?

Well, they're not quite sure yet, but it looks like something happened in Ohio that caused a ripple effect across the power grid. But immediately after it happened, everyone was pointing fingers at everyone else...
  • The governor of New York State said something happened in Canada
  • The premier of Ontario said it was something in the US
  • Someone said there was a fire at a nuclear power station in the US
  • Could have been lightning
  • Elvis did it1

One researcher said 'The first thing I thought was "terrorists" because why else would NYC radio stations be out too?', but everyone was quick to step forward and say that it was not an act of terrorism.

Everyone also agreed that after the power was restored that there would have to be an investigation into what happened so that it doesn't happen again in the future. On Friday, the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States announced a joint investigation would be conducted.

What happens when 30 to 50 million people lose power?

A lot of things. And a whole lot of things that don't happen because there's no power.
  • The lights go out
  • Subway trains stop running as do streetcars
  • People get stuck in elevators
  • Air conditioners stop working
  • Both landline and mobile phones stopped working
  • People forget their manners and start looting stores
  • Fires are started by candles
  • People die

But it's not all doom and gloom. People pull together in a time of crisis, and this time was no different. People slept outdoors in groups rather than stay in their hot apartments without air-conditioning. They also held community barbeques and picnics to cook their food that would otherwise go to waste. One researcher's company donated its cafeteria's food stores to people trapped in the vicinity of its office.

No phones?

Yes, no phones.

Some people found themselves without a dialtone when they tried to make a phone call or they had a dialtone but the call wouldn't go through. Fortunately, this wasn't the case everywhere.

But a lot of people found themselves unable to make calls from their mobile phones. 'It was odd. I was able to receive calls on my mobile phone but when I tried to place one, it wouldn't go through' reported one researcher.

Some mobile phone networks went into a mode that would allow emergency workers to make calls while limiting calls made by everyone else.

When did life return to normal?

Some people were without power for a couple of hours while others didn't have their power restored for a day. But the effects of the blackout were felt longer than that.

Because the power generation was not at full capacity, almost all government offices in Ontario were closed for the week after the outage in an effort to conserve power. These closures affected thousands of employees who found themselves with an unexpected vacation.

Economic reprecussions

When an event like this occurs, there are bound to be noticeable effects on the economy. Statistics Canada reported that sales in the automative sector in Canada dropped by about 15% and that production fell by about 23% in Canada and 2.6% in the United States. Knock-on effects from communication outages resulted in 20% fewer imports of vehicles into Canada.

It was also responsible for 88% of the sales decline during the month of August in Canada.
1Ok, perhaps this one's stretching it a bit

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