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 TV Bites With Neena Louise

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

by Neena Louise


On Thursday, August 14th, shortly after 4 pm, I was online with the TV murmuring in the background when the cable went out. This had barely registered when I lost my Internet connection, then the power went out - all in the space of a few seconds. The air conditioner ground to a halt and my refrigerators stopped. Considering it was quite hot for the northeast, my first concern was how stifling it was going to get in my house. I was annoyed until I hauled out a long-neglected battery-operated radio and was met with nothing but static. After a fleeting thought of "it's the apocalypse!", the radio sprang to life and I learned that I was only one of some 50 million people that had been plunged into darkness. Once I learned it had nothing to do with terrorism, my next thought was nothing short of pathetic. Was I still concerned with how hot it was going to get? Did I wonder if my food would spoil? If my family was in darkness and doing ok? If I lost any important work on the computer? If people were trapped in elevators? No! It was "But...but...Amazing Race is on tonight!". I need a priority check.

As I dug into drawers and cupboards to retrieve flashlights, batteries and candles, my thoughts were still of television and how the long the evening would seem without it. As darkness fell, I hunkered down with a pile of books and thought I'd make the best of it. Though I love to read, I found it hard to concentrate with my brand new 36" television skulking in the corner, mocking me with its darkness. Despite living in the downtown area of a largish city, the darkness was smothering and the silence eerie. With no streetlights or house lights, passing cars lit up the night and the crickets chirped in delight. I might as well have been living in the country. Eventually (and after leaving Big-Mocking-TV Room), I adjusted, lost most of my selfishness - grateful I wasn't trapped in an elevator and that I still had clean running water - and settled in for the night, reading, talking on the phone to commiserate with others, or listening to the radio. I was one of the lucky ones and power was restored before midnight - less than eight hours after it went out.

With power restored, the first thing I did (naturally) was turn on the television. What I saw was an intriguing statement on the condition of U.S./Canada relations, which have been strained since Canada's refusal to enter the Iraq war. First New York Governor George Pataki and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg blamed the blackout on Canada. Ontario Premier Ernie Eves fired back with the confident statement that it started in New York City. New York returned with the statement that it started by a lightning strike in Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. Canada shot back that, yes, there was a lightning strike, but it was on the American side. None of it was true, but the finger-pointing persisted. President George Bush appeared on television and called for patience and calm. Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien was nowhere to be found (turns out he was at his vacation home in an area unaffected by the power outage and, I guess, couldn't be bothered leaving this comfort to offer reassurance). Though I found all this amusing - watching the finger-pointing despite the fact there was no definitive evidence of just where it started - I wondered why both the American and Canadian politicians seemed so preoccupied with who was to blame, rather than getting the lights back on. It wasn't until Friday night when ABC's 20/20 seemed to have figured it out and explained in great detail how it all started and where (the prime suspect: transmission lines in Ohio). Why could the media figure out, but not the politicians? I think the politicians of both countries should apologize to each other and the public. We really didn't need that childish finger-pointing display while we were coping in the dark (some even without water or a place to sleep).

As power was restored to area after area, news conferences continued and the experts kept repeating the same thing: the power grid is fragile and people must conserve. I watched a news conference on CNN where New York's governor and Secretary of something-or-other both urged people to conserve energy and not use their air conditioners, despite the 90-degree heat. CNN had a split screen of the news conference and Times Square in New York City. Times Square was lit up like a Christmas tree, with electronic billboards going in a sea of neon signs. When retailers were urged to turn off their signs and billboards, they refused: "We paid for it...we're going to use it." So, let me get this straight: it's okay to light up store and advertising signs, but I'm supposed to swelter in the heat? I don't think so. My AC went on. It went on low and in power-saver mode, but it went on just the same. By Saturday, life seemed to have returned to normal. Stores were open and power had been restored to most of the affected areas. However, the experts and politicians still insisted things were far from normal, repeating their call for energy conservation and urging people to turn their air conditioners off, threatening rolling blackouts if they didn't. Like most in the northeast, I hear the threat of rolling blackouts during every single heat wave, and yet I have never experienced one. If they want people to conserve energy, they shouldn't cry wolf every time the mercury rises above 80 degrees. I wasn't alone in ignoring this latest request.

In this day and age, there's absolutely no excuse for 50 million people to go without power in the middle of a heat wave when there was no natural disaster to cause it. But have we become so dependent on electricity that we can't even exist without it? Not only was this - as President Bush put it - a wake-up call, it's a hard lesson on how dependent we've become on electricity. I was reasonably prepared with loads of batteries and candles and didn't really suffer, unlike so many others. However, I've learned the thing I missed the most (as pathetic as it may sound) was television. I intend to buy a battery-powered one. Lesson learned.

Oh, and the local affiliate reran the missed episode of Amazing Race. Bless 'em. 
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