Randy Tommy knew the second he saw the block-long lineup outside his Elgin Street gelato shop that something out of the ordinary was happening.
By David Sali
The date was Aug. 14, 2003, and Mr. Tommy, the owner of Pure Gelato, had just arrived back in Ottawa from a trip to Montreal. Once he made his way past the horde of customers that stretched all the way to the Scotiabank down the street, he asked what the sudden spike in business was all about.
“My manager said, ‘The power’s been out and everything’s melting,’ ” Mr. Tommy recalled Wednesday. “We just decided to start giving (gelato) away.”
His business was just one of thousands in Ontario and eight states in the eastern United States affected by one of the biggest blackouts in history 10 years ago Wednesday. At 4:11 p.m., about 50 million people were suddenly kicked off the grid after transmission wires in northern Ohio touched overgrown trees, triggering a mass shutdown of power stations across the northeast that lasted as long as four days in some areas.
The blackout’s impact on the North American economy was huge. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimated the grid failure cost small businesses in the Ottawa region alone between $100 million and $180 million in lost productivity, sales and spoilage.
Don Robertson, the owner of Robertson Rent-All in Ottawa’s east end, was on the “14th or 15th hole” at GreyHawk Golf Club when he received a call telling him there was no electricity at his shop – or anywhere else.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘My security system isn’t working,’ ” Mr. Robertson said. “It was a scary thing for us not knowing how long it was going to last. It reminded me of the ice storm in ‘98.”
He immediately headed back to the office, where he had about 10 generators for rent. They weren’t for rent much longer.
“When I got to the store, the phones were ringing off the hook,” Mr. Robertson said, noting most of the calls were from restaurants worried their food was going to spoil. “Everybody was trying to get whatever they could.”
At the Manx on Elgin Street, Lisa Baird was working the afternoon shift when the small basement pub suddenly went dark. A decade later, she still has fond memories of the camaraderie that sprang from everyone pulling together to make the best of things.
“We kept the pub open until it got dark and we kept pouring beer until it got warm,” Ms. Baird, the pub’s manager, recalled Wednesday. “It was fun.”
With no air conditioning and kegs full of beer that was anything but ice cold, the Manx didn’t open the next day. Staff kept the freezer shut so perishables would stay as cool as possible, but even then, “There was a lot of spoilage,” Ms. Baird said. “A lot of stuff got thrown out.”
The pub didn’t take any extra precautions in the wake of the blackout, she added.
“There was nothing that you could do,” she said.
Hydro Ottawa chief operating officer Norm Fraser said the province’s electricity grid is in much better shape than it was 10 years ago. The power system now has to meet mandatory reliability standards, a big change from the voluntary standards in place back then.
“(The blackout) was an important lesson for our industry,” said Mr. Fraser, who learned of the power outage on his way back from vacation and ended up working most of the next four days straight.
“Utilities are getting more sophisticated,” he said, noting the rise in technology such as smart-grid devices that limit power usage during peak periods. “Things are looking up.”
Mr. Fraser said he thinks the blackout helped drive home the importance of being prepared for such emergencies.
“Everything shuts down (in a blackout),” he said. “I think everybody understands that now.”
His advice to small businesses in the event of a major power outage? Like the Manx, food vendors should keep freezer doors closed to limit product spoilage, smoke alarms should be battery-operated and office phones should be hard-wired, not cordless.
The CFIB, meanwhile, stresses business owners need a contingency plan for all emergencies, including power failures.
“I think it’s important to be as prepared as possible,” said Plamen Petkov, the organization’s director of provincial affairs for Ontario. “Of course, you can never be 100 per cent prepared. No one expected a blackout of this magnitude.”
Backup generators are a great idea, he said, but few small businesses can afford them.
“Communication is probably the No. 1 thing,” Mr. Petkov said. He suggests allowing employees to work from home and having a remote location where staff can contact customers and suppliers.
Mr. Tommy was fortunate – he borrowed a generator from his brother, allowing him to keep two freezers running for the three days it took to restore power to his shop. He figures he gave away about 2,000 free cones that first afternoon at a cost of around $8,000, but the gesture also generated plenty of publicity, even landing Pure Gelato a mention in People magazine.
“It turned to be a real fun thing once it got going,” said Mr. Tommy, who now has his own backup generator. “It was actually a busy day.”