The January 1998 Ice Storm Montreal, Quebec, Canada

All text and images copyrighted by Stephen McDonnell

What can we learn from this?

The Canadian Army, city workers, the different Police forces, Surete de Quebec, RCMP, HydroQuebec workers and the many American and Canadian electrical workers who came to help in Quebec are all to be complemented on a job well done and in freezing winter temperatures!

In the shelters, both city, provincial and federal workers gave their all. My own perspective as a volunteer, a reluctant one at that, is one of feeling of accomplishment. While I am breaking my arm trying to pat my own back, I have drawn several conclusions to what transpired. How it could have been handled better or differently the next time and how I did or did not do my "job." I figure I should start with myself, before I blame others.

I have always heard that hindsight is better than foresight. In hindsight, we realize what we should have known before, but usually too late to apply that knowledge.We try to teach our children lessons which we have learned ourselves through experience and from our parents. Yet we often do not practice what we preach. Oscar Wild said that, "Experience is the name that everyone gives to their mistakes." I would say there are 3 types of experience; empirical experience and vicarious experience. In the first one, we learn from our own mistakes, in the second one we learn from other people mistakes. I believe that exists a third type of experience which I call proactive experience; this involves predicting how something will happen and figuring out how to cope with the situation. Another word for it is "Vision." Unfortunately, few people posses vision, even fewer politicians. To make a long winded erudite argument short, I would rather not have garnered the experience I have now from the ice storm of 1998 and I hope to have the foresight and knowledge to avoid such a situation in the future. So here are my pearls of wisdom:

  • Plan of action
  • Volunteering
  • What to do

Plan of action

In an emergency, someone has to take control, direct efforts and keep the situation from getting out of hand. Like a hurricane, the eye of the storm has to be calm and steady, while chaos swirls around it. A plan of action, elaborated beforehand and tested by simulations, is the base on which authorities can lay the foundations of their operations. Without a plan, the law of the jungle - survival of the fittest and strongest - takes over. Without authority, there is no authority. You have to have some one who takes command, who has the authority vested in him or her from some higher authority or self activated.

The Volunteer

In most human societies a pecking order is readily apparent in any type of situation. Leaders are selected or are self elected, followers form a consenting mass, and loners separate themselves from the rest of the crowd. In extreme conditions the process is more brutal; people either cut it or they run. Professionals who deal with emergency situations are usually equipped both by training and by experience to handle the stress and the conditions. The military trains soldiers to obey commands and respect the hierarchy. They run exercises to make the soldier and officer aware of how a situation may transpire and look for weaknesses; they want to survive and win a battle. Civilian Emergency workers do much the same, exercises prepare by simulating emergency situations.

Volunteering for social teas, or school functions is very different from volunteering in a high risk highly emotional situation; the professional demeanor of a security, medical or legal professional is based on training and experience. To expect a normal innocent human being to have such attributes is impossible. Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary measures; they test one's mettle.

No can know how they will react in any given situation until they are in that situation. Strong persons may faint at the sight of blood; I have seen my father, a bomber pilot, pass out after receiving an injection. Volunteers in extreme situations can not know if they have the "right stuff". If they do then may become addicted to it; adrenaline is an addictive drug produced by the body which has the function of gearing the body up for "fight or flight."

What to do

No one knows what to do. Every situation is different. My father, a pilot, used to bring home a huge manual, about 10 inches thick, of what to do in an emergency in a certain airplane; each airplane had a different manual of emergency instructions. I do not think that, when he was flying, he would dig this thing out and read it as the airplane was falling from the sky. He read it before, was tested on it, and in an emergency he did what was instinctive. What ever worked, worked. Going by the book, probably has caused more disasters than it has saved.

The Nicolet Commission wrote volumes of recommendations what should have been done and what should be done.