While many people in Ontario have differing memories of the blackout of 2003, Rebecca Canzio had her own reason to go into “survivor mode.”
Canzio was just a couple of days from her wedding in Windsor when what’s commonly referred to as the Northeast Blackout hit on Aug. 14, 2003.
“Starting out your marriage with a blackout event that is historic is a bit strange,” she said. “But it really did make us into a couple that can go with the flow and laugh about the little things.”
Twenty years ago, many cities near the lower Great Lakes, including Windsor, lost power as the blackout shut down traffic lights, office buildings, transit systems and airports. The blackout extended more than 24,000 square kilometres, from Chicago and all the way down the Eastern Seaboard.
The blackout was triggered by power lines in Ohio coming into contact with overgrown trees. The company managing the lines, FirstEnergy Corporation, wasn’t able to react or warn anyone else immediately due to a technical glitch. A cascading effect ensued, leading to a power surge which shut down more than 100 power plants in Ontario and the northeastern U.S.
Roughly 70 guests were supposed to travel to Windsor for Canzio’s wedding on Aug 16. However, the massive blackout two days earlier meant some guests were unable to get there.
“We had over 250 guests come to our wedding, but sadly, because of the blackout, we lost about 35 guests that were supposed to come,” said Canzio, who now lives in the Waterdown, Ont., area of Hamilton.
Best man stuck in an elevator
On that fateful Thursday, everything started to go wrong for Canzio.
The power was out at the hotel where guests were supposed to stay, meaning the elevators stopped working.
“My brother-in-law, who was my husband’s best man, got stuck in an elevator,” Canzio remembered.
He was eventually rescued after 20 minutes.
The lack of power meant that along with the elevators not working, there was no hotel air conditioning.
“We also saw guests really struggling to get up the six flights of stairs,” Canzio said. “There were elderly guests who arrived and had luggage to carry. It quickly got really warm and uncomfortable, and their rooms were pretty scorching.”
Canzio’s mother offered to host everyone at her house in LaSalle, where guests could have food and drink and, most importantly, cool off.
Although Canzio said there was no alternative for people to entertain themselves, she recalled the atmosphere had a calming effect on her and her future husband, Michael.
“We really were worried about some of the details, but everyone else kept reassuring us that none of these things actually mattered,” Canzio recalled. “We were all together and [they said,] ‘You are going to get married.’”
And they did. But not before even more hiccups.
“Friday was the worst day of the weekend,” Canzio said.
She was getting calls from staff at the Fogolar Furlan club who were unsure if they could host the reception. Her hairdresser and guests who were unable to get gas because the stations were closed.
“Each time I heard a new change or a new glitch, it was a stab to my heart,” Canzio said.
Relief came later that evening when the power came back on just before the rehearsal dinner. But it was a false dawn.
“Upon arriving at the restaurant where we would host about 50 guests for the rehearsal dinner, we found out that the power had just turned off again,” she said.
Each time I heard a new change or a new glitch, it was a stab to my heart.– Rebecca Canzio
There were fears the out-of-town guests would not be able to stay at the hotel, they did eventually stay the night there. Canzio said the hotel did a good job of trying to make people as comfortable as possible.
Saturday came around and, apart from Canzio’s makeup artist being unable to host her, everything went off without a hitch, although there was a déjà vu moment during the reception.
“We were dancing and the power went out,” Canzio recalled. “I think someone had just stepped on a cord because within 10 seconds, the power went back on and everyone started laughing.”
Canzio described that moment as a theme of the entire weekend.
What’s happened since then
François Bouffard, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Montreal’s McGill University, said electrical grids are designed to be “bulletproof” and rebooting them takes time.
Since 2003, power producers have made sure a similar outage does not occur again. Bouffard said the process now involves wind and solar power connecting to the grid.
“What’s great about having wind and solar power is that they come in smaller chunks,” he said. “So if you lose one, the pain is not as deep as losing a large power station like Bruce [Power nuclear plant] or Darlington [Nuclear Generating Station].”
The biggest change since 2003 is the implementation of operating standards.
“Prior to 2003, there weren’t industry standards that were adhered to within North America,” said David Robitaille, senior director of market operations at the Independent Electricity System Operator, a body that oversees the power system in Ontario.
“Now, we have mature industry standards that we operate to and that we’re audited against on a tri-annual basis,” Robitaille said.
For Canzio, her family and friends have taken a comedic approach to remembering the weekend.
“There’s been some jokes throughout the years,” she said. “We use a lot of puns to commemorate the blackout part of our wedding experience.”
Throughout their ordeal, the minister struck a reassuring message.
“It was very supportive and reassuring for him to just remind us constantly that you don’t need electricity to get married — you just need love,” Canzio said. “That really resonated with us and has stayed with us.”