Chilling memories of crippling 1998 ice storm
Published Thursday, January 3, 2008 5:07PM EST
MONTREAL - Different sights and sounds bring people back to January 1998, when millions of Canadians found themselves in the icy grasp of one of the most crippling natural disasters in the country's history.
Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips, who spent much of the ice storm explaining the phenomenon to international media, says rarely has a weather event captured the attention of so many.
"I have 25,000 weather stories in my collection and there's no question the ice storm is still king," Phillips said in an interview. "You can't exhaust the weather superlatives when you talk about the ice storm from hell."
Nearly five million Canadians in an area that included southeastern Quebec, eastern Ontario and parts of the Maritimes were battered by three successive waves of freezing rain that came with warning but without interruption.
Phillips says it's impossible to know when such a destructive ice storm might recur. While the '98 storm was a well predicted event, one element set it apart from most Canadian weather phenomena.
"The best thing about the weather in Canada is that it hits and runs," Phillips said. "It doesn't stand around and torment you and clobber you like in other parts of the world."
That wasn't the case with the ice storm, which went on for days with no let-up in what was a very un-Canadian system, Phillips said.
Myroslaw Smereka, then mayor of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, has vivid memories of the stench of wood burning day and night in the cold darkness that consumed the picturesque city along the shores of the Richelieu River, south of Montreal.
St-Jean was smack in the middle of "the triangle of darkness," an area that was without power for more than a month. Smereka recalls spending part of the time sleeping in a small room just off the municipal indoor pool next to the town's emergency headquarters.
Smereka says a shelter that began by catering to 80 locals two nights into the storm had to deal with 2,000 just two days later. The city was enveloped in ice, more so than other area cities and towns.
Lucien Bouchard, the then-premier, and Hydro-Quebec officials continued to insist the situation would be fine within days, but Smereka said police and firefighters on the scene knew better.
"For them it was clearly a war zone, it was impossible to believe that politicians were telling us in three or four days that everything was going to be OK," said Smereka.
The storm spared no one, with some areas receiving as much as 100 millimetres of freezing rain from Jan. 5 to 10, covering everything in a thick layer of ice and leaving some people without electricity for more than 30 days.
At least 30 people died as a result of the storm. Damage totalled about $3 billion and the Canadian military was required to assist in the days that followed the storm.
Anyone who lived through the event has a story of how everyday people made the difference.
Neil Semenchuk remembers that a day or two into the storm, a longtime volunteer in the Montreal-area community of Kirkland arrived at the community recreation centre and decided to make soup and coffee, in case anyone wanted to get in out of the cold.
Semenchuk, the city's recreation director who ran its shelter, recalls that the volunteer went into the gym that morning and spent the next 10 days cooking meals, including a candlelit roast pork dinner for 350 people.
"He cooked meals for anyone and everyone who walked in," said Semenchuk, who said it was the tireless work of such volunteers that made the shelter's efforts successful.
"I thought it was one of the most terrifying and gratifying experiences I'd ever gone through.
"There were times we almost thought that we forgot what it was like outside the building. "At 4 p.m. you look out the window and it was black as far as the eye could see."
The resiliency of people is at the forefront of most ice storm stories.
Smereka says he saw neighbours help each other even though they'd never previously met.
"There was this whole camaraderie, this solidarity that was generated by all of this," Smereka said. "Generally speaking, in a catastrophe, the volunteers are not also the victim."
Former Hydro-Quebec president Andre Caille, one of the most visible figures during the ice storm and known for appearing frequently during the crisis in a turtleneck, said the success of restoring the power grid was down to the utility's employees.
Many spent 16 hours a day battling the elements, trying to get the collapsed electrical grid up and running.
But the one thing Caille knows is that never again can Montreal be effectively shut down.
Five days into the storm, the number of Quebec homes without power peaked at 1.4 million, affecting three million people. By then, the power coming into Montreal had collapsed and the city was in the dark.
"Never again can we end up in a similar situation in Montreal," Caille said. "The first time it happens, we can say we didn't know and it's not our fault. But a second time it would be our fault because we knew it was possible."
Hydro-Quebec says it has made a number of improvements to its power distribution network since 1998. The power lines are stronger and the towers are built tougher and additional power supplies would allow the utility to restore power more quickly, Caille said.
"We're much better prepared now," he said. "The transmission network is much stronger, and our people are better prepared."
But the former energy executive says he's not in any hurry to go through another such storm just to test the stronger systems.
"No, I don't think we need to prove it," Caille quipped.