Electrical blackout

In the evening of 21 December 2013, the GTA was hit with freezing rain. This storm coating thousands of trees with ice and the falling branches dropped on electrical lines and cut power to over 300,000 residences. Hundreds of condominium townhouses and apartment buildings lost power for anywhere from a few hours to over three days.

How badly a condominium was affected depending on how old the building was, how well prepared the corporation was for emergencies and the dedication and training of the individual employees, contractors, board members and owners.
Older condo towers
The older condo towers are not equipped with emergency generators. All they have are battery packs for the emergency lighting in hallways. They last for only a few hours and then they stop functioning.

The elevators drop to the ground floor and there may or may not be emergency lighting in the staircases. The fobs will not work. The underground garage door remains open and all exits are not secure until the electricity is restored.

We live in one of these older condos and we came home in the late evening to face a dark building. We drove into our underground garage and saw that the doors leading into our building were wide-open.

We had to walk nine floors up in a pitch black staircase. We used our cell phones to give us enough light to make our way home.

Our power was off for a day and a half. My laptop computer was fully charged so we used its battery to keep our two cell phones charged.

We kept the freezer door closed and only opened the frig when we needed to. It was cold but not freezing outside so the uncooked turkey and some food was put out on the balcony.

We have two flashlights and spare batteries so we had light.

When I went to work, after walking down the condo's dark staircases, I charged up my cell phone and laptop so I could recharge my wife's phone when I got home.

Newer condo towers
The newer condo towers have an emergency diesel powered generator so at least one elevator and emergency hallway and stairwell lighting and fobs continue to work.

Something to watch for
In most of these condos the emergency generator power one or more electrical receptacles in the hallways. The residents are quick to realize this so they plug in their mobile phones and laptops.

Some residents go much further. They plug in microwaves and electrical cooking devices or even run an electrical cord from the receptacle into their unit. Soon the electrical breaker is overloaded and the building losses all power.

If the one operating elevator is overworked, or treated roughly, it too can go out of service.

Your emergency supplies
Besides a First Aid kit, you should have:
a spare cell phone battery.
a flashlight and spare batteries.
candles and proper holders (and matches to light them)
cash. (the stores that remain open cannot accept credit or debit cards.)
keep your car's tank at least half full at all times.
drinking water. (Keep water in containers and fill your bathtub so you can flush the toilets.)
canned food and a manual can opener. (yes, they still make them.)

Useful tips
This collection of tips comes from several courses:
Check whether the power outage is only in your home. If your neighbour's power is still on, check your circuit breaker panel or fuse box.
Keep emergency numbers, like your hydro company, near your telephone.
Don’t open your freezer or fridge unless it’s absolutely necessary. A full freezer will keep food frozen for 24 to 36 hours if the door remains closed.
Keep an eye on your freezer. Meats and frozen foods may thaw.
Consume perishables first.
Leave one light switch turned on so you’ll know when the power comes back on.
If you live in a townhouse, open your taps slightly at the lowest point in your home to keep your pipes from freezing.
Use candles and wind-up lanterns if you can, especially if you don’t have backup batteries available. And make sure those candles are in proper deep, wide holders.
Candles can cause fires, especially if you have pets or children and the fumes can set off your smoke detector.
Never use charcoal or gas barbecues, camping heating equipment, or home generators indoors because they give off carbon monoxide.
If the carbon monoxide alarm sounds, move quickly to a fresh-air location outdoors or near an open window or door.
Turn off or disconnect any appliances (like stoves) and other equipment or electronics that were in use when the power went out. When the power comes back on, surges or spikes can damage equipment.
Gasoline for your car. Local gas stations may be closed and the ones that are open, may have long lineups.
Do not travel unnecessarily, especially by car. Traffic lights will be out and roads will be congested.
Go to a designated public shelter if your home loses power or heat during periods of extreme cold.
Check on those who may need special assistance like elderly people living alone, those with disabilities and children.

If you have to evacuate your home immediately, grab your emergency kit and listen to authorities.

If you have been given an evacuation notice and you have some time to organize your home, protect it by taking the following precautions. These tips are mainly for condo townhouses:
Turn off the main breaker or switch of the power-supply box.
Turn off the water main where it enters your townhouse.
Drain the water from your plumbing system. Starting at the top of the townhouse, open all taps, and flush toilets several times. Go to the basement and open the drain valve. Drain your hot water tank by attaching a hose to the tank drain valve and running it to the basement floor drain.
Unhook your washing machine hoses and drain.

Some condo boards were prepared and some will never be prepared. Last summer, the flooding that hit Etobicoke and Mississauga created power blackouts. One Etobicoke condo was hit hard back then. So they should have been prepared when the icestorm hit them a few months later right? Well no.

When the power went out on this Sunday morning, the diesel generator in one of their buildings would not start. Why? It was out of diesel fuel. Then they realized that a few of the power transformers that were damaged in the flooding were not yet repaired so it won't have worked anyway. Brilliant.

Trained staff
The two superintendents in my building went into action as soon as the power went out. They assisted the residents, kept them informed and conducted security patrols.

Board members and residents
This is where leadership shows. Some directors and few residents worked day and night during this crisis doing security and safety patrols and assisting residents, helping them go up and down the stairs, letting them make calls on their cell phones and buying them needed supplies.

At some buildings, board members stood in line at gas stations buying extra diesel fuel to keep the emergency generators going. Board members at my building took turns guarding the garage entrance until power was restored.

There are idiots who are not prepared for minor emergencies and do not take proper precautions.

One condo in the Yonge and Finch area was out of power for three days. One couple had a lit candle in the bathroom. They got drunk and went to sleep.

They were woken by a huge fire that burnt down their unit. The pressure from the heat blew out the unit's windows and the bathroom melted. There was a lot of damage in the outside hallway from the fire plus the water damage caused when the firefighters put out the fire.

Our heroes had no insurance. The condo corporation's insurance will pay for the repairs but they will go after the young couple for the deductable.

The president spent most of her Christmas holidays checking up on the condo's residents. Yet she could not discourage them from cooking and heating with Coleman stoves.

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