We had no electricity nor heat in our house in Montreal for 11 days, and our house in the country lacked power for a month. We worked in the shelter for a week, and for months in the country, cleaning up fallen branches.
I dream about the ice storm.
Ice rain makes a sizzling sound when it hits frozen ground, like frying bacon. Ice rain glazes everything it touches, invisible at first, and then it accumulates to become a slick frosting. A tarp or a piece of cardboard on the car windshield helps keep the cleaning up to a minimum. You never know when or where an ice covered branch will fall. When a branch breaks, from the weight of ice, it gives off a bang and an electrical blue flash, like an explosion. Lights going on and off, can wake you up in the middle of the night, what switch was left on? People change under stress; the meek looking can become brave and the loud and macho may run away or just sit there and do nothing.
You can never tell in advance what people will do. Some women can not abide having their boyfriends or husbands do nothing. When the TV camera comes around people either run away or run towards it; it has nothing to do with what they are doing. In an emergency, grab a toothbrush and a roll of toilette paper, you never know when you might need them. Stress can either bring people together or tear them apart. Well-tempered steel may not look good, but it is more resistant than the shiny, fancy kind. In an emergency some people don't change, some rise to the occasion, others just fade away. Don't judge people by what they say, how they act, nor by their appearance; they will surprise you. People project onto others what they think, what they want, what they fear; in psychology this is called splitting and projecting. Don't believe everything you read or see. Humans are herd animals. Humor helps. Love cures all. The core body temperature goes down after weeks of cold - you think you will never be warm again. We forget how easy we have it until we are confronted with hardship. You can become addicted to anything. People of good intentions can do bad things, good can come out of bad. People touched each other, connected, during the disaster and then their shells reformed, back to normal. I see the same thing happening after the September 11, 2001 tragedy.
Friday the 1st of February 2002, freezing rain falls on the city of Montreal and BBC interview
Years have past since the 1998 storm. Ironically, a BBC Science TV crew is here to do a report on the 1998 storm. They have arrived at an opportune time, they get to see and film the real thing. They interview me; I finally get my 15 seconds of Andy Warhol fame. It all comes rushing back to me, the ice, the people, and the internal turmoil. Even Hydro Quebec prepares a surprise for me after the interview when I walk into my dark powerless house. I count myself lucky, an ice storm has hit Kansas City and Illinois last week, wrecking the same devastation as our 1998 disaster. The TV images recall my own ordeal. Since that event, other ice storms have hit different parts of the United States. We have smaller ice storms in the intervening years, and every time ice rain falls, our collective memory winces. Why is it more traumatic than other winter weather?
I have seen all kind of winter weather. Montreal has shown me an endless variety. I have survived a month long period of minus 40 below centigrade cold that kills car batteries, dries the air and sears the lungs like a desert wind. I have shoveled cars out of snowstorms that have dumped waist high drifts. People are accustomed to it, expect it, even disappointed when snow doesn't fall for Christmas time. Yet the 1998 ice storm was unique. It showed us that our fragile lives can be changed by a simple weather event, our technology can crumble and our humanity can be tested.
What do I remember? Time takes the fresh water color memories and washes it out until only a faded image remains. Even during the storm, my mind played tricks on me. I remember the way time telescoped in and out, slowing down and then speeding up, as stress, the cold and sleep depravation took its toll on my mind. Scenes float to the surface of my consciousness, events that time can not erase. Some are good, some are bad.
The 1998 phenomena
It went on for so long; the freezing rain kept falling for days on end, coating and recoating everything it touched. Relentless, gray, uncaring, dull; this was the way life would be, this was our reality. The ice covered sidewalks, streets, cars- everything and then tree branches came crashing down, taking out power lines, missing people and cars, or hitting them, depending on fate. Everywhere you walked it was slippery, a skating ring. It was warm outside, the ice rain itself was super cooled and when it hits, it froze immediately. At first everyone grumbled - another ice storm - expecting a couple hours of mess, coating the cars and roads. It would be treacherous to drive, black ice a danger; an invisible coating on the road surface. Those people parking their cars outside would have to scrape off sheets of ice. It comes off in large chunks, like glass. A hammer or a sharp whack would make it shatter. I had seen ice storms before, a hassle, but not long lasting. Not this time.
Our power fluctuates on and then off, then we loose it for 11 days when a tree falls on my outside electric line. We still have a phone line to call for help. Walking around, or better, slipping around, the neighborhood, I see branches and even whole trees that have come down, damaging houses and cars. So who am I to complain? My wife has gone off to the local shelter with our son to volunteer. I tell my clients, "sorry, my computer is down." In Montreal, businesses are closing early; a radio show host has spread a false rumor that the electrical company is going to shut down power. This storm becomes the focus of daily and then hourly reports. I miss most of them - without a TV or radio.
Why not see what my wife and son are up to? I visit the shelter, and on the way back home, I help a young woman with a baby out of a taxi and head her to the shelter. I decide to help out. People are getting desperate. At the beginning the shelter is empty, waiting, but business soon picks up as the radio and word of mouth spreads. I divide my time between the shelter and my home and neighbors.
If the Jesuits of Loyola High School had not offered to open up the school to those without power there would have been no official shelter in our part of the city.
Other people's problems seem greater than ours, and we feel compelled to help them. We are swept up into a mass of humanity at the shelter. I insist on latex gloves for the cooks and garbage people, afraid of infection. Confrontations happen. I stop a fight; I am involved in shouting matches. People react differently. Some are passive, others aggressive, some vacillate between the two states. A Russian family arrived early and staked out the seats near the kitchen, veteran refuges. A Moroccan family, in the middle of Ramada, can not eat during the day. Some kids raise hell until the shelter organizers organize games and a nursery school. A group of young teenage girls arrive with a young baby. I help a doctor find a place to examine people. The nurse station is doing a brisk business. One elderly woman walks in, quaking like a leaf, in the throes of hypothermia.
I am invisible as a garbage man, observing all this and at times taking part in it. There are scenes of humor and the ridiculous. A woman has brought her bird to the shelter in a cage, it escapes but she continues to talk to the cage. The hoarder seems to take in everything by osmosis. Someone takes a baby into the kitchen to play with it, making me leave in disgust, knowing it is an accident waiting to happen. A young woman walks out of the toilette, with a length of toilette paper attached to her shoe. I drive to the hospital with a nurse to get non latex gloves, the trees on the mountain behind the hospital are drooping with ice, the city seems to be in a trance, cars careening, people walking around in a daze, the emergency rooms filled with people with broken bones.
Out of the first days of chaos at the shelter, order emerges, and leaders. My wife is cooking in the small kitchen off the Gym where she usually prepares coffee for social events. (The school caters lunches, so there are no large cooking facilities.) My son is in a hundred places at once. His friends show up and he is invited over to stay with them. I drive him and witness a strange devastation; I find it hard to navigate, because my mind is so stressed. I continue working at my garbage collection job. They assign me help, an Air Canada pilot, a marketing executive, a computer programmer. They have come to help, after hearing the radio announcements. A waste management team shows up two French Canadians who have driven 3 hours from up north - they disinfect the place professionally. The School janitors are overworked with all the people; they need as much help as possible.
The Triangle of Darkness and Montreal
We have a house outside of Montreal, in the so called Black Triangle, the worst area of the storm. My brother in law puts anti freeze in the water lines. We keep in touch by telephone. He tells us stories of what transpires in the Black Triangle. He promises to buy an extra electrical generator and bring it to us, but he has to go to the States to get in line - a riot almost erupts at the store. Everyone is edgy, desperate. The rain stops and it turns cold, and then it snows. When my brother in law calls from his cell phone to tell us he is on his way to Montreal with a generator, I am relieved to hear the good news, but then he calls back to say he can not see the super high way, it is just one big white ice and snow blanket. My back goes out when I hear this. We are on our own, each man and woman for themselves. Will our heating and water pipes freeze? I talk to neighbors and one of them, a rocket scientist, hooks up an DC to AC power reverser between our car and our furnace. Saved.
One night we go to have dinner at some friends, when it is still a game, not realizing how bad it will get. Two nights we spend playing cards at neighbors, by candlelight, keeping moral up. People are helping each other. One fellow is slowly being worn out with the stress of so many people to help and so little time; he disappears unable to cope. I meet a nurse crying in the street; she tells me her mother has died in Europe and she must leave. Vignettes of intense emotion are the norm. I take painkillers prophylactically, as I fall often. My back yard is solid ice. My electrical line is in the middle of the street. I put a police tape on it - what more can I do? A private snow removal truck comes barreling down the road, stops short of my line. I yell at the driver, who is belligerent. Will I have to fight this fool? When I am at the shelter, a neighbor's daughter comes to tell us someone has hit our electrical line/meter and torn it off our house. No one is injured, but my mind still sees heads or legs chopped off by the line. What can happen next?
Finally, our house is too cold to sleep in. We become refugees ourselves the school, staying with the teaching staff, sleeping in the library. The hard floors wake old memories for me. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reawakening my stay in a hospital as a child for my eye injury?) Every so often, I return to my cold dark house, where I make telephone calls to friends, a note of desperation in my voice. The stress and strain of not working on my contracts and the storm is getting to me. Every few minutes a new emergency occurs. Raw emotions and people are in your face, there is no way to escape. I touch people, more and more, trying to calm them. It takes a long time for me to break this habit. I also walk around our dark house turning on lights, a reflex habit.
Stranger in a Strange land
Meanwhile the rest of the city has varying degrees of power. Strange to drive around the city at night - Islands of light- and it appears primitive, like a hundred years ago. When we break to go to a restaurant in a local shopping mall, the power goes out. When we are invited to take a shower at some friends, their power goes out. When we go see our son who is staying at some friends in the suburbs, their power goes out as well. Are we jinxed? I remember a display model at a car dealership that is covered with a foot of ice. On the way back, I almost get into major accident, we see a car do a 360 a couple of inches from our car. Nothing fazes me. I am numb from constant brushes with death and injury.
Black Friday arrives and we are told to expect thousand of refuges at the shelter. Our power hangs by a thread of ice covered lines; only one power line still supplies the island of Montreal. Bottled water is passed out. The disaster is averted when the line holds up. Most people are blissfully ignorant as the authorities keep a lid on it. The arrival of the army lifts spirits. We are saved, we think. It has stopped raining, but now it has turned cold. It goes on and on. We hate it and we love it, addicted to the adrenaline rush. Exhausted, our nerves stretched to their limits, watching other people and how they react. It is a test, some fail, some pass. I want to write about it. I should be taking pictures, but I do not have the time, I have to survive and help others.
When I talk to other people they have their own harrowing stories. And then there are those who lost electricity for an hour and wonder what all the fuss is about. A client who lives a couple of blocks away tells me he never lost electricity, and is non plussed; he took in a neighbor. He has an idea what happened, but has not experienced the full brunt. After the storm, things return to normal. There are people who just want to forget, or who want to take credit for things they did not do. Who is telling the truth? The storm created this Twilight Zone experience of neighbors in a disaster zone, while next door everything is normal.
When I finally drive to the country on the 18th of January, the devastation is awful. Miles and miles of fallen telephone and power poles. The presence of busy of linesmen and soldiers reassures us. Our house is spared, but the trees have lost half of their branches, hemming it in. I will have months of back breaking work to clean it up. There is neither electricity nor power in the house for a month. Can I survive this?
My ordeal has just started. I make the fatal decision to clean up the branches at my house myself. I buy a chain saw, eventually I own three of them. With the help of my family, and friends, we accomplish this task by summer. Mother Nature provided an early and warm spring in 1998. Thank God.