Why it's taking so long for some Torontonians to get power

Toronto Hydro still can't estimate when the work will be done, and warns of further outages

Galit Rodan/CP

Torontonians who’ve gone without heat, electricity or warm, home-cooked meals for nearly a week are sick and tired of the wait. Even though much of the city has moved on from the two days of freezing rain and sub-zero temperatures that toppled hydro wires and tree branches, plenty of households remain in the dark.

To be sure, hydro crews have restored much of the grid thanks to a relentless, around-the-clock effort that’s earned the workers much praise. Earlier this week, 300,000 customers went without power, and many of them are back to their normal routines. But the unluckiest customers, of which there are still about 32,000, could be in for a long and unpredictable wait.

How much of a wait can Toronto Hydro predict?

“It’s just an absolutely impossible situation to predict how the next coming days are going to work themselves out,” said Anthony Haines, Toronto Hydro’s CEO.

Coun. Michelle Berardinetti, who represents a part of southwestern Scarborough that was hit hard by the storm, said not knowing when the lights will come back on is almost worse than not having power at all.

“It’s one thing for a number of people to be put out for a few nights, and that was very challenging,” said Berardinetti. “But now we’re getting on into day six and seven, and we’re still not sure when they’re going to be restored. We’re not given a date or time, and it’s very disconcerting for those residents.”

When? That’s the million-dollar question that everyone’s asking Haines. And he simply can’t answer.

“It’s not a linear experience, meaning that you can’t just say, ‘Well, this many people working for this amount of time will achieve this outcome,’” he said.

What did crews fix first?

In the beginning, crews focused on safety by removing the hundreds of downed live wires lying around intersections. Then, they moved to restoring power for critical services—hospitals, sewer systems, public transit, and pumping stations. Next, crews fixed broken feeders and large wires that supply many thousands of households with power.

Now, workers are in the final stage, which Haines calls “hand-to-hand combat.” It typically involves visiting individual homes, clearing debris, and replacing or repairing electrical units—a process that can take a matter of minutes or several hours, depending on the conditions on the ground.

What slows down the work?

Crews can face complicating factors: Typically, clearing tree branches and restoring wires takes 20-40 minutes. But on Boxing Day, when power was restored to 20,000 households, crews encountered one house that required two-and-a-half hours of work to clear three feet of brush on top of a line.

One neighbourhood in northeast Scarborough was so littered by tree branches that trucks simply couldn’t enter the area. Workers were forced to turn around and call the city’s forestry department to clear the debris.

To make matters worse, the situation is dynamic: Trees are still cracking under the weight of ice and snow, particularly as winds pick up. Haines fears many more outages over the next 24 hours.

Does Toronto need more help?

Good news: More municipalities are sending their hydro workers tonight and tomorrow to assist with Toronto’s recovery efforts. Eight utility companies from all over Canada, and Brockville’s forestry troops, are currently on the ground working 24-7 in 12-hour shifts.

But still no final estimate on when all the lights will turn on?

Alas, for the people living on crackers and peanut butter and yearning to have the “when” question answered, there seems to be no reliable estimate.

“If people could just get a sense of when the work was going to be done, that would give them just a bit of hope,” said Coun. Gary Crawford, who also represents southwestern Scarborough. “There is a lot more work involved in getting that last 10 per cent up than it was the last 90 because it’s much more labour intensive.”

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