It’s been 20 years since the great North America blackout left Toronto, other cities without power

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the day that more than 50 million North Americans found themselves without power, in what’s now known as the great North America blackout.

Shortly after 4 p.m. ET on Aug. 14, 2003, Toronto — along with a number of cities including New York, Cleveland and Ottawa — came to a standstill as traffic lights, office buildings, subways and airports shut down. The blackout extended over 24,000 square kilometres, from Chicago all the way over to and down the Atlantic coast, including most of Ontario.

Tom Adams, an energy analyst, said he recalls the immediate “wild speculation, often political in nature,” about the cause of the blackout.

“There was initially speculation that there had been a terrorist attack or that a nuclear power plant had gone up,” he told CBC News.

A subsequent report on what caused the blackout blamed Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corporation. After coming in contact with some overgrown trees, power lines from a FirstEnergy generating plant in a suburb of Cleveland had shut down.

Blackout was short-lived

A technical glitch meant the proper alarms didn’t show up on their control system, so FirstEnergy wasn’t able to react or warn anyone else until it was too late. A cascading effect ensued, and in the end, more than 100 power plants in Ontario and the northeastern U.S. had shut down.

In Canada, the power outage affected most of Ontario including Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Sudbury, Kitchener, London and Windsor.

Power outages were also reported in Cleveland, Toledo, New York City, Buffalo, Albany, Long Island, Westchester County, Rockland County, Detroit, New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut. In total, the blackout affected 10 million Canadians and 40 million Americans in eight states.

The 2003 blackout was short-lived and power was restored in most regions the next day. 

Energy analyst Tom Adams says he recalls the immediate ‘wild speculation, often political in nature,’ about the cause of the blackout. (Courtesy Tom Adams)

Adams said an interesting consequence resulting from the blackout was that people started to take emergency preparedness much more seriously. 

“So, for example, our hospitals made a lot of changes to the way they do their electrical safety, their protection from blackouts,” he said.

“Other kinds of critical infrastructure — water pumping stations, sewage treatment plants, communication centres — there was a widespread change in the emergency preparedness practices after that event that has given us lasting benefits and, you know, in the ensuing 20 years we haven’t had anything like a repeat of that event.” 

Entertainer Michael Louis Johnson is one of a team of people who get together every year on Aug. 14 to mark the anniversary.

“For those who were in Toronto Aug. 14, 2003, they might remember that it was … really hard for a lot of people to get home and a lot of people had a fairly traumatic event,” Johnson said. 

“But for a lot of people, especially in downtown, it was glorious. It was Toronto the good on display. You know, it was people looking after their neighbours and people singing songs in the parks and restaurants giving away food that was going to go bad — it was a real party atmosphere in downtown. 

“And so every year since then we’ve wanted to celebrate that element of Toronto — the good,” he added.

Michael Louis Johnson.
Entertainer Michael Louis Johnson is one of a team of people who get together every year on Aug. 14 to mark the anniversary. (CBC)

Johnson said the celebration this year will include three events:

  • A picnic at Grange Park from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • A street parade, following the picnic.
  • A gathering at a secret location for a party. 

“It’s to recreate that vibe. There’s also a certain freedom that people feel when they’re parading through the streets and it’s not a protest, it’s a celebration,” Johnson said.

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