Ice storm lessons endure 10 years after disaster

Ten years after a massive ice storm battered Eastern Canada, many Quebecers say they've learned key survival tips from a disaster considered the worst in recent memory.

More than 100 mm of freezing rain and ice pellets fell on Eastern Canada during 5 tense days in January 1998

Ten years after a massive ice storm battered Eastern Canada, many Quebecers say they've learned key lessons from surviving a disaster considered the worst in recent memory.

The 1998 winter ice storm dumped as much as 108 millimetres of freezing rain on parts of Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, coating the region in a thick crust of ice that dragged down kilometres of telephone and power lines and paralyzed the network, affecting more than five million Canadians.

More than 1,000 utility poles and electrical transmission towers were toppled, leaving one million Quebecers without power for several days, and in some cases weeks.

Thirty people died, nearly 1,000 were injured and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the crise du verglas, as the storm has become known in Quebec.

"It was like a war zone," remembers Robert Lemay, a Montreal South Shore resident who was caught in one of the worst-hit areas.

Many feared for their homes and were forced to flee after the temperature dropped and the blackout endured. They sought refuge at emergency shelters or with neighbours, friends and family.

"It was really cold, and we couldn't live here," Lemay said in a recent interview with CBC News. "I totally panicked for the first week. Tried to find a generator, tried to keep the house warm. I didn't want to leave the house … I was afraid that it would crack or something."

In the end, Lemay's house was dark and cold for 23 days — a marathon ordeal he endured along with about a million Quebecers caught in the so-called "triangle of darkness," a zone south of Montreal between Granby, Saint-Hyacinthe and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, where Hydro-Québec's power grid suffered the most damage.

Many Quebecers have switched heat sources

When power was eventually restored, Lemay vowed to wean his home off electricity as its main source of heat.

He installed a living room fireplace powerful enough to warm the entire house and added a second propane-fired hearth in the basement. He also stocked his house with emergency supplies, including a radio, canned goods and candles.

Many other Quebecers also reconfigured their home heating. Eric Bouchard's family endured 20 days without power in their Saint-Hilaire home, where they lived in 1998 with their six-month old son Timothée.

"There was nothing that worked," he remembered. The family camped out at his in-laws' house until Hydro-Québec was able to restore electricity. 

Bouchard has since bought a generator, chopped wood for a new wood-burning stove in his living room and switched to gas in the kitchen.

The effort is worthwhile, as it's just a matter of time before another epic storm strikes, he said. "I'm convinced we'll have another ice storm. The climate is changing."

There won't be a next time, Hydro-Québec says 

After the storm, a flurry of recommendations followed a provincial inquiry that studied the storm to distill its lessons.

The Nicolet commission concluded Quebec's civil security plan was limited by poor communication between different levels of government, and couldn't handle disasters at a municipal level.

The commission also urged Hydro-Québec to reinforce its grid and introduce measures to limit the scope of future blackouts.

Quebec's power utility says there will never be another blackout of the ice storm magnitude.

"We would have some customers without supply, without power," affirms Hydro-Québec president Thierry Vandal.

"But those numbers would be significantly diminished, and the time frame to restore service would be counted in days, not weeks."

Hydro-Québec has spent about $1.5 billion repairing and rebuilding its network since the storm. It replanted and reinforced wooden utility poles to prevent the domino-toppling effect, and buried a few electrical lines.

The utility also added a new power line into Montreal to avoid any future situation where it has to consider shutting down the city, as it was forced to do during the ice storm.

The grid is much more stable today, Vandal said. 

Ice storm money still frozen, Quebec says

The Quebec government eventually reimbursed Hydro-Québec for damages incurred during the storm.

But Quebec says it is still waiting for Ottawa to pay out $435 million the province says it is owed for ice storm expenses.

The federal government has paid other provinces hit by natural disasters, including Manitoba — and Quebec should be treated the same, intergovernmental affairs minister Benoît Pelletier told the national assembly in December.

Premier Jean Charest has raised the issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Pelletier said.

With files from the Canadian Press