Dawn Rae Downton is a writer in Halifax.
We’re standing on what’s left of the sidewalk, contemplating the root ball of the century maple Dorian wrenched from the lawn. It’s upended over the street, clutching that chunk of missing sidewalk. The treetop, leaves barely stirring now in a waning breeze, cloaks the roof of the house next door, its branches thrust through both bedroom windows like the talons of Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Our neighbour will have had a rude awakening – if, in the racket overnight, he slept at all.
We’ve fared better, and are in search of coffee. Dorian came in as a category two hurricane, and in the blackout that’s hit approximately 90 per cent of the province, nothing’s open. With trees down everywhere and power lines corkscrewed on to streets, we can’t get anywhere anyway.
A neighbour we haven’t met has come to see the tree. She’s cradling a mug, steam rising from the lip.
We’re on her. “You have coffee?”
She does. She’s the prepared sort. She ground extra beans the day before, and has a camp stove to boil water. “This is how you get to know people,” she says. “You need a catastrophe.”
We meet her roommate and their dog and chat on their steps. It’s not early, but the street is eerily hushed. Given the wreck of the Bahamas, we’re happy to be alive, happy to loll around – we all say that. We’re especially glad to be offline for once.
So long as it doesn’t go on too long. We all say that because we all know it will go on too long. We’ve been here before.
Sixteen years ago, it was Hurricane Juan that tossed around cars, boats, boulders and trees like pick-up sticks. Juan, its name retired afterward, flattened more than 80 per cent of Halifax’s beloved Point Pleasant Park, which many of us have found too sad to revisit since. We’ve seen trees planted upside down in roofs. We’ve sponge-bathed in cold water – those of us on the city supply who had water at all. We’ve survived on hurricane chips and peanut butter sandwiches for days. And more days. We’ve resented people with generators and we’ve tramped down streets in order to report back to the power company on the condition of switches on the transformers atop their power poles. Would it be much longer?
It would. Despite our help, Nova Scotia Power left most of us immobilized for more than a week.
But we didn’t live for cell service then. Now, we do. We’ll be fine, though; we’ll have phones till the charge runs out.
Except we don’t.
But why? The night before Dorian, despite being the not-too-prepared sort, we charged our phones while we watched a NOVA rerun about the super hurricanes of 2017. It featured throngs of Puerto Ricans on highways, post-Maria, seeking a signal at elevation. They got one, but we don’t, now – just the occasional flicker of a bar, there and gone.
Dorian killed power and cell service throughout Atlantic Canada. Cell towers are backed by batteries backed by generators – which have to be activated onsite. Who makes this stuff up?
But friends abroad have our landline number. We keep a corded phone for emergencies like this. Yet, that’s no fail-safe either, it turns out, not since the cable company bundled our landline with our internet. We’re no longer connected straight to the telephone exchange, which works on huge 48-volt battery banks that once kept corded landlines alive.
Yet, the emergency folks on the battery-powered radio say everyone’s safe. How do they know, when everyone’s out of touch?
Nova Scotia Power, privatized in 1992, hasn’t invested significantly in its infrastructure for a very long time – nor does it need to. The province guarantees NSP a 9 per cent annual profit return despite performance, and customers will soon even pay depreciation that other companies write off. A heavily redacted 2012 audit report found us overcharged by roughly $22-million We pay the country’s highest power rates.
After Juan, we all hoped for better. We didn’t get it: in late 2018 the province suffered the worst storm outage since Juan. And now, as of Wednesday morning, five days after Dorian, 65,000 customers were still without power. Still, we’ll all hope for better again. In our east coast banana republic, will we get it? At least we have great new neighbours, their preparedness and their camp stove.
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