Cover

MEMORIES OF A LONG, COLD ELECTRICITY OUTAGE

BENOIT AUBIN August 25 2003
Cover

MEMORIES OF A LONG, COLD ELECTRICITY OUTAGE

BENOIT AUBIN August 25 2003

MEMORIES OF A LONG, COLD ELECTRICITY OUTAGE

THERE IS ONE THING worse than sweating, power-less, in the dark, as most Quebecers know, and it is freezing in the dark. Here, we tend to lose power in the middle of winter, when the nights last 16 hours, and the temperature dips into the flash-freeze zone. Deciding to sleep overnight on the sidewalk in such conditionsas many New Yorkers did last Thursday night— could be the last decision you’d ever make.

Bad as the great blackout was, chances are the memories of the inconvenience wili soon fade away. But if you lived through the ice storms of January 1998, it is impossible to forget them. The strange, motionless beauty of frost-covered tree limbs on empty streets: the King Kongesque vision of huge pylons toppled over. Men died failing off roofs they were trying to de-ice to save their houses from collapse, old folks died of cold or carbon monoxide poisoning; families, whole towns, camped in school gyms for weeks on end. Three million people in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys went without power, some for as long as 33 days; 30 deaths were blamed on the storm.

Downtown Montreal was cordoned off, the towers covered with ice that fell in large slabs and landed with a crash, breaking the silence in the streets. Police cruisers, idle with lights flashing, sat at every intersection. At the time I was the executive producer of Global Quebec, which had gone on the air just weeks before, and everyone was working day and night to keep up with the story of a lifetime—oblivious to the fact that our market had vanished. Virtually no one in our viewing area could watch TV. But life had stopped making any sense.

So, Montreal had power while Toronto’s luck failed last week-and, yes, some people here were betting on the moment when Mayor Mel Lastman would call in the army, for ice cubes and cold pop. Quebec was spared because, as Premier Jean Charest was quick to point out,

it has been there before. Following major blackouts in the 1980s and then the traumatic ice storms of 1998, Hydro-Québec pumped $3 billion into upgrading its power grid. We are selfsufficient, and our system has the equivalent of big, big fuses that protect us from whatever aberration hampers our neighbours’ antiquated, overworked systems.

Charest’s matter-of-fact announcement that our system is better than their systems did not send Quebec off on a bombastic, nationalist boasting spree-proof once more that the Parti Québécois era is indeed over. Reporters and the public were just befuddled to learn that, for once, our government had made the right decision and done the right thing with our money. As a result, Quebec was able to move 50 emergency generators into Ontario early Friday, and divert 1,000 megawatts of electricity to Ontario and New York state-hoping the neighbours will remember these gestures next time we freeze alone in the dark. BENOIT AUBIN IN MONTREAL

BENOIT AUBIN IN MONTREAL