We had been to Saskatchewan to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. We left Moose Jaw on New Year’s Day, 1998 and arrived at our home at Acton Vale Quebec about 3:00 am Monday January 4. There was a gentle rain falling and by the time we were up and around in the morning it had turned to a freezing drizzle.
The rain got heavier toward evening and the temperature was just right that it fell as rain and instantly froze on to everything it touched. We needed to go into Montreal the next day and the ice was building up on the highways and streets, but there were ruts to drive in.
Wednesday was when the power first went out. The electric wires were encased in a thick sheath of ice and tree branches were starting to fall on the wires. We had a wood stove in the basement that kept our house warm and we could use it to warm up our food and we had a kerosene lamp for light. We felt secure in our home, but if I opened the door I could hear the crack if falling branches and every once in a while there were flashes of light from the countryside. The power lines were so heavy with ice that finally one of the wooden power poles couldn’t bear the load anymore. When one power pole fell, it took the whole power line for a mile with it.
The rain continued for two more days. Thursday there were stories of massive steel power line pylons crumpling to the ground in a heap of twisted metal. The ice on our roof was so thick that we heard a few ominous cracks, but no damage was done. Massive hardwood trees lost branches, sometimes whole trees lay on the ground. Tall evergreens lost their treetops. Other trees bent over until their tops touched the ground, then froze there. Deer were frightened by the branches falling all around them and came out of the woods to stand on the roads.
Late Friday the rain stopped. By that time most of Montreal was in the dark and the whole region south of Montreal to the Vermont border. 100,000 wooden power poles had broken and 100 steel pylons. A Columnist for La Presse (they had a generator to keep the newspaper going) wrote of leaving work in the afternoon and walking down the centre of Sherbrooke Street during what should have been rush hour. It wasn’t safe to walk on the sidewalk because of the danger of falling chunks of ice from the buildup on the buildings.
The army was called out. In our area they patrolled the streets of Acton Vale to prevent looting. In Montreal they went door to door to see if anyone needed help. This was too much for some new immigrants. One said “I knew in my head that they were coming to see if we were safe. But our fear was stronger than we were and we went to our friends. In the country I came from, when the army knocked on your door they weren’t coming to help you.”
By Monday the cleanup and rebuilding was in full swing. Quebec has the youngest farmers in Canada and they were up for whatever it took to keep their farms running. Even before the rain stopped the farm organization had located a warehouse in Tennessee full of generators. They bought them all and got them loaded on semis heading for Quebec.
Hydro Quebec called in tree service companies from neighbouring states to remove the tree branches hanging on the wires, or threatening to fall on them. They ordered massive amounts of new wooden poles from forestry companies in British Columbia. They went to a steel supplier with warehouses all across the province. They had all their inventory in all the warehouses on their computers, but there was no electricity to run the computers and no lights in the warehouse. They improvised and found all the steel needed to rebuild the pylons.
For several weeks our electricity was on and off. We had supper company one day and the lights went out just as we were about to sit down to eat. But the food was ready and we ate by lamplight. We had an evening church service, beginning with lamp light. The electricity came on during the sermon and I got up and blew out the light. A few minutes later the lights went out again and I relit the lamp. The minister was unperturbed by it all.
It seemed during the storm that everything around us was falling apart and would never be the same again. Yet three months later a newspaper columnist wrote, “We sometimes think we are poor. But we have just built an electrical distribution system in a few weeks that a lot of countries won’t have 100 years from now.”
We moved back to Saskatchewan that spring to take care of my mother. We have visited the Acton Vale area several times since and see no sign of the trauma of 22 years ago.