The ice storm cometh .. nightmare before (and after) Christmas 2013

Dec 26th, 2013 | By | Category: In Brief

We went without electricity for about 28 hours at our house — in the east end of the old city of Toronto, down by the lake. According to the latest estimate, “69,800 customers were still without power Wednesday evening [December 25], four days after a massive ice storm struck the city, knocking down tree branches and snarling holiday plans.”

My most immediate feeling is sympathy for these 69,800 customers — and the larger number of actual people they cover. They are apparently especially numerous in the old township and then borough of Scarborough, still further east of us.

A lady who moved to Scarborough a while ago, but still owns an unsold house across  from us, has temporarily returned to her vacant building on our street, which is at least warm. Her house in Scarborough has been without electricity for the full four days now. She dropped by our place briefly on Christmas Day, understandably full of rage.

My sympathies also go out to all those in Ontario and beyond who have been comethed by the ice storm right at the crucial moment of this holiday season — and still do not have electric power.  (See, eg, “Ice storm means dark Christmas for tens of thousands … Weekend ice storm has caused havoc in Ontario, Quebec, Maritimes, northeastern US.”)

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As I should be, I am full of admiration and gratitude as well for the hydro workers — some from as far away as Manitoba and Michigan — who have sacrificed their holidays, working hard to restore power to people in Toronto, Ontario, and beyond.

As understandably enraged as those who are suffering most become (and if you have suffered even as little as we have, you really can understand this), you cannot seriously blame anyone for natural disasters of this sort. And it is heartening to see how many people rise to the occasion — because that is their job, and/or out of sheer altruism and human compassion.

Beyond this I find myself wondering why so much of our debate about energy policy turns around oil and gas. Even if you only go without electricity for 28 hours, in below freezing temperatures, you get a bracing crash course in the utterly massive extent to which our kind of advanced civilization today depends on electricity. A sudden comparable shortage of oil and gas would cause nowhere near so much grief and hardship.

We coped with our 28 hours of hardship as best we could, sitting around the fireplace — often in candlelight. (We had cut some old used wood into fireplace-sized pieces this past summer, and they were suddenly very useful.) Over and over we reflected that we were at least getting some sense of what life in our part of North America must have been like in the middle of the 19th century.

The discussion carried on when we dropped around to our next-door neighbours on Christmas Eve — by which time everyone on our street was enjoying the blessings of electricity once again. We had, in effect, travelled back in time for a short while. And because it was so short (and we at least had fireplaces, because our houses were built just before the ascent of what the Toronto newspaper ads of the 1920s called the “Standard Electric Home”), it was almost interesting.

But no one had any doubt that we vast masses of ordinary people are much better off in the age of electricity. And the next time someone starts telling me that I need to worry a lot about energy policy and oil and gas, I am going to remember the ice storm nightmare before and after the late December holiday season of 2013, in the part of the world I live in.

And I am going to say yes, but what are you going to do about ensuring reliable supplies of electricity?

That is the kind of energy that really counts today. And if you don’t believe this, just try going without it, for any remotely serious length of time, especially when the temperature is below freezing.

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