The January 1998 Ice Storm Montreal, Quebec, Canada

All text and images copyrighted by Stephen McDonnell

The Shelter


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© Patrick McDonnell 1998

A friend who works for the City of Montreal called us the second or third day of the ice storm and mentioned that a shelter for people without electricity and heat was being set up at Loyola High School. My wife and son decided to volunteer at the shelter since it was in my son's school, a block away from our house. (We learned later that it was the Jesuit Fathers who contacted the City of Montreal to volunteer their facilities, as the school had electricity although the father's residence did not; another story in itself) I spent the morning trying to find a room in a hotel; no luck. When my wife called me in the afternoon, her voice was lit up with happiness that could be felt over the telephone line. I knew then that I was in big trouble, so instead of fighting it, I left the house-still with electricity-and traipsed over to the school. The Ice Storm was still raging; though you could hardly measure its impact by looking at ice covered trees. Was there another millimeter of buildup there, who could tell by eye?

Arriving at the school, I witnessed a dramatic transformation of the Gym from a place where sweaty teenagers exercised and dances were held, into a military camp. Military cots were being setup, tables and chairs were being brought in from the rest to the school so that two distinct areas for sleeping and eating were established, separated by a cloisonne. The Janitorial staff were laying large plastic sheets on the floor, taping the seams together. A general chaos reigned, with the first people to seek refuge pouring in, amongst volunteers arranging furniture

I had never witnessed such a scene except vicariously through the news on television. In the 1950's My mother had volunteered in Germany, where we were living, to help the Hungarian refugees and her description of such chaos seemed strange if not fantastic. Yet here I was, a block away from my house, watching neighbors and friends walking in from the cold and ice. My wife was waving to me from the kitchen, actually a small alcove used to make coffee and sometimes cook a couple of meals for social events. The school had its food catered from a hotel chain to save money. The main cafeteria was more a serving line with heating plates and microwaves for those who brought their own lunches. So there were no facilities per se to cook and serve food to a large number of people. Something they were soon to discover.

I discovered that my own family had become volunteers.

My son was working like a dog and loving every minute of it. This 15 year old boy who usually has to be begged or bullied into picking up his T shirt, had been transformed into a responsible young man. The authorities in charge kept calling his name, asking him to carry this, to translate for a francophone refugee, to keep the kids occupied so that they would not cause the elderly any harm then serve them food. When he saw me, he asked me to help or get out of the way! Worse shocks awaited me.

My male ego certainly was taking it on the chin, seeing my wife surrounded by all the busy volunteers working in the small kitchen. Then I saw what was to become my volunteer job and the only way to keep an eye on my family. The garbage!

While the volunteers and urban refugees had been pouring in, the garbage had piled up. The janitor was occupied with trying to set up the infrastructure for the shelter and could not be two places at once. So I turned around and charged back into the kitchen, commandeering a pair of latex gloves and delved into the mess. After all, two could play at this game; volunteer one upmanship. After all, the storm would not last and we could go back to our normal lifes soon. I was to be proven wrong on both counts.

So I became an involuntary volunteer, keeping an eye on my wife and son, while acting as a sanitary engineer. No doubt other volunteers were motivated by more selfless motives. My own involvement started reluctantly, continued because I lost power at my business and then it grew to a passion as I enjoyed the rush of self esteem that comes from giving to others. (I think the moment I decided to commit myself fully, was the first night I was leaving the shelter and I saw a taxi drop off a young woman with a baby in her arms. She was lost and was desperate to find the entrance; I helped them to the shelter.)

I was fortunate in other ways. My perspective was split three ways as I worked in the shelter part time then returned to our house to make sure things were OK. I visited neighbors to help or share warm fire places, sometimes I went out to the normal world where life continued; shoppers crowded malls, restaurants were full - where a strange veneer of normalcy pervaded.

Because of the stress, strain, constant changes during the Ice storm and its aftermath, time seemed to be both compressed and extended. It is difficult-now-to remember what day something happened. In retrospect I see there was a Bell curve of activity filled with mini crises. The flurry of activity to set up the shelter the first day was followed by the arrival of the first few refugees. As the blackouts increased, more and more people swallowed their pride and ask for refuge at the shelter until a torrent of humanity, perhaps more than500 people, crowded the shelter. A defining climatic event occurred that shook everyone up, refugees and volunteers, then it slowly went down hill as the crisis resolved itself. The organizers and volunteers were thinking that it would only last a couple of days and nights, and that the situation could be controlled. Consequently, no one was prepared for the magnitude, length, nor scope of the event.

As the ice storm continued unabated, more homes lost electricity, more people lost their heat, more refugees sought shelter either with relatives or friends. The Loyola shelter was open to all, the old and young, even pets were allowed in. I must admit I first looked upon them with some trepidation, until I started seeing familiar faces. Faces of neighbors, faces of people who had seen at our son's soccer games. Faces of friends. When the power went out in my house, I became one of those faces.

On the second day, politicians and news people arrived. Human suffering sells well, be it in Biafra, Bosnia or in the Backyard. And these refugees could vote! Excuse me if I sound cynical, they were only doing their job. Sometimes ineptly, sometimes with courage. I had thought of taking a camera and documenting the experience, but after the first days, I was so emotionally involved, it would have been like trying to take advantage of a relative's sickness.

It is a strange feeling to be the focus of the news, being on the other side of the TV screen. The satellite dishes, the glare of the strobe lights, TV equipment accompanied by slicked down reporters gave the place the look of a three ring circus. Some of the volunteers and refugees loved the spot light, others shunned it. The press were doing their job, gathering information. The politicians were doing their job; serving their constituents. Whether they did it well is debatable. Certainly the call for food and volunteers on the radio and TV airwaves was heard. Certainly the politicians were trying to control the situation and help themselves as well. I cannot judge them. Only time can do that.

One day I hope I will be able to see the video tapes and photographs taken of the shelter. Right now it is too emotionally overwhelming, too personal. My mind captured a few moments, snapshots of life in and out of the shelter. I would like to share them with you, in order to make you realize what it was like if ever you are in the same situation, God forbid!

In the first days of the opening of the shelter a festive air reigned amongst the volunteers, this was fun. It was like a big party. The refugees coming in had not lost power for very long so they were uncomfortable and had taken the precautions decision to go to a shelter. I remember a Russian family who seemed to be wise in the ways of refugees. They arrived early, staked out a table near the kitchen, had brought along cards and puzzles to play and never seemed to bother anyone. Their space was always clean and quiet.

Other people were not so amenable. Some complained, whining about the food or lack of it (not chicken again!). Seniors were especially hard hit; they were used to their creature comforts and this dramatic change must have been a shock. (There were several heart attacks at the shelter) I grabbed one lady who walked in shaking like a leaf from hypothermia, led her to the CLSC nurses and watched as they called an ambulance which took her to the hospital.

We all remember the hoarder; the person who always tried to take as much as possible of everything which they then kept to themselves. One elderly lady brought in her bird in its bird cage. When it escaped, she was distraught, but kept on talking to the cage. My son told me that when he served a meal to an old man, the man tried to tip him; my son refused of course. Another volunteered told me that an old woman told him that the last time she had seen such a situation was in a concentration camp in world war two. (When the Canadian Army arrived, in helmets and backpacks, the similarity to war was even more pronounced. The young soldiers placed their helmets on the kids heads while young women ran to give them sustenance.)

The families with young babies were especially heart wrenching. One mother had come directly from the hospital with her new born. Another lady was very pregnant but was surrounded by her six other kids; we all wondered if she would deliver in the shelter. Another lady had a child with Asthma who was using a humidifier to help her breath.

The older kids were in hog heaven; this was a great experience. Some parents, many who seemed to be in shock, let them run around unchecked and unsupervised. One or two were real devils, looking for trouble.

I have to add an aside here. The social structure of the shelter was a dynamic entity. It changed constantly due to the outside crisis, the inside crisis, and depending on who was in interacting with whom. Because the area around the Loyola High School shelter is "multiethnic", it saw all races and religions come through its doors. The refugees were from all walks of life, well off and not so well off. These were my neighbors, so the shock of seeing them destitute and desperate was even greater. They spoke many languages - predominantly French or English . And they were all addressed in the two official languages of Canada. And they all got along, which reaffirmed my faith in humankind.

The volunteers were a mixed lot. Young and old, students, mothers, even children, all good hearted people. But many were unprepared to cope with the dynamics of the shelter; I was overwhelmed myself and had to leave several times to cool off and recharge my batteries. My social skills tested to their maximum. Thankfully, I choose the right job; trash collecting demanded no great social skills. Each of us, each volunteer, in his or her way, rose to the occasion or they left.

My wife rose to the occasion, smoothing the waters in the kitchen where tempers were short and personalities big. Too many cooks do spoil the pot. Her patience was tried many times, but she had the ability to bend but not break, proving more resilient than those around her. She was lucky to have several people who proved remarkable at both organizing and cooking The kitchen volunteers meshed into an efficient team.

But even the volunteers could not do everything, they had no experience with such a situation. Some of them would arrive, get a name tag and immediately begin bossing everyone around. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians (no racial slur intended). This stopped when the coordination of volunteer workers fell into place and they were given definite assignments.(On the radio, Jan 23, they were asking for volunteers who have experience to come work at the remaining shelters. I can imagine putting this on my resume; experienced volunteer.)

I was even assigned help for my garbage collecting after three days. I lucked out with the first two guys, Roman and his brother, French Canadians who drove 3 hours to Montreal to offer their skills. They were professional Maintenance people who came in, grabbed buckets and mops and went about the unenviable task of disinfecting the mess that was slowly accumulating. They may have saved many lives by their actions.

Over several days, for varying times, I had a Air Canada Pilot, Software Programmer and Marketing Executive working with me, high school and college students; male and female. They had one of the dirtiest job; but not one of them complained nor shirked their duty. I was even replaced when I drove an off-duty Nurse to a hospital to pick up more surgical gloves. It taught me a lesson in humility; even the trash man was replaceable. The Loyola janitors worked day and night, but without us they would have been overwhelmed. The shelter produced hundreds of bags of trash per day.

Again, I can not criticize the functioning of the shelter because I was part of it. There were people in charge. And without them, things would have been far worse. They tried to make the best of a terrible situation, which kept getting worse and more chaotic on an hourly basis. More and more people came to the shelter as the news and power outages spread. Loyola was like a beacon in the darkness, literally, as the lights of the neighborhood failed, one by one. (At night, I drove around on streets I could not recognize, street lights and signals were out, houses were pitch black, cars careened out of nowhere, some with reckless abandon. While some blocks of houses were lit up like Christmas trees; the MacDonalds Restaurant 2 blocks away never lost power and did a brisk business.)

After 3 days, some of my son's school friends showed up to volunteer. Their parents invited him to stay at their place which had electricity. A premonition told me that it was time for my son to leave. The number of people coming into the shelter had gone from a trickle to a flood, they were fighting for chairs to sit down on.

When I returned to the shelter that evening, after driving my son to his friends, I noticed a Montreal City bus blocking my way. Curious, and wanting to get by, I walked up to it and asked them to open up their door. The driver had a police officer with him and they indicated to me that they were here to transfer some of the refugees out of the shelter. I then looked to my right, and in the growing darkness, I saw that the Loyola Gym entrance had no lights on. Panic attack!

I backed my car out of the way of the bus, because now understood that the bus was here to evacuate all the shelter. One bus! 500 people! And I ran into the shelter.

If you have seen the movie "Titanic," then, you may have some vicarious experience with what I ran into. Chaos, darkness, flash lights, kids screaming, elderly people hobbling around. Volunteers, police and the people in charge calmed the chaos. (My wife was in the shelter kitchen when it happened an hour before I arrived and the emergency lights had come on; but the batteries had run out by the time I got there. She said that one of the volunteer cooks started singing the French song "Jolie Alouette.")

When I arrived, I immediately started searching for my wife. Not finding her, I grabbed our sleeping stuff and ran back to our cold house, in case we were to be evacuated, and then grabbed two flash lights. Then I returned to the shelter again to look for my wife. I thanked my lucky stars that my son was safe and I found my non-plussed wife. I gave one of my flash lights, a neon camping light, to the kitchen, because they were starting to serve dinner in the dark. As I wandered in the darkened Gym, I began to talk to people, to calm them. Suddenly out of the darkness appeared a young man sitting in a chair with a white cane. He was blind.

I asked one of the nurses if I could take him to the Montreal Association for the Blind, the MAB, a block away, hoping they had a shelter open and a place for him. I then asked Robert, the blind man, if he wanted to go, though he seemed reluctant to leave his roommate who had accompanied him to the shelter. I found his room mate, asked his opinion, then we conferred with Robert. We did not want to force him to leave and wanted him to have a choice. (I have a special sensitivity for blind people as an artist) When Robert did agree, I phoned the MAB, who immediately said to bring him over.

But I had two things to do, first my bladder was bursting and secondly I needed to find help in case Robert fell during the transfer. He was a big strong guy, and I was afraid of slipping on the ice and hurting either him or myself.

My understanding of blind people increased a thousand fold, as I found a pitch black bathroom-I still do not know if it was a womens or mens. When I returned to Robert, the volunteer coordinator had found a young girl to help me. Sorry, I said, but I need some one more beefy. (I hope women will not be offended that I did not take the young girl, but I would not have accepted a small man who did not look like he could help two 200 pound men off the icy ground). Fate delivered a Loyola teacher to me. We got Robert into my car and delivered him safe and sound to the shelter at the MAB.

We had reached the top of the bell curve, though we did not know it. The Montreal police had in effect taken over the shelter; they could close it if need be, if we did not reestablish power. The city of Montreal sent a mobile generator to help, it took several hours to figure out how to connect it and when the lights came back on, there were cheers. Many of the refugees were relocated for their own safety, the generator did not keep the heat going, and many of the volunteers left to take care of their own business. The black out purged the system, except for the "lucky" ones like us who kept on going through thick and thin.

The system had been purged and it was functioning like a well oiled machine. People knew what to do, who to see for a problem, what to do and not to do, and supplies were coming in by the tractor trailer load. Other shelters were opening up all over the city. If only this had happened at the beginning. But no one expected it to last so long; experience is a harsh teacher, but an effective one. The empirical knowledge I take away from the shelter, despite my every effort to avoid volunteering, will hopefully serve me well in any future emergency.

As we went down the other side of the Bell curve, we began the difficult task of closure. Lights and heating were coming back to houses and people were going home. It was difficult for the volunteers to say good bye to the stress and strain. I had to drag my wife away from her "kitchen." Several refugees had made themselves at home and were reluctant to leave. Some still did not have heat in their homes or were too ill move. A couple of other little black-outs did not phase us, even the final farewell dinner for the hard core employees and volunteers was marked by laughter as the lights flickered and went out. We were veteran volunteers.

My wife-of course-has different memories of the shelter, as does my son. We were united as a family, bound together by the invisible glue of shared experience. Our bank account of self esteem over flowed. The people we helped, the volunteers we worked with as well the city and provincial employees in charge have become an extended family.

My wife and I even had time to talk to some of the final refugees who remained. While doing our tasks we had been limited to a few brief conversations with the sheltered. One 90 year old woman, Marion, stands out both visually, for she had an inner beauty no plastic surgery could create, and for her humanity. She had brought a little gray poodle and I had seen them sitting together, a forlorn pair. How wrong you can be about people when you judge them by their covers. I spied her again just a day before the shelter closed, laying on one of the uncomfortable army cots by herself. With time on my hands, I sat down to talk to her. My wife saw me and joined us.

Marion recounted some of her life to us; a school teacher from the Eastern Town ships, descendant from the Royalists who did not want anything to do with the Americans after the Revolutionary war. Her father worked in the logging industry. He used a pike to break log jams, jumping nimbly across log swollen rivers. Once, she said, he fell amongst them, breaking his leg. Somehow he made it out. Out of the freezing water, he managed to set the compound fracture by using his knife to cut a bush down and make a splint, then crawled miles back to civilization. He made it but was in bad shape. But his wife refused to let him die nor take charity from the town. Without his income, she decided to take in laundry to wash which Marion said "destroyed her beautiful hands."

That Marion was in our shelter, made me feel both sad and glad. I would never have met her, never have touched her life and be touched by her life except for the Ice Storm. The modern communication network we have built seems to take us further away from human contact, rather than bringing us closer. Since working in the shelter, I go around touching people more. I believe I have changed. Hopefully for the better. From a bad situation, some good has come. Charles Dickens wrote it best in his book, The Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of time, it was the worst of times."

Post Mortem addendum

I have put this extra little bit of text here, knowing that few people will even have the patience to read this far. Pity, sometimes the last part is best. So for the patient few, here are a few more pearls of wisdom.

Strange what tricks the mind can play on you, remembering inconsequential things and forgetting the important ones. Remembering what happened a month ago, is like trying to recall one's childhood, a rose colored glass is placed between your mind's eye, distorting and smoothing the rough edges of the horrible experiences, enhancing the good ones to the point where you feel as if you were the hero of a novel. And not the victim.

I have read and heard several accounts of the events that transpired during and after the ice storm, and lo and behold, they are all different. Some give the whole disaster a glowing self congrartulatory slant, leaving out details which might make things look bad for certain people or for themselves; I name no names nor paint anyone with a broad brush. (One slight which I feel needs to be corrected is that concerning the American linesmen who came to Quebec to work. There were reports that some were not prepared for the cold nor did they give unstintingly of their time. Maybe there were a few exceptions but from my personal knowledge, they gave their all and those who came from New York and other Northern were ready to work . The one's from farther south should be doubly thanked as they worked without the necessary warm clothing needed.)

I have a running battle with a history teacher who swears by the accuracy of history books. But I always point out that the winners write those books, not the losers. (Winston Churchill, a great self promoter and politician, was reported to have said, "History will be kind to me, because I will write it," which is what he proceeded to do after he lost the first British election after the war.) The most striking example e of how history is reinterpreted , is the war of 1812. Look into any American, Canadian and English History Text book and you will be surprised by how each one has a different view of that event, the Americans say they won it, the Canadians say they won it, the English call it the Second American Revolution! Even the Eurocentrics can not agree amongst themselves!

In my memory I see snatches of images, sounds and words that haunt me. The rumbling of thunder during the ice storm both perplexed and frightened me; thunder is supposed to happen only in summer and is caused by lightening. Did I allegedly overhear a telephone conversation that seemed to bode ill for the shelter? Or was I mistaken? At one of the shelters some jerk called in with a bomb hoax, the shelter had to be evacuated anyway! I missed the Mayor. Several un-named and forever nameless News reporters seemed more interested in the sensational than in the facts. (I am making allegations, not stating facts, which may or may not be true and should be read that way, especially by any lawyer types who might have itchy briefs) But then a block away from the shelter, some houses and apartments never lost electricity, and so their residents could watch in the comfort of their homes what was happening outside there window. Kafkaish! The MacDonald Restaurant did a tremendous amount of business; maybe the Federal and Provincial governments could learn efficiency from them. They say too much wishful thinking is a bad thing!

Even more ironic, a store specializing in Emergency supplies was empty of clients when I barged in looking for surgical gloves for the Loyola kitchen. The manager had professional quality goods, flashlights, batteries etc. Perfect for the ice storm. Yet no one seemed to be able to make the connection between his store sign and the actual emergency! He sold me some surgical gloves at cost, throwing in an aluminum blanket, and I told him I would inform the the authorities about his supplies. To no avail.

The second time I drove out into the city to look for surgical gloves, a week after the storm had hit, I was in for a shock. Whole blocks of the my neighborhood were blocked off, tree branches were strewn across them, smashing cars and houses, power lines entwined in the accumulated mess. I saw the trees on the mountain, and could not believe the devastation. I had my camera, but could not bring myself to take pictures, so great was my distress. Meanwhile, the city continued to function, just another storm to contend with. People went to work, leaving their blackened cold houses to go to empty stores, which were at least heated. Business was down, no one seemed to be in the mood to buy. The movie Titanic did a brisk business, people sat through the 3 hour long movie again and again. Victims watching victims.

Anyone who is interested in reliving a recreation of the ice storm should go see the movie, "Titanic". The only thing missing is the bitting cold. Maybe a theater can lower its temperature to minus 40 C just to recreate what it was like. The term bitting cold has always fascinated me until my first Canadian winter, now I feel as if a ravenous wolf is sinking its fangs into my face, trying to tear it off. That only happens when it gets really cold here, a month or so a year, most of the time you see can see a few hardy people walking around in short sleeves.