The January 1998 Ice Storm Montreal, Quebec, Canada

All text and images copyrighted by Stephen McDonnell

The Storm

©Stephen McDonnell 1998-2003

Friday Januray 16 th, 1998, presently, I have a 100 foot extension cord running to my neighbor's house which I can either use to power my furnace pump or my portable computer. I am sitting in the basement in the darkness, except for the glow of my computer screen and pilot light, next to my furnace, with my laptop on my knees. I am starting to feel the cold creeping into my house, and feet, so I will try to be brief.

I believe I am living through the largest ecological disaster-an Ice Storm which struck January 6th- in the history of Montreal. Certainly the largest ecological disaster in the history of the Province of Quebec. Without exaggeration, the largest ecological disaster in the history of Canada. And perhaps, geographically speaking, the greatest disaster in North America, if you include Northern New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. This may sound like an exaggeration, right now, but I predict that others will concur with me as the true scope of the disaster is understood and measured. (As more and more weather disasters are happening every day, I feel that this last statement sounds like a hollow boast) MAPS

I will try to explain the weather phenomena, the human tragedy, the economic consequences and the political implications (as I see them) so that you can understand what has happened and is still happening. Please allow me to share with you my personal experiences so that you can grasp the full meaning of what has happened. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, for me I live in one of the worst hit parts of Montreal and I also have a house south of Montreal in the so called "Black Triangle" of destruction.

Normal winter conditions are harsh in Canada. Snow storms that would paralyze other cities, we take in stride. (I remember visiting Washington D.C. when they closed the city because they had 2 inches of snow. 2 feet of snow might slow things down in Montreal.) One of the first times I visited Montreal in winter, the snow was whizzing by horizontally and no one seem to notice! One of the beauties of Canada is the pure cold whiteness of its winters.

As I write this there are thousands of people south of Montreal who are without heat, electricity nor telephone communication. The temperature outside is minus 20 Centigrade, with a windchill factor of minus 40. I live in Montreal, Canada, which hosted a world Exposition and the Olympics. It is a modern cosmopolitan city of over a million people, an hour away from the United States. The situation is better than a week ago when millions were without electricity.

I have heat, but I am still waiting for my electrical line to be connected to my house. An ice laden branch fell on it a week ago. Presently, most of the electrical lines have been restored in the city except for lucky me. My neighbor, a communication satellite expert, helped restart my gas heater by first plugging a DC to AC converter into my car cigarette lighter and then connecting a line to my gas furnace to start it and run the water pump. Because other neighbors were using the same method to keep their pipes from freezing, I could only do this for 4 hours before passing on the inverter. It was enough to heat my house from 4 degree Centigrade up to 10 degrees. This saved my water and heating pipes from bursting in the sub freezing cold. Thank you Bryan for your help and Ilius for letting me borrow some electricity!

Over the years I have experienced different weather phenomena. Hurricanes, Tornados, Floods, and Heat waves. Four years ago (July 29, 1995) I was in Phoenix, Arizona when the temperature reached 121 degrees Fahrenheit, 50 degrees Centigrade. It was like putting your head in an oven, literally. But it was survivable in the shade because it was a dry heat. After living in different climates, from tropical to temperate, I now live in the province of Quebec where the temperature ranges from plus 40 degrees Centigrade in summer to minus 40 degrees C in winter. (Believe me, I would rather have plus 40 C temperatures over minus 40 C.) The winters here are harsh, and we are used to coping with them. Over the years I have witnessed several ice storms. But nothing like the one we had a week ago.

The meteorologist had predicted a warmer than usual winter for Canada this year because of El Nino and Global warming. Some people had jokingly imagined Florida like weather in January. Nature does not make jokes. (Was this storm predicted in the Farmer's Almanac?)

The first inkling of disaster occurred after New Years day. We had gone to a party and when we left at 2 am in the morning, the snow was melting- giving off steam and the air was balmy. The temperature had risen above freezing. On the weather channel, a satellite photo showed a huge mass of water-logged clouds coming our way. And when it arrived, it began to rain.

It rained for 4 days and nights onto the cold ground. At first it was interesting; Mark Twain considered Ice Storms that coat trees with a glaze of ice as one of nature's visual delights. In past storms, it would be over in a day, leaving a calling card of thin ice everything. Not this time.

Like a dreary boring guest who would not go away, it continued to rain for days without stop. Sometimes an ice fog would form, when it warmed up a bit, redoubling the icing effect. The area affected stretched from Eastern Ontario, through Montreal to the Western part of the adjoining Maritime provinces and South to the states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. A Vermont TV station meteorologist talked of a temperature inversion; the air at higher elevations was above freezing while the air in the valleys was freezing cold. Soon after hearing this report the Vermont radio went off the air. Where the rain drops fell they froze.

For anyone who has not seen the effects of an ice storm, I can only tell you to go to your freezer and take out a tray of ice cubes. An ice cube is about an inch thick. Now imagine that thickness of ice covering your car. Imagine breaking and scraping it off several times a day, so that you can drive to work and to run errands. Imagine finding another one inch layer of ice recoating your car after a few hours. Imagine ice forming on trees and wires, glaze after glaze of ice applied by the falling rain. Total accumulation, 3 inches or @100 mm.

After the first two days we began to see TV reports of ice a foot thick on trees. Soon after the brances and whole trees began to fall.

At night we would see a flash of light (static electricity?Power lines?) and then a crash. Running to the window we discovered a branch from our Maple tree had fallen on a car parked on the street. That tree lost most of its branches over the four days of the ice storm as the weight of the ice tore it apart. But the worse was yet to come.

I have never experienced war but I can imagine that the sound of thousands of trees loosing their branches make the same sounds as explosions. (Chicken little would have been right at home; the sky was falling) South of Montreal, my brother in law passed the night trying to count to 5 but could not without hearing a crash of another branch or whole tree. One of those trees hit his house. The more flexible trees, like birches, simply bowed down to the ground. But the worse was yet to come.

Power went out in entire blocks of the city as the trees took down power lines. The lights would go out for an hour and then come back. It was still warm, too warm. The rain started again, and more ice and wet snow fell. Hell was freezing over. Branches of hundred year old trees crashed to the ground, blocking streets. There was talk of an ecological disaster by the Mayor. Montreal was loosing its trees branch by branch, tree by tree. The TV showed cars that had been demolished by trees, nature was at war with humankind. No one knew where to park, which tree would fall next? As I was cleaning the ice off my car with my son, we heard the ripping tearing sound of a tree branch in its death throes, when it fell, we were showered with ice pellets. Thank God, it was across the street. But worse was in the offing.

Schools were closed as a precaution and some businesses were closed or run on generators. Power was being dispersed according to the roll of the dice, yet the commercial center of Montreal was left intact. A false rumor, propagated by a radio station, that electrical power to down town would be cut to help reestablish the power grid frightened businesses into closing early. Meanwhile whole areas of Montreal remain powered and oblivious to the coming debacle (many homes and apartments never lost electricity). Panic and fear began to grow; fireplaces which had been ornamental now were meccas for electrical refugees. Friends and neighbors with power invited the powerless for dinner and warmth. Normal life continued, cinemas and restaurants-with power-were functioning, while the city slowly died.

Some say the world will not end with a bang, but with a whimper. A cold whimper? Years ago I saw a science fiction movie about a future where pollution and war had destroyed mankind; in a snow covered city (Ironically it was filmed in the Montreal Expo 67's buildings) a few hardy souls strived to survive. Reality began to imitate art in Montreal.

Montreal's lights began to slowly die while whimpering children wondering when they could watch TV or play computer games. At night the familiar had become strange. Blocks of houses were blackened, the darkness punctuated by the flickers of candles. The hope that it would soon be over began to fade. Worse was coming.

The winds began to blow. And it turned colder. Trees laden with ice began to loose their last branches. The electric power towers began to crumple one by one, like toys smashed by the hand of God. The 3 main bridges to Montreal were closed. The airport, at one time, was being run by generators as were many hospitals. Two of the three water processing plants for Montreal were shut down, the power had been cut to them. You were told not to drink the water, nor to ride elevators. (January 9th, Black Friday, the Montreal Fire Department was readying plans to bulldoze houses and apartments, dynamite them if needed, because there was only 1 water pumping station still operating in Montreal and they were estimating that we were 3 hours away from loosing all water pressure to all the city. The Fire Department would have had no water to fight a major fire and was laying down drastic contingency plans.)

Finally the authorities took drastic measures; calling in the military, opening shelters and discussing emergency measures. But too little too late, the damage had been done, and continues to be done even as I write. The press tried to get an angle on the disaster, but pictures of winter were nothing new, there were no bodies nor spectacular eruptions, no fissures, no fires nor visible signs of a disaster. Just trees lying like match sticks on the ground and crumpled power towers. The last picture of the row of crumpled towers made it to the first page of the New York Times Magazine.

Strange, no none seems to be able to grasp the scope and magnitude of the Ice Storm. Houses were left standing, businesses and highways were still there. For the visual media of Television, which thirsts for the image that will haunt the viewer and raise the ratings, Montreal seemed oddly normal. True, at night it was blackened out except for a few pockets of light but on the whole, it was if a Neutron bomb had killed everyone leaving the structures intact. The human impact was hard to measure unless you got up close and personal. You had to go to a shelter.