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Linemen replace blown transformers as they attempt to return power to residential customers in St. John’s on Monday, Jan.6, 2014. (Paul Daly/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Linemen replace blown transformers as they attempt to return power to residential customers in St. John’s on Monday, Jan.6, 2014. (Paul Daly/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Edward Riche

In Newfoundland, it’s more than a Polar Vortex Add to ...

Ignore what you might have seen on those glorious Newfoundland and Labrador tourism ads or on Republic of Doyle, the weather here is the most foul in the Confederation. Canadians all over fancy they have an inhospitable climate. Dey knows nudding. Sure Winnipeg is colder, and remote mountain passes in British Columbia snowier and … well, nowhere is windier … but we can brag about being colder, snowier and windiest all at once. I wonder if we are not the only place on the planet that can have raging gales in a heavy fog. So it was last week, that after a long, very cold snap the temperature climbed to –15C, the gusts stretched to 110 kmh, 40 centimetres of snow fell and the arse went out of her. Newfoundland blew a fuse. The lights went out.

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Major winter blackouts get named here, like prize fights. There was “Blackout ‘94” when many were without power for as long as five days. The outage was shorter this time but we’ve grown softer, so this recent event has been unofficially dubbed “Blackout 2014” and, befitting the times, got hashtaged “#DarkNL”.

There is no one alive who knows prosperity in Newfoundland. Forever in decline we learned to do it well. Want made us more communal than most Canadians. We sublimated despair in song and stories. We enjoyed small things and the natural world, a play at the LSPU Hall and trouting.

Newfoundland and Labrador is booming now and nobody possesses the kit to fit. No one is prepared to manage prosperity. Officials admit that owing to years of near bankruptcy our infrastructure is obsolete and derelict and the stresses applied by a thrumming economy are testing its tolerance. When the extreme weather conditions came main cogs in the electrical system of the island (despite the abundance of energy stored in Labrador`s high water we are unattached to the North American grid) failed. The articulate and sober head-in-chief of the power generating utility, Ed Martin, explained that 88 per cent of the McMansions mushrooming around St. John’s were built with electric heating and that the ancient network he runs was taxed to breaking by the usage surge in keeping them warm enough to make the inhabitants dopey.

Everywhere we are experiencing the symptoms of unmanaged expansion. Roads are crumbling under the load and choking with the unnecessary pick-up trucks that are the essential costume of an oil play. The flights are full and you can`t get a table at an overpriced restaurant. Parking in the downtown of St. John’s has become Parisian. Those in charge have responded by gleefully adding to the load, green-lighting ever more subdivisions and industrial parks. A vast development to the west of St. John’s promoted by a former premier and so known as “Dannistan” was approved despite the grave concerns of planners. Without adequate transportation arteries in and out the Dannistanis could be trapped in there without municipal water. What odds, a “have” province has gotta have it.

Kathy Dunderdale has proven a competent and honest premier but a dreadful communicator. She comes off as a vice principal hectoring a dim and fidgety grade four boy. Over the radio (blackouts become radio events) you can hear her wagging a finger at you. She told a dirty, agitated populace that there was no “crisis” when they were shivering in the dark watching their pipes burst. It was semantics; “crisis” for Premier Dunderdale is the Fall of Khartoum with giant spiders. For the electorate it was hours of cold gloom, elderly residents rescued from chronic care facilities, carbon monoxide poisonings and school closures. She was nowhere to be seen in the first days of the “not a crisis”.

A newly minted junior Minister (and actual Boy Scout) Steve Kent flubbed his role as Alexander Haig, stepping in front of the microphones not to say he was in charge but that other levels of government were doing something. Ms. Dunderdale wasn`t popular going into this mess and handled it poorly. It’s consensus that her latest failure to hear the citizenry and respond will be one of her last.

This must be understood in the context of Newfoundland and Labrador being a self-proclaimed energy warehouse. The hydroelectric project at Muskrat Falls on the Lower Churchill comes with a sub-sea cable that will connect the island to the main and there are untold billions of BTUs still untapped under the Grand Banks. But as the last candle flickered and batteries in the radio ran down, all that reputed juice was cold comfort.

Edward Riche is a writer living in St. John’s.

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