Surviving 1998's Great Ice Storm

In a dark high-school hallway in Cowansville, Que., two elderly women tried to play canasta by candlelight one night last week. Since the power went out on Jan.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 26, 1998

In a dark high-school hallway in Cowansville, Que., two elderly women tried to play canasta by candlelight one night last week. Since the power went out on Jan.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 26, 1998

In a dark high-school hallway in Cowansville, Que., two elderly women tried to play canasta by candlelight one night last week. Since the power went out on Jan. 6 in the senior's residence where they live, they had been staying in the school - which had heat but, intermittently, no lights - and putting a brave face on things. "Oh, they've been good to us here," they chorused, heaping praise on the volunteers running the shelter. But then one woman mentioned that her daughter, who lives 20 minutes away, had not lost her electricity in the mammoth ice storm. "I could have gone to stay with her, I suppose," she said. "But, well, she didn't offer. So I didn't ask."

A lonely sentiment - and there was no shortage of lonely sentiments across the storm-struck region last week. But in many ways, the story of the disaster, the worst in Canadian history, has been a heartwarming tale. More than 3 million people in parts of Quebec, eastern Ontario and New Brunswick were plunged into darkness. And the country rallied. From Alberta came generators; in the economically depressed Restigouche region of New Brunswick, volunteers chopped up and trucked out 600 cords of firewood. In the stricken areas, people talked about getting to know their neighbors, and of the kindness of strangers. In some cases, it came from a distance - U.S. power crews who pitched in, soldiers from across Canada taking part in the largest ever peacetime deployment of Canadian forces. And sometimes those strangers lived just down the road: a Quebec help line was deluged with calls from people willing to take refugees into their still-heated homes.

And yet almost no one called that help line looking for a place to go. "People don't want to leave the community shelters," said Franèois Gince, who ran an impromptu refugee center in Montreal's convention hall. "They don't want to go stay with strangers." Radio stations warned listeners that burglars disguised as hydro workers were telling people to leave their homes, only to return later and rob them. A few coldhearted merchants jacked up prices. Some Quebecers lashed out at Hydro Quebec, saying the utility was ill-prepared for the crisis. And by week's end, the storm had claimed at least 25 lives, many of them elderly people who succumbed to hypothermia. But power had been restored in Montreal, New Brunswick and most of eastern Ontario. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien deemed the situation sufficiently under control to allow him, late last week, to join the Team Canada trade mission to Latin America (Ontario Premier Mike Harris had departed Jan. 13). Quebec's Lucien Bouchard, though, stayed behind. And 700,000 people remained in the dark, in the region south of Montreal and in communities west of Ottawa - with little hope of getting power back for at least one week more.

For them, the bright spots became increasingly hard to see. Yvette Lehoux runs one of the few restaurants that stayed open in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, one of the hardest hit towns. Armed with a generator, the 24-hour Le Relais continued to churn out hot meals - while Lehoux slept a few hours each night above her establishment, wrapped in six blankets and with a cloth over her face. "It's incredible the hell that we're going through," she said, her eyes welling with tears.

Inevitably, there is finger-pointing. Is Hydro Quebec to blame? could they have done more? some Quebecers asked. The utility says the crisis could have been worse. The ice crumpled hundreds of hydro towers like tinfoil and knocked out power in three of the five main hydro distribution stations that ring Montreal and feed the island and surrounding communities. Until Jan. 10, the few lights in downtown Montreal came from a single surviving line to the island, running a huge risk of overload. That scenario, and the lengthy blackout that virtually paralyzed business in the Montreal area, has raised questions about Quebec's dependence on hydroelectric power. The province relies much more heavily on electricity than other parts of Canada. In 1996, Quebecers used electricity for 41 per cent of their energy consumption, compared with the national average of 23.8 per cent. After the storm, there were many calls for Hydro to bury the power lines. The utility says underground lines, now under consideration, would have prevented some of the disaster. But that option would be prohibitively expensive - with estimates running into billions of dollars. Hydro Quebec chairman Andre Caillé announced that the utility would build a new high-voltage transmission line to help prevent another blackout in downtown Montreal, while Bouchard indicated that major changes would have to be made to protect the province's infrastructure. But in the end, nothing could really have prepared Hydro Quebec for such a disaster: its towers are designed to withstand a punishing 45 mm of ice, but the storm poured as much as 70 mm - roughly the thickness of three hockey pucks.

Estimates now put the total cost of the storm, including damage and lost revenues, at $2 billion. And while the bills will take years to settle, Quebec is giving each person without power from Jan. 12 $10 a day until their lights come back on. Some people scoffed, saying the sum was laughably small. But for others, it was desperately needed. Ivan Roseberry, 44, waited patiently outside city hall in St-Hyacinthe to pick up his cheque. He lost several days' pay because the factory where he works as a laborer shut down. Sitting in his 1982 Oldsmobile to keep warm, Roseberry said he planned to use the money to buy gas, so he could drive to Thetford Mines to get food supplies from family members. "I only have $5 in my pocket," he said.

Some people called the storm a "great leveller" - there was no more light in the middle-class suburbs of Montreal than in poorer areas. But in fact, the power outage starkly illustrated the depth of poverty and isolation that exists both in the cities and outside them. For a lucky few, there was escape - the Canadian Snowbird Association said there was a "definite increase" in departures from Montreal and Ottawa for points south during the storm. But in the Montreal convention centre, 650 people were sleeping on mats in the main hall - and organizers said the vast majority were unemployed. Many homeless people had moved in as well. People lined up for hours at the impromptu information desk to find out how to get their social assistance cheques. Pascale Boucher-Mercier, 23, and her partner Laurent Renaud, 39, camped on the concrete floor, with their twin month-old sons beside them in cardboard boxes. They are both unemployed, and, Boucher-Mercier says, they had nowhere else to go when it got too cold at their apartment. "Our friends don't have room for us, and we aren't really in touch with our families," she said.

When the temperature plunged in the second week of the storm, police and soldiers went door-to-door, coaxing, and in some cases ordering, hold-outs to leave their homes. Many of those they escorted off to shelters were elderly people who lived alone. "If there's one good thing about this," sighed one exhausted social services worker, "it's that we've found these people. Some of them have been living alone, subsisting on tea and toast, for years."

In the rugged countryside of Ontario's Lanark Highlands Township, 75 km southwest of Ottawa, few farmers thought of leaving their homes over the mere loss of electricity. In the soft glow of an oil lantern, Bill and Rita Duncan sat in their kitchen and discussed the terrible damage the ice wreaked on the maple trees they tap for syrup. "All the smaller branches are off," says Rita, 64, who tramped through the sugar bush after the freezing rain abated. "The trees are just spikes heading towards the sky." Bill, 69, talked of cutting maples to sell for firewood and lumber before they rot where they stand.

The story was much the same across Lanark last week, where farmers tried not to brood over the decimation of the region's famed maple syrup industry. The rocky terrain makes this one of the most unforgiving areas for hydro crews struggling to restore power in eastern Ontario. But there were helping hands. The Canadian army deployed 14,000 soldiers and reservists throughout the storm-ravaged areas. At McDonalds Corners, the village nearest to the Duncans' farm, 36 reservists from Toronto, bunked in the Agricultural Hall, marvelled at the resilience of the locals. "People here are really self-sufficient," said Pte. Enver Naidoo, 19, a psychology student serving with the 48th Highlanders. "They are melting snow to take showers, things you don't think of in a city."

Naidoo and his brigade spent three gruelling days clearing fallen trees and branches from hundreds of kilometres of Lanark's sinewy roads and hydro lines. Then, last Tuesday, they turned to making meticulous house checks, looking for anyone in need of help. Carolyn Congreves, 34, and due to give birth any day, stayed with her three children in a farmhouse without electricity or telephone service. Warmed by a woodstove, they were coping - but the army left her a cellular phone so she could call for a ride to hospital in case she went into labor before telephone service was restored.

Some low-tech solutions helped to resolve other problems. In Cornwall, Ont., Kyle MacDonell, a part-time hydro worker, became the hero of the hour after some fancy work with a bow and arrow. Repair crews were struggling with a clump of tangled wires in an isolated bush area. They armed MacDonell with archery gear, and he scored a perfect bull's-eye, sending an arrow, with a rope attached, through the cables. The workers then tugged and twisted the wires free.

At the zoo in Granby, 60 km southeast of Montreal, keepers found themselves with some unhappy animals. Flamingos were hustled in with the elephants for warmth, and generators kept the alligators toasty. But what to do with exotic birds, who won't eat unless it's bright? Staff rounded up some portable lamps and went from cage to cage, simulating lunch hour. "The parrots and the ostriches were getting very upset," reported zoo spokeswoman Louise Sylvestre. "We had to take the lamps away again but at least they ate."

One of the strangest effects of the storm was the way it altered landscapes. "It's eeriest at night," said Myroslaw Smereka, mayor of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, about the deserted streets in his hard-hit town. "It's like you walked into a film studio." The bright lights of Montreal disappeared, and whole communities were invisible from the highways at night. Many of those left without power remarked that they had new appreciation for electricity. "I grew up without any of this stuff," said Raymond Flint of Montreal, who was raised in the impoverished community of Africville, outside Halifax. "We didn't have insulation, and we got water from the well, and you learn how to survive. But an apartment isn't equipped for this." Flint, 51, and his family headed to a shelter after seven chilly days in the dark.

Inevitably, the thorny question of Quebec nationalism shadowed the storm drama. How would Quebecers feel about having the Canadian army on their streets? (Just delighted, apparently: soldiers joining the relief effort got a hero's welcome.) The Saskatchewan power company sent four generators to Quebec, and dozens of employees volunteered to go, too. "They saw it as a chance to show folks in Quebec what people in the West are really like," said spokesman Larry Christie. And Halifax Daily News columnist Harry Flemming speculated: "It can't have escaped the notice of even the most rabid separatists that their fellow Canadians have leapt to their aid in the last 10 days."

For new Canadians, there was another lesson in the storm. In 1988, Bassam Nasif emigrated from Lebanon, where 25 years of civil war made electrical service a rare and treasured commodity. "The first night the power went out in Montreal, my friends and I just had to laugh, because here we were again in the dark," he said. But he thinks the storm will be a healthy reminder for Canadians. "We have to appreciate how good it is here, and what we have." No doubt residents of those areas still without power will appreciate what they have, too - when the nightmare finally ends.


January 26, 1998