Guest Author - Vance R. Rowe
August 14 was a bad day for heat and power outages. In 2003, it was a day that many people will remember for a long time to come. Most of the eastern seaboard from New Jersey to parts of Michigan, and even parts of Canada, lost power for at least two hours. Most lost power for longer than that, up to twenty-four hours. It was a particularly hot August day, and even Europe was in the middle of a heat wave, with France being the hardest hit with temperatures reaching 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
The power outages began at about 4 p.m., and within three minutes of the outage, twenty-one power plants shut down. Most of the eastern Amtrak train service was shut down because their engines run on electricity. Cellular phone service was interrupted, elevators had to shut down, and the subway system in New York City was shut down. It took more than two hours to rescue people who were trapped in stalled subway cars. Small businesses took a huge hit as well, because they lost their refrigerated products.
At first, everyone thought it was a terrorist attack, which was seemingly possible after being two years out of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Canada blamed the United States and the United States blamed Canada, but when the two countries conducted a joint investigation, they found the source to be an Ohio company called FirstEnergy Corporation. It was the company’s Eastlake plant that caused all of the outage problems when their power lines came in contact with some trees that caused a lot of problems, triggering the series of outages. The company was criticized for their poor line maintenance and for failing to recognize the problem before it became as widespread as it did.
In France, it is estimated that, on this day, more than three thousand people died from the heat wave. Doctors were called back from holiday by the French government, and a lot of dead bodies had to be stored in refrigerated warehouses because the mortuaries were all full. A lot of families could not be notified because they were on holiday as well. France, especially in the northern areas, was not used to dealing with such high temperatures, and most homes that were more than fifty years old were not equipped with air conditioning. It was the elderly that suffered the most. These parts of France usually had cool nights, but the unrelenting heat continued through the nights as well, so when all was said and done, France suffered more than 14,000 heat-related deaths. That’s not counting other parts of southern Europe that was affected by the heat wave.
August 2003 was a problematic and deadly month for thousands of people and will live on in infamy for many years to come.