The January 1998 Ice Storm Montreal, Quebec, Canada

All text and images copyrighted by Stephen McDonnell


The Aftermath


©Patrick McDonnell 1998-2003

Jan 19 th 1998. ten days after the end of the ice storm. My house is shaking. I run to the window to see the cause; a giant Caterpillar tractor is scraping the "melange" of iron hard ice and snow from my street. The usual snow removal equipment has been breaking down, so they have called in the big guys. (Catepillar Tractors, earth moving machines) I have been trying to break up the hardened ice myself with little success. My neighbors look like chain gang prisoners in a Siberia Gulag, chopping away at the ice with axes. On the radio they say that pieces of ice are falling off buildings, a crane has fallen over near the Ritz Carlton and even the Swat team has been called in to shoot ice off the antennas on the skyscrapers.

There is a new spirit of camaraderie on our street. Neighbors are saying hello and helping each other without asking. Our common experience of looking for ways to keep warm and fight off the onslaught of killer rain has tied us together in ways that will last until spring.

My electrical line has been reattached to my home since yesterday, after 11 days of darkness, and I wander the house forgetting to turn on the lights still looking for matches to light candles. At the beginning of the blackout I did the contrary, flipping on dead switches. Habits die slowly, new habits die even more slowly. Now I grab a bottle of water, a battery anything that I might need in case of a power failure. I have become my mother, someone who hoards things in case you run out of them. Electricity is in short supply. Blackout anxiety sets in. (Tuesday Jan. 20, another black-out happened in down town Montreal, knocking out one of the Metro lines making thousands of commuters take the streets to find other ways home and darkening some of East Montreal. January 30 my brother in Law gets his electricity back in the country, 22 days after loosing it.)

On the highways, drivers are either speeding like crazy on the slippery roads, or driving slowly, afraid their reactions are too slow. Shell shock shows on the faces of Montrealers. They forget things, forget the date, loose the thread of their conversations. Everyone seems to have a collective hang over, bordering on Jet Lag. Tempers are short or non existent. Apathy and depression creep up on you unawares. The expression, "powerless" takes on a new and sinister meaning. Other Montrealers stroll blissfully around bemused by the whole thing.

A dichotomy is developing. It is obvious there are two new classes of people; those that had electricity and those that did not. Both are two sides of the same experience. Yet neither side can understand the other. Already in a city with two solitudes, French and English, this new separation means more misunderstanding crops up in conversations. As I recount my experiences in the shelter and with my power outage, I see that those that never lost it, either get misty eyed or just don't want to hear. They just don't get it. So, I drop the subject. (In the January 30 Montreal Gazette newspaper, there is a front page article which addresses the issue and gives it a name, "post traumatic shock." For thousands of Montrealers suffering from this syndrome, the experts say that there is only one way to recover; talk about it. Hearns of Tel-Aide said that people "need to take the time to tell their stories. That's the only way to release the tensions. And they don't need someone brushing them off, telling them not to let things bug them, that things aren't so bad."

No one knows how much the destruction of the hydroelectric infrastructure, flora and fauna is going to cost; any estimate now would be a stab in the dark. The cost has been calculated at 2 Billion dollars Canadian for the cost of the total damage. Will the tourist industry suffer? (No one seems to be aware of the catastrophe outside of Quebec.) And where will all this money come from? From the government, from private industry, from the Banks? No, from the tax payer, who will be receiving higher insurance premiums, higher municipal, provincial and federal taxes?