By Wayne Litke
It’s 10 o’clock on Sunday and I am doing the same thing I always do at this time of night. I am penning a column, but this time there is a difference. It is dark outside, and the mirky blackness has infiltrated our home and most other houses and buildings across southwest Saskatchewan. It all began when electrical service unexpectedly stopped at approximately 4:45 p.m. The skies were clear and weather conditions were sunny and pleasant at the time. It certainly was not frosty, extremely hot or windy which sometimes cause problems with the distribution system.
As I look outside, the darkness is all encompassing and only the soft illumination of candles or battery-powered lights indicates the location of our neighbours’ houses. The glow of streetlights is conspicuously missing and there is little traffic. It is unnaturally quiet for a long weekend. Looking up from the glow of my computer laptop, my eyes have to adjust to the darkness outside which seems to be more dense and consuming than any other night I can recall.
One thing is for sure, the temperature is again going to drop below freezing and my wife is not going to cover her potato plants in the garden. What is with that? We have routinely carried her potted plants indoors when there was the risk of frost and Sunday night was no exception. As the sun went down, so did the temperature which quickly fell to the freezing point before midnight. The weather forecast on my cell phone predicted -2C as a low which seemed a little optimistic considering how fast the mercury was falling. Upon waking the next morning, I checked my weather station and it indicated the temperature had bottomed out at a chilly -6C.
The cause of the power outage was apparently a problem at a SaskPower substation. The utility reported (tweeted) the area impacted was significant as the blackout was affecting Kindersley, Rosetown, Shaunavon, Maple Creek, Swift Current and all rural areas. Residents at Swift Current faired better than many areas as their power (at least electrical service to our daughter’s house) was restored by approximately 7 p.m.
After supper, Angela and I tried to watch a movie using my iPhone as a hot spot for Internet service which then allowed my laptop to access a movie. However, the show stopped erratically and had to reload. We abandoned the process after three attempts and resorted to old-fashioned hard copy entertainment – books and magazines. They don’t require power, just a little external illumination. I wondered what teens and young folks were doing since televisions and video games will not work without a power source. Sitting outside and chilling by a fire was an option to be considered, but the drop in temperature put the emphasis on chilling instead of fun and relaxation.
Back in the day, a few games were reserved for darkness. Kick-the-Can was a favourite, as was cops and robbers which was made more thrilling by bicycle chases in the dark. There were inevitable spills, wipeouts and minor injuries which were always the topic of discussion the next day.
Reflecting back to May 17, the power outage was only a minor inconvenience for us as we had dinner guests at the time, but since we had planned to barbecue, it really did not create any undue duress. The timing of the outage was also fortuitous as it was not on a weekday. Typically we panic when electrical service is lost because we are totally dependent on it at work. To make matters worse, it seems like major outages often occur on production day (when the newspaper is being put together), so there are only two solutions: locate a generator or haul the office computers to a location that has power, Internet service and can accommodate a few stressed out individuals.
The power outage was the second major utility failure in the Southwest in two weeks. On May 6 a fire in the Town of Gull Lake destroyed a fiber optic line through which long-distance and cell phone calls were routed. The recent disruptions in service drive home the point that our world – even in rural Saskatchewan – is totally dependent upon technology. The inability to communicate electronically caused some businesses to shut down and stopped every credit card or debit card transaction, unless the vendor’s communication service utilized satellite technology. As I was purchasing water and a snack at Gull Lake, it reminded me of the importance of carrying cash. The situation reminded me of an old credit card advertisement and the slogan: “don’t leave home without it.” Now that phrase more appropriately applies to carrying a little cash.
Regarding failures in technology, important government and financial information is stored digitally and that information can be damaged or destroyed by a huge electromagnetic wave. The odds of such an event occurring are slim, but very possible. For example, a massive solar flare in 1989 shut down the entire electrical grid in Quebec and created problems in the U.S. as well. It seems like ancient history now, but the phenomenon created havoc and showed the vulnerability of earth and our technology against the power of the sun.
Preventative measures for every possible scenario are not economical to implement, so we should be prepared for major disruptions in utilities and essential services. However, I don’t believe we are doing that collectively or individually. For that reason I am becoming proactive and am stockpiling a significant supply of blank cheques, dehydrated water and ammunition.