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Left in the dark in more ways than one

Michael BlissWe slept unusually soundly on that rainy Saturday night, Dec. 21. At 7 a.m. on Sunday the 22nd we were jolted awake by a phone call telling us there would be no services at St. Augustine of Canterbury, across Broadway from us, because it had lost power.

We looked out to see arboreal chaos on our lawns, with more cracking and crashing as we watched. We could see that the Esso on Bayview had lost power. Our block on Bessborough was okay so far, but around 9 a.m. another falling branch took out the line to the house directly across from us. We expected our line to go down at any time.

It never did. Our block looked a bit like a glittering war zone all of Christmas week (don’t exaggerate Michael: it only sounded like gunfire; there were no bodies). But with an icy branch resting right on it, our lifeline held.

Unlike most of our Leaside neighbours, 314 Bessborough was effectively unscathed by the great ice storm of 2013. Nature pruned our trees without destroying any of them. Robins gorged on mountain ash berries.

We have hardship credentials stemming from a freak lightning strike and fire at our house several years ago, so did not feel guilty about being lucky this time around. We heard many stories of friends shivering in the cold, abandoning their houses, returning to deal with spoiled food and burst pipes. Was there ever a Christmas that generated more family solidarity, sometimes to a fault?

The almost complete randomness of the damage – the ice took no account of wealth, merit, or privilege – and the almost complete uncertainty about when power would be restored, seem to have been two special features of this winter storm.

On the first day many sensible people were afraid to go outside (though Canada Post was delivering registered mail, an amazing last hurrah). In later walks around Leaside I talked to enough exhausted, haggard repairmen to conclude that we were being heroically served by rugged guys – these are still mostly male jobs – giving up their Christmas.

It’s now evident that Hydro’s major failure was one of communications. Not unlike airlines during delays, the authorities could not or would not give people the comfort of knowing even approximately when their ordeals would end. Could they have done better?

Many years ago in small-town Ontario – probably Toronto too – our quiet streets were often “disturbed” by politicians, service clubs, and other groups blasting out announcements through loudspeakers mounted on cars.

That’s probably illegal now. But wouldn’t it have been useful if we still used sound cars in emergencies to convey information locally? It would have been relatively cheap, easy, and effective.

The flashing lights of a big Hydro truck, I think from Manitoba, awakened us at 3 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 29. By morning everyone on north Bessborough south of Broadway finally had power again. The fallen branches were with us for a while yet, the memories for quite a bit longer.

MICHAEL BLISS, historian and author, was named an Officer of the Order of Canada earlier this year.