Friends of the Richelieu. A river. A passion.

"Tout cedit pays est fort uny, remply de forests, vignes & noyers. Aucuns Chrestiens n'estoient encores parvenus jusques en cedit lieu, que nous, qui eusmes assez de peine à monter le riviere à la rame. " Samuel de Champlain

"All this region is very level and full of forests, vines and butternut trees. No Christian has ever visited this land and we had all the misery of the world trying to paddle the river upstream." Samuel de Champlain

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Le grand verglas de 1998

Le 6 janvier 1998, je commençais à comprendre qu'on n'était pas sorti du bois. C'était clair que la panne de courant durerait plus que quelques heures. En fait, chez moi, nous avons dû survivre sans électricité pendant 26 jours, et ce pendant les plus grands froids de l'hiver.

Pour quelqu'un qui n'a jamais vécu cela, c'est difficile de comprendre comment cet évènement est resté marqué de façon indélébile dans mon esprit. Je ne le souhaiterais pas à mon pire ennemi.

How We Survived The Ice Storm of January 1998

This is the letter I sent to family members and friends:

You may have heard of the great ice storm of January 1998, and the following electrical black-out, mainly on the South Shore of Montreal. I would like to give you an idea of how we are all dependent on electricity for our day to day activities.

The freezing rain started on January 6, and kept on for 5 days. In the end, the ice covered everything with a 3 to 4 inch thick sheet. Pylons, poles and wires snapped, transformers blew, and at night, you could see the light show through your closed eyelids.

Outside, while the freezing rain fell at a temperature of around 20 to 25 degrees F, covering the foot deep snow on the ground already everything became slippery as glass. When branches snapped, ice and wood would come crashing down, bringing more ice and branches on the way. The noise was continuous, walking under wires and trees put your life in danger ( a small piece of ice 4" X 4" X 2" seemed to weigh as much as a brick) and the all white ground concealed mounds and depressions, creating a visual white-out. We had to take out our studded fishing boots after Tim, my spouse, fell on the ice on the 5th day and cracked a few ribs.

Only necessity and prevention justified a trip outside during that first week: de-icing the van so we could use it as an emergency vehicle (we had to keep it running for an hour each day so that the ice would start to unglue from the surface of the van), de-icing the two back doors that could be emergency exits in case of a fire, and finally sprinkling with gravel a path to the wood pile so we could bring in the wood for the stove and stay warm.

On the second day, my mother living alone in an electric heated house found that it was getting too cold even to read, so we had to cross the river to Chambly to go and get her and her Persian cat. By the week-end, we figured we had to winterise her house, since the nighttime temperatures started to dip below zero F. Tim stayed home holding his ribs and gave me instructions by phone to shut the water main, empty the water pipes, put anti-freeze in all her drains and toilet bowl and finally empty her hot water tank. I also had to trip her hot water tank breaker so that the tank would not overheat when the electricity came back. Once in my home, my mother wanted to help me bring in wood and de-ice the van and back doors, but we had to explain that we could not risk having her fall on the ice and break her bones. She kept insisting and we had to get quite firm with her on that subject. We all had frayed nerves.

The electric power went out on January 6 and came back at my mother's on January 18 and January 22 at my place. Here's the day to day routine inside: during the cold snap, wood had to be put in the stove every 4 hours, day and night. At night, sleeping in a separate bedroom with my mother, the temperature in the room probably went down to 50F, 62F in the main room by the stove where Tim slept on a camping cot. Daytime temperature in the house was around 70F.

All our big pots and pans were filled with water and were crammed on the wood stove surface. Even washing hands with the icy cold water straight from the tap was worth a pot full of hot water fetched from the stove and poured in the sink. By January 10, my hot water tank was cooling down, so we all had a last hot shower, suspecting it would be a while before we could do that again. After that, sponge baths were the norm, dumping pots of hot water in the sink and going from there. I once washed my hair with a pail full of warm water sitting in the bathtub, kneeling head down in the tub and scooping water on my head.

We sometimes had to hand wash a few bare essentials (panties, socks) that were running out. It took two days to dry, even when hung near the wood stove. Needless to say, the dishwasher was used as a hideaway for dirty dishes which we would wash every other day by hand. My mother was happy to help out with that chore.

Food was cooked on the wood stove, but had to be kept cold in a balancing act between the below freezing garage and the 40F cold room in the basement. I had a lot of frozen food leftovers from the Christmas turkey, stuffing and gravy, a big batch of spaghetti meat sauce frozen in small portions and had baked four meat pies on January 4th and frozen. All food was kept in our many camping coolers to protect it from the field mice that share my home, especially during the winter. A meal had to be planned by the stove, a mental list taken of all the necessary ingredients, then I had to put on my coat, bring a tray and take a trip across the dark basement to the coolers in the garage. A forgotten item meant a return trip again and was avoided at all cost.

The sun came up at 8AM and went down at 4:30PM, which meant that all activities needing a lot of light had to be done during that interval: reading, knitting (my mother), washing (ourselves, clothes and dishes), bringing in the wood for the stove. After sundown, candles, propane lanterns (thank God for camping equipment) and oil lamps were lit, and walking around with a flashlight (we each had our own) was standard procedure. After supper, we tried playing cards, but we were all too exhausted and just wanted to curl around the stove and went to bed early, but not before hand grinding the coffee beans for next morning's coffee.

Montreal had power back quite quickly, some sectors lost power for only a few hours. But the surrounding countryside where I live had to wait a little longer. Tim and I both continued to work. Tim had his laptop computer working on his Avanti car battery and motorcycle batteries. I had to go downtown Montreal because my company considered themselves an essential service. I missed work only one day on January 9th because the bus company decided to stop operating for a few days because electrical wires had fallen across one of their routes. They eventually worked out an alternative route and started running again on January 13th.

Tim's building in Montreal had closed for a few days at the request of the electric company so that the downtown core of Montreal did not shut down because of over abuse of the fragile grid that kept it on line. So Tim actually worked more days than his work companions because he worked from home. I had a hard time getting around in Montreal because ice sheets would come tumbling down from the high-rises, so a lot of streets were closed to pedestrians. I would walk around with my thickest tuque on my head and an open umbrella for protection (yeah, sure!).

To go to work, I had to use an old crank Big Ben clock to wake me up, get dressed in the dark (no blouses because of no ironing). I had to wear pants (which my boss hates) because I used to shave my legs with an electric razor. I waited to get to work to do my hair because I could hardly see myself in the mirror at home. Color coordinating my clothes was next to impossible by candlelight. I have to walk one mile to the bus stop, which I don't mind usually, but it sure feels different when there are no street lights! On the day before I went to work, I had to bring in wood to last a day and a half so that Tim could let his ribs mend. At work, being a receptionnist and having no mail to sort (no postal service and no courriers either), I was happy to sit in the warmth and the light and let my body recuperate. On my first lunchhour, I went out and bought Tim a corset at a pharmacy for his cracked ribs. Riding the bus back home, my heart sank when we came back to black streets and homes, leaving the city lights to return to the darkness.

At first, Tim recharged his batteries by running the van a few hours. Then he bought a solar panel that we moved around inside the house from window to window to follow the sun (we did not dare put it outside, did not want to get it stolen). Finally, we went to Canadian Tire and bought a new generator. It was sold as new, but had been used and the motor was blown. Next day, they found us another one, but that one would not generate. We finally got our money back thanks to a call from Quebec consumers' Protection, but Tim did not help his ribs any by lugging that thing back and forth. He finally found a reconditioned generator at our local hardware store and wired a mini electrical system throughout the house to recharge batteries, light fluorescent lamps, a bit of TV and music, and even a laundry load or two (using hot water from the wood stove). Only one luxury was permitted to run at a time.

Finally, my mother got her power back on January 18th. So we packed her things, went to her place to turn on the heat, turn on the water and fill up her hot water tank. Her house had went down to 40F. Her houseplants were not very happy, but they survived. While settling her back in, I did a few laundry loads.

I got the power back on the 22d. I differed the heat from my electric air furnace to the basement that was now down to 50F. It was a relief to let it take over at night and having a full night's sleep. On the 23d of January, I relaxed a bit, did some vacuuming (can you imagine a house with 3 people, 3 cats and a wood stove for 2 weeks and a half without vacuuming? Dust bunnies and much more were having a ball!).

Then, on the 24th, just when my body was healing nicely, one foot of snow fell. We do not hire a contractor to open our driveway so that the exercise keeps me in shape for the gardening season. Guess what I was doing with my spare time now! After that, the outside temperature plummet. This morning the 27th, when we got up, the thermometer read minus 20F below zeero! Never a dull moment! About 120,000 people still don't have electricity on this day, some of them distant neighbors.

Tim has lots of plans for back-up systems and alternative sources of energy. I will leave him the pleasure of explaining all his plans in technical details (if you can stand it).

I am sure I am forgetting a few things, like how, during all this time, we were still flipping the light switch on in the bathroom each time we had to go there. Or how gifts received from past birthdays and Christmases have finally been appreciated to their fullest: candle wick and weather radio from Tim's mother, a shortwave mini AM-FM on batteries that kept us abreast of all the news, or this candle passion of mine that finally paid off! I also made sure my bird feeders were kept full during all this time, and reminded everybody I met to do the same, as it could not have been easy for them either. I will always remember the sight of neighbors' kids playing hockey on their ice skates in the back field (yes, on the sheet of ice on the snow!).

All in all, we are quite proud of ourselves, because we are survivors of the '98 ICE STORM!

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