Thinking in the Dark

I had notions of writing this article on Saturday, but the power was flickering as former hurricane Noel probed its way into Nova Scotia. The notion might have returned on Sunday, but at that time we were without power, and I was walking from room to room, flicking on light switches out of habit, and flicking them off again out of common sense.

We went 16 hours without power, all because of a little jumper wire between the main line outside out house and the pole transformer being off and swinging in the breeze. A ten minute repair job, but with whole communities off the grid due to the storm, we weren’t a top priority.

We were fairly geared up for the event, since when we first built it seemed that longer duration power outages were a regular winter event (thankfully there hasn’t been that many since). Our furnace burns oil or wood, and while we can’t “blow” the heat around, when the power is off I remove the doors from the furnace blower compartment, keep open the basement doors, and like a central heating furnace of old (remember those big black grates in the hall floor?), we let the heat rise and fall of its own accord. We have lamps and candles, and if needed I haul out a propane camp stove for primitive cooking. Water is a bit more of a problem, but I ran off four water cooler bottles before things started.

I was rather bored Sunday afternoon. No computer. No TV. Wind blowing too strong outside to do much in the yard. Basement in darkness– no power tools even if I could see. A bit dark for reading, and I had just finished any new books that I had on hand. Played acoustic guitar for a while. I felt a bit like that imaginary primitive man banging his fist on a rock and saying, “We ain’t never gonna have TV!”

And I realized, like about 150,000 Nova Scotians, and thousands more in New Brunswick and PEI that we rely on electricity tremendously to provide the lifestyle we have become accustomed to enjoying. Almost dangerously so… could we survive long without it before we would be hiking miles to the grocery store and fighting each other for the remaining loaves of bread on the darkened shelves?

We just got a power bill a day or two before Noel— they slipped it in before I sat in the dark contemplating things. I noted that it was quite reasonable, amazingly so for two months of a lot of benefit… about $155, perhaps large by some frugal person’s standards, but we don’t go lightly on power here, and I don’t enjoy squinting in the dark. They nicely break it down to your “per day” use, and our average usage was $2.39 a day. Quite amazing, considering what we get from that sum.

How would we do without it? A few hours of darkness makes you do some thinking on precisely that topic. We’re capable for a while, as I mentioned, but certainly there were many thousands of people whose houses were growing steadily colder as the hours passed. In mid-winter they would think of pipes freezing, not to mention arms and legs, while we worried only about moisture dripping from electric freezers that were slowly thawing.

We could get a generator, contraptions that flew off the shelves after hurricane Juan, and likely will make another brisk sales peak after last weekend— useful for spanning a short term outage in more comfort and less danger. They have their limitations, of course, both in power capability and in long term running time.

Suppose the power was off for two weeks? What would we do? People with generators would do well for a few days, and then many would start thinking about more fuel. Run up to the garage with a jerry can? But the pumps are not running. Beg, borrow– who has a tank? Siphon from the vehicle? Homeowners are not allowed to have large fuel storage capability at home. All our schemes have some limitations.

And the rest of us? It would be community sharing time, if we fit into the community. Those who had heat and facilities would have to start sharing.

I can recall when I was a teen that we had a vicious sleet storm in Summerside. Trees, power poles and wires were down all over town. It was an unbelievable mess. I don’t recall the duration of it, but I seem to recall about two weeks. Fortunately, a lot of people were not into “total electric living” at that time, and there were still a lot of wood/coal stoves in the living rooms (they went away and now have come back, at least the wood variety), and a lot of people had oil space heaters as well— we had one, fortunately. I remember my uncle bringing us some ancient oil-burning cooking stove several days into the outage, with a row of burners across the front and an up-ended clear bottle of oil at the back like a water cooler (we discovered that filling and upending this bottle of kerosene into the rack was a task fraught with peril!).

We walked the streets in awe at the devastation of the storm. No school for weeks. Everything was covered with an inch of ice, and you stepped over tree branches, poles, and for a time electrical wires. The wires were dead, and were only there until some enterprising thieves stole most of them off the town streets, further delaying the restoration efforts. I later saw impressive stores of coiled copper wires in back sheds following the crisis (a lot of copper in the wires of that time).

Our extended family members pulled together to see that each had resources to ride it out, but I know that some families were operating homes like shelters… uncles, aunts, cousins, all moved in, not to mention the occasional family from next door, sharing warmth around stoves. People sleeping everywhere, while other homes were all but abandoned. Plumbers did a steady business for a month replacing frozen pipes that had split.

Could we ever face that kind of situation again? Perhaps not. But I notice on the NS Power site that 75% of our base power comes from only four coal/coke generating plants, mainly in the eastern end of the province. A fair amount of our eggs in a few baskets. “But we are hooked into other provinces and countries,” say some. “We would just draw from them if we needed power.” We are hooked to New Brunswick, Quebec, and Maine with the capability of drawing up to 300 megawatts of power through by Amherst, but that is about 1/7 of the normal generating power in Nova Scotia, not enough for our needs, particularly in the dead of winter.

It’s an unlikely scenario that something would have a major effect on these main power facilities, or the main transmission lines that lead away from them, but these days we’re less sure than we ever were that the unthinkable is the undoable.

Certainly we have moved, and are moving, more and more away from the capability of living any length of time without power. I expect a thousand homes in Nova Scotia realized on Sunday that they suddenly had no telephone service, since they had just installed a full range of the amazingly cheap wireless phones in the home, and didn’t appreciate that they don’t work at all without power (get yourself a $7.95 backup phone, or a cell).

Though I’m sure the increasing city population regards their rural cousins with their wood-burning stoves and noisy generators as red-necked survivalists, we will at least last a little longer than the high-rise Halifax refrigeration units in a long February blackout.


P.S. Apparently that sleetstorm was 1956, making me younger then than I recalled. Link below.

Summerside mural on Island Tel Building

5 thoughts on “Thinking in the Dark

  1. I too would have guessed the sleet storm occurred later in the fifties, since I remember it quite well, and I would have been barely more than five years old in January, 1956. Of course, my memory is not as detailed as yours, since I was much younger (and still am!) It seems to me that might have been the first and last time I fell for your suggestion to lick the ice off the metal railings on our front step. . .

  2. Blackouts are a great opportunity to take time out to read blogs. Opps! I guess that’s not quite right. I recall my own last “blackout” experience when I was living on what was once a dairy farm in upstate New York. The power went out while I was using the computer (a “286” if you can remember them!). No problem. I still had the typewriter! Opps. It was an electric. Well, I could still go make coffee … my remedy for all problems. Sorry, the water pump used electricity. So I went out the back door to the small stream that ran by the house, filled up a pot with water … and used the wood stove to heat the water and, wow, FRESH COFFEE!

    (My previous blackout experience had been in New York City in 1965 when I had to hike down 12 flights of stairs, walk 50 blocks to an in-law’s apartment, hike UP 23 flights of stairs … but I was younger then!)

    Electricity is a wonderful thing!

  3. Phil, I well remember the 286 (XT), which was my first IBM compatible. Previous to that, however, I had a famous Commodore 64, and at the very first a Texas Instruments TI-99. The machine I’m typing at has 64,000 times as much memory as the TI-99, and I can’t compare hard drive space, since the TI and the C64 never had hard drives! The 296, however, had a 20MB hard drive, making my present hard drive eight thousand times as large…. and that is only about 17 years later!

  4. Hi Francis .. I remember the ice storm and how we were not allowed to go outside because of the live wires and how we heated the house with coal and gathered around the kitchen stove to keep warm. My younger sister was terrified of the dark so someone had to man a candle in her room until she fell asleep. Although we had to do without electricity the beauty of the ice sparkling and laden on all the trees was a sight to remember, even after all these years.

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