Remembering the 2003 Northeastern Blackout in Toronto: August 14: Snapshots in History

August 15, 2018 | John P.

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On August 14 and beyond, many Ontarians and Torontonians might wish to remind themselves where they were on Thursday August 14, 2003 at about 4:11 p.m. EDT (Eastern Daylight Time) in the afternoon when the power went out, and what they did in the hours and days ahead until the power was restored from the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Alan Taylor, writing his introduction to Photos: 15 Years Since the 2003 Northeast Blackout in The Atlantic on August 13, 2018, offered the reader a concise explanation for the layperson as to what happened on August 14, 2003:


“…a series of faults caused by tree branches touching power lines in Ohio, which were then complicated by human error, software issues, and equipment failure, led to the most widespread blackout in North American history. More than 50 million people across eight northeastern U.S. states and parts of Canada (i.e. Ontario) were left without power for at least 24 hours, and many were in the dark for weeks…”


The Media Centre for Ontario’s Independent Energy System Operator (IESO) noted that the blackout’s causes stemmed from inadequate procedures and operations in the state of Ohio, as outlined in Final report on the August 14, 2003 blackout in the United States and Canada: causes and recommendations . Poor tree management, insufficient communications between electric utilities in the area, lack of proper training and insufficient tools to handle an electricity emergency are all cited as contributing factors. Given the poor conditions in Ohio, a series of large power swings ranging between 2,000 and 4,000 megawatts worked their way into Ontario’s grid interconnections with Michigan and New York State. Consequently, the northeastern power system in the United States and parts of Ontario’s power system began to shut down at 4:11 p.m. on August 14, 2003. About 61,800 megawatts of power destined for customers was interrupted which impacted more than 50 million people. In Ontario, virtually all electricity service east of Wawa was out of order, excepting small pockets in the Niagara area and Cornwall in Eastern Ontario. Restoration efforts took place over nine days and the state of emergency instituted by the Ontario government ended on August 22, 2003.


The story behind the 2003 electrical power blackout has been told in different ways from a variety of personal perspectives. John Spears, writing in the Toronto Star on August 13, 2013, told the story of one Kim Warren, who was on duty on that fateful day as the manager of the main control centre of the province of Ontario’s power grid. Mr. Warren, who later became the Chief Operating Officer of the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), read indicators that denoted that Ontario was short of electricity by 8,000 megawatts of power, roughly a third of the electricity amount needed for a hot summer day. Kim Warren’s work day extended into the weekend as he returned home briefly around 2:00 a.m. Friday, only to go back to the control centre and not to return home again until late Saturday evening. John Spears wrote of a situation taking place in cities (including Toronto) around the Great Lakes as “civilized chaos”. Toronto’s traffic lights and subway system had ceased to function. Elevators had ceased to function which provided logistical challenges in tall skyscrapers and especially for people with mobility issues and those trapped in the elevators themselves. What were people going to do?


Here is an excerpt from the article “Toronto emergency plan is triggered by Lastman”, written by Marina Jimenez and Michael Valpy on page A1 in the August 15, 2003 issue of The Globe and Mail:


“An unprecedented power outage paralyzed much of Ontario, New York and parts of the northeastern United States yesterday, stranding millions of commuters as airports were closed, offices emptied and elevators and subways ground to a halt…In Toronto, [Mayor] Mel Lastman triggered Toronto’s emergency plan, shortly after the power went out at 4:15 p.m. The public transit system in the country’s largest commuter city shut down, and the streets were filled with frustrated pedestrians trying to hail cabs and lining up at public phone booths as many cell phones were not working. Subway trains stopped where they were when the electricity disappeared, some in stations, some in the blackness of unlit tunnels…”


To view this article in full, please access the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.



Katie Daubs, writing in the Toronto Star on August 14, 2018, looked back at files from the Toronto Star Archives and recounted the stories of Fraser Landry and Laura Papsin, whose wedding reception was ruined by the extensive power outage just after they had exchanged wedding vows, and that of lawyer Peter Carayiannis, who ended up directing traffic on King Street West for several hours after discussing a contract with a client about what to do in the event of a major power outage when the power actually went out.


Here is an excerpt from the article “’I’m proud of this city: Power outage turns on the best in Torontonians; Mayor Lastman praises the city for its discipline and calm”, written by Joseph Hall and Karen Palmer on page A3 in the August 15, 2003 issue of the Toronto Star:


“Toronto stood firm as the power went down across the city yesterday, in a massive electrical failure that struck millions over large parts of Canada and the United States after 4 pm…The outage - which crippled the subway system, shut down traffic lights and stalled elevators throughout the GTA – seemed to turn on the best in Torontonians, even as rush hour let loose its crush of cars and people onto city streets…lawyer Peter Carayiannis…had taken it upon himself to direct traffic at the congested intersection between Bay and Adelaide Sts…’I’ve never done anything like this before in my life, I just walked into the traffic because no else was doing it,’…Carayiannis drew rounds of applause from many passing motorists and pedestrians for his efforts…”

To view this article in full, please access the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card


Did society learn from this power outage? Adam Miller, writing an article for the Canadian Press that was published in the Globe and Mail on August 13, 2013 (and updated on May 11, 2018), reported that the establishment of mandatory reliability standards in North America and the creation of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) (with regulatory power in the United States and in Canada) has helped to ensure grid reliability with fines for non-compliance. However, cybersecurity and severe weather events remain potential problems as do overgrown trees such as the one that fell on the power line in Ohio that helped to cause the 2003 Blackout. The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) in Ontario noted through its media centre that Ontario’s electricity system has changed quite a bit since the 2003 Blackout, noting that more local generation, more demand response, more generators in total, and augmented interconnectivity has provided an increased supply cushion with new tools and procedures to protect the efficiency and the reliability of the electricity grid. The Canadian Energy and Mines’ Ministers Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia in July 2015 published a report entitled After the Blackout: Implementation of Mandatory Electric Reliability Standards in Canada that outlined the compliance of the federal government and most provincial governments (including Ontario) with NERC standards.  


For those of you interested in additional articles at the time on this important story which affected Toronto and Ontario and the people living in this city and in this province, please access Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database and the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card