Powerless: 20 years ago, ice storm hammers eastern Ontario

Two decades ago this week, eastern Ontario and western Quebec were hit with — as Environment Canada aptly called it at year's end — the ice storm of the century.

For 6 days in 1998, a freak storm devastated eastern Ontario and western Quebec

A military convoy leaves Ottawa for Osgoode Township on Jan. 6, 1998, to help crews return power to residents affected by the ice storm. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

It was — as Environment Canada aptly called it at year's end — the ice storm of the century.

From Jan. 5 to 10, 1998, freezing rain and ice pellets battered a wide swath of eastern Canada, plastering affected areas with heavy ice that toppled power and phone lines, trees, utility poles and electrical transmission towers.

More than 85 millimetres of freezing rain and ice pellets fell on Ottawa. An additional 108 millimetres fell on Cornwall, and 73 millimetres hit Kingston.

Farmers lost livestock and faced thousands of dollars in damage to barns and other infrastructure. Countless drivers ended up ditches because of slippery roads.

Families went days, even weeks and months, without electricity.

The storm was also deadly: 35 people died, according to Public Safety Canada's final accounting of the crisis. More than 900 were injured, and thousands more had to be evacuated from their homes.

A worker clears layers of ice off the roof of the former Langevin Block building in Ottawa during the 1998 ice storm. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

'We were there for each other'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement Thursday to mark the day freezing rain began to fall in 1998.

"The storm paralyzed eastern Canada, as day-to-day routines became nearly impossible. Without electricity, heat, food, and water, people were forced out of their homes and businesses could not stay open. The freezing rain made all forms of transportation treacherous. Impassable roads hindered basic services and made it difficult for emergency vehicles to help those most in need," the statement reads.

"Meanwhile, Canadians welcomed neighbours, friends, and family into their homes, sharing generators and hot food. They prepared meals by candlelight, and turned libraries and arenas into shelters so people could find refuge from the cold.

"Twenty years later, time has not dimmed the outpouring of compassion, and sense of community, Canadians showed to each other. Today, I hope all Canadians reflect on, or learn more about, the Great Ice Storm, and how we were there for each other."

Rural areas hit especially hard

Rural communities in eastern Ontario and western Quebec — and the industries they depended on — were particularly devastated by the storm.

One Statistics Canada report suggested dairy farmers dumped more than 10 million litres of milk during the storm because processing plants shut down.

There were sugar bushes and apple orchards dating back generations that were either severely damaged or destroyed.

Ontario's association of maple producers predicted it would take syrup production more than three decades to return to normal in eastern Ontario.

View an infographic of ice storm numbers here.

'Hang in there'

Mike Harris, Ontario's premier at the time, urged people to remain calm — and promised help was on the way.

"It's hard to understand, from the papers or the TV pictures, just how extensive [the damage] is," Harris told reporters, clad in a teal winter jacket as he surveyed one of those damaged rural properties.

"To those that we still have to get power to: in some cases, it is going to be weeks. But we understand the situation. We're doing everything we can. Hang in there."

Mike Harris speaks to reporters

5 years ago
Duration 0:59
Former Ontario premier Mike Harris speaks to reporters during the 1998 ice storm.

That wasn't always easy, however, for the thousands of people left in the dark to wait for assistance.

I think it's good to be reminded once in a while that — despite our best efforts — we can't totally insulate ourselves from nature.- Susan Johnson of Chelsea, Que.

Susan Johnson of Chelsea, Que., gave CBC News a first-hand account of how she and her family were dealing with the aftermath of the storm.

No power meant no functioning water pump at her home in the Gatineau Hills. So she and her family were driving to get water — or at least they were, until a large tree fell on their driveway, bringing power lines with it.

Johnson said they were sleeping in front of the fireplace to stay warm.

"I think it's good to be reminded once in a while that — despite our best efforts — we can't totally insulate ourselves from nature," she said. "But having been reminded, I'm prepared for it to end."

Heavily populated areas like Ottawa and Montreal, as well as smaller communities like Kingston and Cornwall, were hit hard by the 1998 ice storm. (Statistics Canada)

Largest deployment since Korean War

As well, Canadian Forces members from about 200 units across the country descended upon the hardest-hit areas.

They provided food and shelter, moved the sick and injured to safety, and helped hydro crews restore power.

Dubbed "Operation Recuperation," it was the largest deployment of troops ever to respond to a Canadian natural disaster.

It was also the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War. And while the bill would eventually come to about $60 million, for many communities, it was money well spent.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien steps off a helicopter and onto Wolfe Island south of Kingston, Ont., on Jan. 13, 1998. Wolfe Island residences were without power for days after the brunt of the ice storm passed through. (John Lehmann/The Canadian Press)

Canadians pitched in

"This task is so overwhelming we're going to be many, many days sorting it out," said then-mayor of Kingston, Ont., Gary Bennett, shortly after the weather turned. 

Kingston ended up declaring the first state of emergency in the city's history, one of 57 communities in Ontario to do so.

The military wasn't alone in pitching in to help, however: Canadians from coast to coast sent money, blankets, firewood, and even power generators to those in need.


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