The Montreal Ice Storm of 1998

On the morning of January 6th. 1998, residents of Southern Quebec, Eastern Ontario and the Northern New England States awoke to find themselves in the midst of a severe ice storm, the likes of which had not been witnessed in recent memory.

At the height of the storm in excess of one million households were without electricity. Bridges and roads were closed. As Montreal and the surrounding suburbs ground or perhaps slid to a halt, Municipal, Provincial and Federal authorities scrambled to meet the challenge and ensure the well-being of those so adversely affected. Shelters were set up, the army was summoned to assist the Hydro crews to re-establish the power grid and additional crews of linesmen and lineswomen came from other parts of Canada and the United States to help. It was a time of considerable difficulty and concern for everyone. My sincerest thanks to all those people who gave a helping hand.

Many articles in magazines and newspapers, as well as a huge amount of news coverage on radio and television have been devoted to tell the larger story of this storm. I will describe only a small portion from the perspective of one individual.

Except for the photograph above, all photos on this page were all taken on the fourth day of the storm within a two block radius from my home.

We live in Saint-Lambert, a well established community on the south shore of the St. Lawrence just across the river from the city of Montreal. One block away is the Victoria Bridge, Canada’s oldest major bridge that links us to the city. Saint-Lambert is an older community with fully treed areas. Our street, Union Boulevard, has large maples in the center and many homes have large mature trees in their yards. The Christmas season had just finished, the children had returned to school the day before.

The Christmas season had just passed, homes were still decorated with festive bows and lights.

Early Tuesday morning we were awakened by repeated dull thumping or popping sounds. The LED display on the clock radio was not visible, and our bedroom was occasionally lit up by a strange bluish light that would sometimes turn orange.

We had seen this occasionally before, the electrical transformers on the street poles were shorting out and some would explode into a colourful almost fireworks like display. From our bedroom window we could tell that a fine freezing rain was falling and freezing and that today, at least, would be an adventure.

Little did we know……

The large mature trees dropped branches like falling leaves taking down electricity wires in their descent.

Two aunts from Scotland who had been visiting with us for Christmas were impressed with the beauty of the large ice accumulations on every branch and twig. They took photos on the back deck as souvenirs to take back with them. Welcome to Canada! what a story to tell to the folks back home. I mentioned that I hoped the sun would come out and shine directly through this ice. The photographic possibilities were immense, heck, I might get a few good shots for my web pages. However, the sun did not peek through the dark sky and the freezing rain just kept on falling. We proceeded to make coffee with water I had boiled up outside on our Coleman camping stove.

Prince Arthur Street. Electrical, telephone and video cables were no match for the ice laden branches.

One aunt had received a windup radio for Christmas. What an opportunity! We wound up the radio, tuned into CBC, and listened as the reports came in. This was not just a local occurrence, throughout the whole region people had been cast in darkness.

The mayor of Saint-Lambert had declared a state of emergency. The Victoria Bridge had been closed due to ice build-up on the super-structure and many streets had been closed due to fallen wires and broken Hydro poles.

There was a concern that fire trucks could not pass safely in case of an emergency. People we advised to stay indoors. Hydro said that the power should be back by this evening or tomorrow morning at the latest.

On Hickson Street whole trees tumbled down. Houses, windows and cars sustained damage.

Although people were being advised to stay indoors, I ventured out on foot at first, I was amazed at how severe the damage was! Every tree had sustained some sort of damage, although the evergreens had fared somewhat better than the deciduous trees. This was serious, I thought. As I made my way gingerly over the ice, the morning calm was regularly punctuated by the sound of cracking and breaking branches. First there was a sharp crack, then the clinking sound magnified a thousand fold as the branch fell through the tree, followed by a crash as it hit the hard ice layer on the ground, then the sound of breaking glass as the ice shards scattered in every direction. I kept my eyes on the trees above so as not to be hit, all the while slipping on the wet ice underfoot. An adventure indeed!

The soft rain kept falling, the ice kept building, thicker and thicker. You could hear the trees groan under the burden.

Streets were blocked by the fallen branches. Driving was next to impossible due to the ice on the roads.

Fortunately the airport was still in operation. We managed to get the aunts who were due to leave today to a bus connecting with the airport. Lunch today was cold cuts, bread and soup heated on our Coleman camping stove.

We stoked up the fire place to keep warm as our old house was already loosing heat. Perhaps the electricity would come back any time now we thought. TV coverage would be quite interesting, we might even make the news. Not to be. I missed my Internet connection, CNN would have good stuff to be sure. We had supper at a restaurant and decided that we would all sleep in the living room in front of the fireplace. The kids were keen, this was like camping indoors. We blocked off the doorways to keep the heat in, bundled up in our sleeping bags, kept our windup radio wound and slept reasonably well.

People began to move away by the second day. Cars full of house plants, caged birds and bundled children were a common sight.

The second day was much like the first. A steady freezing rain kept falling. The city organized shelters for those without heat. Firewood was running low. My trusty chain saw refused to work. The food in the fridge began to spoil. The Coleman ran out of fuel and the Canadian Tire store was sold out already. They were doing a remarkable business in battery sales. People were buying up loads of chemical fire logs.

I could see that we were not ready. The children were sent off to relatives who still had power. My wife and I spent another night in front of the fire, Romantic maybe, but we were certain the power would be back soon. We were fortunate to have a windup flashlight so we could easily get wood from the wood pile, even in the dark. It was cold in the house and the freezing rain kept falling. Our sense of humour was wearing away.

Some snow fell, then there was more freezing rain. The attempts by the city to clear the roads resulted in huge ice covered mounds. More branches added to our misery.

On the third day we moved the family to a hotel downtown. The hotels were making space available for storm victims at reduced rates. Many of the restaurants downtown were closed because staff could not get in. Those restaurants that could open soon ran short of supplies. On the fourth day the situation worsened. Several major electricity supply lines were down since the pylons supporting them collapsed due to the weight of the ice. Our home was now at around 42 degrees F.

I wore my winter coat indoors while I stoked the fire. I would return two or three times a day to keep the fireplace going and to water the dog. The dog wore his woolen winter coat also, although he did not seem to be adversely affected. He would sleep in front of the fire place on a small warm bed we setup for him. The tropical fish began to perish, there was nothing we could do. I would chop what wood I could with my ax, but the ax was dull. I could still make coffee on the fireplace. The Coleman had frozen into a huge icy lump on the back deck. We were not prepared.

The ice load was so heavy that some trees just split in half. Every tree sustained some sort of damage. Hydro poles and transformers were knocked down.

The fifth day without power was sunny and colder. Our house was down to 38° F, the last of our tropical fish died. I would now return twice a day to try and heat the house with the fireplace. Since I had exhausted our supply of wood, I could go to get 10 pieces of wood at emergency wood supplies had been brought in by the City and the Armed Forces. The Army was conducting house to house searches trying to convince people who had remained in their homes to go to the shelters and the emergency kitchens that hat been established.

At around midnight as I took the dog for his walk, the city was nothing like I had ever seen or heard before. There was an strange silence and the only light was from the distant area of Montreal North that lit the sky a dull orange. Everyone had moved out, the city had been abandoned. Only a hearty few remained, or had returned for a few hours to heat their homes. I met my neighbour out walking his dog also. We stood and talked in this eerie night, it was very strange.

The City of Montreal’s water filtration plants were down at one point. Firefighters planned to use water from city swimming pools to fight fires.

On the sixth day I realized that the battle had been lost, with the house temperature at 35° F, I knew I had to drain the hot water radiators so as to avoid damage to the heating system. All the food in the freezer and fridge was put into garbage bags for disposal.

The seventh day brought no reprieve, The house was now at 33° F, we snuck the dog into the hotel. The staff at the hotel turned a blind eye to all the pets that had arrived with the other storm victims. The provincial government announced that starting today all those without power could get $ 10.00 per person per day disaster relief. Hydro announced that it would it would not be charging the daily service fee for hook-up to its system. ($ 0.37 per day). We were all thrilled with this news. The bridges to the city of Montreal were closed, only the tunnel remained open. What was normally a 10 minute trip would take one and one half hours.

On the morning of the eighth day, as I had done each morning previously I called our house. The answering machine come on…

It was over… Only the clean up remained.

The cleanup continued into April, some people in our area were without power till the end of January. If the electrical lines to their homes had been damaged, they had to wait for the HYDRO crews to hook them up again. Electrical contractors worked 16 to 18 hour days.

Many people sustained serious damage to their homes from water leaking in due to the ice accumulations. Two weeks after the storm, a huge sheet of ice, 8 inches thick, slid off our main roof and punched a hole in the roof of our addition. The eaves around our house sustained damage also. All this considered we got off rather lightly, some other people suffered much more than we did.