This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 19, 1998
What is it like to live life amidst the worst ice storm in Canada's recent history? For those not among the millions in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada experiencing things firsthand last week, consider the MacDonald family. When the first ice storm hit Montreal on Jan. 5, causing widespread power outages, 71-year-old Margaret, a widow, spent a night alone in her chilly, darkened house in the Notre Dame de Grace area. The next day, she visited a nearby daughter, 32-year-old Patricia - only to have her power fail. The two women and Patricia's family then considered visiting another sister, Marilyn. But her power was also out, so Margaret returned to her still-dark home.
Then, Margaret's son, Allan, urged her to stay with him in Ottawa - but all trains in and out of the two cities were cancelled, and roads closed. Meanwhile, Allan, his wife, Lori, and their three young sons hosted nine neighborhood boys whose own homes were without power. Allan, a 40-year-old director of purchasing at Bell Canada, dug out the backyard gas barbecue and used it to heat drinks while Lori made endless rounds of sandwiches. "I thought as a Canadian I'd seen everything winter can throw at you," sighed an exhausted Allan. "But nothing prepares you for this."
In a country blessedly untouched by war, the scenes in Montreal, Ottawa and communities from Kingston, Ont., to Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley sometimes resembled battle zones - although in reality, of course, they were considerably less dangerous. Both of the major cities declared official states of emergency. In Montreal, an eerie calm hung over the downtown area as almost all stores and businesses shut down. Montrealers were advised to ration their use of water and at one point police posted bilingual notices across the city warning residents to boil water for at least five minutes before drinking because one of the city's two filtration plants had shut down.
Major hospitals lost their primary power, traffic lights failed, the Metro (subway system) was closed, radio and television stations lost their broadcast signals, and some grocery stores reported panic buying of supplies - even as banks closed and banking machines short-circuited, depriving many people of the money needed to buy goods. At the elegant Five Seasons grocery store in affluent Westmount, there were so many would-be buyers that the manager only allowed people in five at a time. As Canadian Forces personnel moved into affected areas to offer help, they found pitch-black, silent streets, makeshift rescue centres and soup kitchens, and devastated landscapes littered with ruined automobiles and homes.
Those were some of the consequences as millions of Canadians fought vainly against a quirky, vengeful Mother Nature who pelted them with volleys of ice pellets, rain and snow, supported by gusting winds, for days on end. In statistical terms, the first day of the storm saw about 20 mm of rain dumped on the Montreal area - the highest total since the 21.5 mm of Feb. 25, 1961. But last week's storm far outdid the damage of 1961 because it continued undiminished through the end of the week - also causing uncalculated damage in rural areas. A Via Rail train carrying about 100 passengers from Ottawa took more than 18 hours to reach Toronto because of fallen trees blocking the track and other delays. By week's end, authorities were attributing 10 deaths in Ontario and Quebec to the storm, more than four million people were living without power, and the economic impact was likely to exceed $1 billion. The Insurance Board of Canada estimated that damages eligible for claims could exceed $500 million - the highest total for any natural disaster in the industry's history, including last year's massive Red River flood. Hydro Quebec officials said that it would take weeks before all areas of the province have power restored.
The Atlantic provinces and the northeastern United States fell victim to the same weather system, although they were spared some of its worst effects. Almost 18,000 New Brunswick homes and businesses, mostly in Saint John and the seaside town of St. Andrew's, lost electricity - many facing the prospect of a weekend without power as a fresh round of freezing rain and ice pellets pounded the area. Maine declared a state of emergency and 56,000 homes in New Hampshire were without power. In fact, the troubles were far from over in many regions enduring the storm: Environment Canada officials expected inclement, uneven weather to continue into the middle of this week, causing further problems and delays in recovery efforts. A headline in the Montreal newspaper La Presse on Friday summed up the situation succinctly: "It's hell!"
How could all that devastation happen in a nation whose residents take perverse pride in their ability to protect themselves from the elements? The answer, according to meteorologists, lies in a freakish yo-yo combination of warm and cold air layers that ultimately results in freezing rain. "This is particularly unusual," said Bill Horrocks, an Environment Canada meteorologist. He and some other meteorologists believe there is a link to El Niño, the periodic climatological effect that originates in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño has taken the blame in a spate of unusual weather conditions, ranging from a December heat wave in Western Canada to torrents of rain in central Ontario and a series of avalanches in British Columbia last week that killed nine people.
Predictably, some finger-pointing was also aimed at authority figures. In Quebec, one of those was Premier Lucien Bouchard, who came under bitter criticism on Montreal talk shows because he did not request federal government assistance until almost 72 hours after the storms began. Bouchard, whose own home in the Montreal area municipality of Outremont was blacked out, delayed his planned departure on a Team Canada economic mission to Latin America in order to oversee salvage efforts. (Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Ontario's Mike Harris did the same, staying behind as the mission left on Sunday.) Others blamed Hydro Quebec for its inability to either retain or restore power swiftly. In fact, the power monopoly's repair technicians worked, on average, 16 hours a day, and the company quickly called in help from hydro crews in New England. But restoring power, said Hydro Quebec chairman André Caille, was "not a matter of hours: it's a matter of days."
And in eastern Ontario, conditions were little better. In Ottawa, the remains of dozens of devastated trees - many of them over 100 years old - littered the historic, upscale Glebe area. Newly elected Mayor Jim Watson, who jokingly called the ordeal his "baptism by ice," said he had ordered municipal employees to take every step possible to provide assistance, and worry about the cost later. "We can learn how to pay for it afterward," he said. "But there's no doubt it will be a huge expense." Other communities were equally hard hit. In neighboring Kanata, 20 km further up the Ottawa Valley, the fire department - made up of a mix of full-time members and volunteers - received six times its normal volume of calls, and all members were called in to work overtime. In Brockville, a municipality of 22,000 further south, trees, streets, fire hydrants and houses were buried beneath a centimetre-thick layer of slick ice, and all businesses closed.
There were similar experiences throughout eastern Ontario. The city of Kingston, population 60,000, declared its first-ever state of emergency after a blackout hit 80 per cent of the downtown area, including the two major hospitals. But repair crews co-ordinated by about a dozen employees of the city's public utilities department managed to restore power to about three-quarters of the affected area within 36 hours. In the meantime, the local hardware store quickly sold out of candles, kerosene and propane - and some students at Queen's University put those supplies to good use. Twenty-one-year-old Heather Harding, who shares a house with two female and three male friends, said they kept warm with "candles and everyone sleeping in one room." Another student, Matt Barber, 20, said he and his six roommates found another solution. "There was an old futon in the attic, so we hacked it up and burned it in the fireplace," he said. "We even cooked dinner over it."
Unlike Quebec, Ontario's major population area - around Toronto, Hamilton and surrounding suburbs - was not affected. As a result, Premier Harris was able to quickly divert rescue crews and equipment from other parts of the province to those that needed them.
One of the greatest ironies of the ongoing storm was that even as it devastated trees and landscape, it also produced a terrible beauty. On Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the trees glistened with ice against the similarly gleaming backdrop of the Ottawa River. But a closer look at the trees revealed that most of their branches had been mangled and ruined so that many will not survive. There was a similar scene in Montreal on the heavily treed eastern side of the city's famed Mount Royal. Although the precise extent of damage was not known, a city official estimated that as many as 25 per cent of the trees may be lost.
In fact, as bad as the damage and difficulties were elsewhere, there was no doubt that Montreal constituted the epicentre of the troubles. In some areas, the devastation wrought on the landscape will take decades to correct. Perhaps the most hard-hit area was Montreal's South Shore, where more than 500,000 people were without power for days, and forced to scramble for shelter elsewhere. On one block in the municipality of St-Lambert, almost everyone was evacuated after heavy winds and ice brought power lines down and knocked down scores of branches from maple trees. At one point, the only residents left on the deserted strip were Richard Gatien, a 46-year-old general contractor, and his family. They used a generator to power their oil furnace. Still, said Gatien: "It's disastrous - I've never seen anything like this."
That was a common refrain. As 57-year-old neighbor Monique Achim returned to inspect her house - which she temporarily abandoned in favor of a municipal shelter - she discovered that a much-beloved, 80-year-old maple tree on her front lawn had been ravaged by the storm. "Look," she said wistfully, "at what is left of it."
Predictably, the elderly and infirm faced the greatest difficulty. In St-Lambert, Red Cross volunteers herded residents of seniors' homes into a local college equipped with army cots. One room was filled with two dozen patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. "They feel insecure," said Claudette Monty, the owner of the seniors' home. With volunteers supplying coffee and medication, other, healthier seniors fared better. "We're well fed," said 81-year-old Yvette Lapierre, who marked her third day in the shelter with a spaghetti dinner.
But neither age nor adversity could budge some people from the places where they felt most comfortable. In Montreal West, 82-year-old Helen Webb sat out the storm in her home, despite a lack of power and temperatures inside of no more than 4° C. She explained cheerfully that she spent her nights in bed clad in mittens, wool socks, running shoes, coat and hat under four wool blankets. Although her prime reason for staying at home was concern that her radiators would freeze and explode if she was not there to oversee them, she added that the experience was "almost like a picnic," with neighbors inviting her nightly for drinks and barbecue dinners.
In fact, Montrealers for the most part greeted the storm with a mixture of decorum and calm acceptance. Unlike recent Stanley Cup parades in Montreal - when some residents celebrated victory with unseemly displays of rioting and looting - the storm seemed to bring out the best in many people, and companies. The downtown Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the venerable haunt of the city's blue bloods, slashed its nightly rate by more than half to $98 and transformed two of its elegant salons into child-care centres. On the downtown number 24 bus route on Sherbrooke Street West, one of the city's famously surly bus drivers skidded his vehicle to a halt and rushed out to help a young woman struggling with a baby carriage. Community groups and centres across the city were inundated with calls from volunteers offering to do everything from providing lodging to cooking scrambled eggs and bacon at shelters for the temporarily displaced.
But the most heart-wrenching incident involved a two-year-old girl whose life was saved by the remarkable cool of a veteran Montreal fireman. After a huge electrical fire broke out in the Ville LaSalle home of Maleha Amrov, she could not find her baby, Jenanne, in the smoke. Ron Monahan, a 40-year-old fireman, fought through the smoke on hands and knees until he found the girl, who was not breathing. He carried her outside and administered artificial resuscitation - which was successful. Jenanne is expected to completely recover.
Other areas outside the city also felt the storm's wrath. Bill Stevenson, whose 200-hectare farm in Franklin-Centre, south of Montreal, was left with piles of twisted branches that snapped off his 18-m maple trees. "It's nature, what can we do?" said Stevenson, 56, whose great-grandfather bought the farm in 1904. He now faces the enormous task of clearing the massive amounts of debris so he can lay down lines to start tapping his trees in late February.
At the same time, area residents found themselves confronted by the kind of basic survival questions that might seem more necessary for Arctic explorers than citizens of modern cities. News stories in Montreal's Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen offered answers to such frequently asked queries as whether it is safe to sleep in an idling car (answer: no, because of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning - which killed at least one person last week) and how and whether to cook food on a living-room fireplace (answer: perhaps all right, if great caution is exercised). And almost every kind of community facility that could be turned into a shelter was pressed into use, ranging from curling clubs and shopping malls to libraries, hockey arenas and fitness centres.
In Saint John, emergency shelters were set up to help those forced from their homes. While the streets remained open to traffic, pedestrians had to step gingerly past fallen trees that had shorted out power lines. "It looks like a war zone in some areas," Saint John Mayor Shirley McAlary said late Friday. Bill Mallory, town manager of St. Andrew's, described a similar scene. A local seniors' complex was without power and heat for a 14-hour stretch overnight Thursday. "The streets are a mess," Mallory said. "Trees are in various states of disrepair, laden with ice, drooping over houses, power lines and roads. It's not a pretty sight."
In the short term, the storm had at least one beneficial effect. In Montreal, people accustomed to bickering over language, politics and the ever-present question of Quebec's constitutional future suddenly found themselves united against a common foe. "These days," said Mark Lidbetter, a 43-year-old Montreal area grocery store employee, "you spend your time thinking about how you can help each other, and you forget about all the other stuff."
But for Lidbetter, and others affected by the storm, enough was enough. "For a day or so, this is one big adventure," he said. "By the second day, it is less so, and after four days - well, you just wanna tell it all to stop." Similarly, Allan MacDonald, in his Ottawa home, surveyed a living room filled by a dozen boisterous young boys and raised his eyes to the ceiling. "These kids," he sighed again, "would do anything to have this adventure continue. Me, I would do anything now to make this rain and snow stop." But happily for the visiting boys, and unhappily for MacDonald and millions of other adults, the old saw remains true: everyone always talks about the weather - and no one has found a way to do anything about it.
Blame it on El Niño
Since early last summer, the mysterious climatic event known as El Niño has been wreaking havoc with the world's weather, visiting drought and smog-generating forest fires on parts of southeast Asia, bringing bitter cold and snowfalls to normally balmy Mexico and giving Albertans the pleasure and pain of playing golf and battling brush fires in December. El Niños arrive every two to seven years, when a buildup of warm water from the western Pacific lodges off the western coast of South America and begins altering global weather in ways that scientists do not always understand. The phenomenon makes its influence felt in North America by dividing the jet stream - the powerful current that normally carries warm Pacific air across the continent from west to east along a line that roughly follows the Canada-United States border - into northern and southern streams. Until about Jan. 1, the split jet stream bestowed freakishly warm weather on Western Canada. And while not all experts agree, some climatologists think El Niño had a hand in the ice storm that devastated parts of Eastern Canada last week. "I think," says David Phillips, a Toronto-based senior climatologist for Environment Canada, "that there is an El Niño signature here."
Freezing rain is hardly unusual in the course of Canadian winters: St. John's, Nfld., gets an average of 148 hours of freezing precipitation every year. But usually, episodes of freezing rain last for only a few hours at a time. What made this month's event so unusual was that it went on for so long. The buildup of conditions necessary for such an ice storm began in December, when cold air from the northeast flowed into the Ottawa and St. Lawrence river valleys. It was still there this month when a steady stream of warm, wet air from the Gulf of Mexico began pouring north along the western edge of the Appalachian Mountains into Central Canada. Unable to dislodge the icy air in the river valleys, the flow from the Gulf formed a layer above it - and the stage was set for disaster. As rain fell from the warm layer into the colder air below, it was chilled into super-cooled droplets that spread out to form a clear, frozen glaze over everything it touched. "It's hard and very adhesive," notes Phillips, "and it thickens as the droplets continue to form."
What role did El Niño play in all this? "We don't know if the ice storm was connected to El Niño," says Pierre Pommainville, an Environment Canada meteorologist in Montreal. "There are just too many factors involved to be certain." But Amir Shabbar, another federal climatologist in Toronto, believes that the southern leg of the jet stream, curving through the southeastern United States - where it caused massive flooding in some states - and then turning north, played a key role in transporting warm, moist air into Canada. "In a non-El Niño year," says Shabbar, "the jet stream would not be that far south."
Another question that tantalizes experts is whether global warming caused by the buildup of manmade emissions in the Earth's atmosphere may be leading to bigger and more disruptive El Niños. According to U.S. officials, last year was the planet's warmest on record, and as the globe heats up, the periodic flows of warm Pacific water have been growing stronger and more prolonged. El Niños in the past have usually peaked around Christmas - and accordingly were named after the Christ child by Peruvian fishermen. But the current event is the longest on record. Moreover, temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific in recent weeks measured up to 6° C above normal, notes Shabbar, making this El Niño the strongest since scientists began studying the phenomenon. "Certainly, El Niños are changing," says Phillips, "and maybe it's because we've warmed up the world."
January 19, 1998