News Local

Ice Storm memories

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer

It is considered one of Eastern Canada's worst natural disasters in recorded history.


Twenty years ago, what has become known as the great ice storm struck Eastern Ontario and Quebec, as well as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia  , and border areas along northern New York to central Maine.

From Jan. 5-10, 1998 the region was lashed with freezing rain the likes of which hadn't been seen before. Ice storms had happened before, but never of this duration. The weight of successive days of ice brought down trees and power lines everywhere, even dragging down mighty transmission towers.

The subsequent and widespread power outage kept some people in the dark for weeks afterwards, with sheets of ice and splintered trees isolating those in rural areas for nearly as long. The damage was estimated to be $5 to $7 billion US.

Some 16,000 Canadian troops were dispatched to assist in disaster relief, 12,000 in Quebec, and 4,000 in Ontario, one of the largest deployments of soldiers since the Korean War. More than 1,000 came from Garrison Petawawa, who were sent to the harder hit areas in Eastern Ontario, south of Renfrew to Cornwall and beyond.

Petawawa Mayor Bob Sweet said he remembers the ice storm as being the worst natural disaster storm he has ever seen. While Petawawa and Pembroke were fortunate to not be hit as hard by it – neither community lost power for any length of time – it did certainly affect things.

“It tested a lot of natural disaster plans and made us think long and hard of what we had in place,” he said. Up to that point in time, no one had considered a scenario involving a massive ice storm and the kind of havoc it played.

Sweet recalls more than a thousand soldiers from Garrison Petawawa heading out to help people, to supply generators, food, water and emergency transportation services to areas hardest hit by the storm. The large armoured vehicles the military had were often the only way to get to isolated areas.

He said it was a good reminder Canada's armed forces exist to protect Canadians first and foremost, both domestically as well as overseas.

Sweet said he also thinks of the exceptional way people rallied to help neighbours and strangers alike in their hour of need, from supplying food, supplies and generators, to checking to make sure people were all right.

“It wads a trying time, but we're the much stronger for it,” he said.

Peter Emon, Renfrew reeve, was in the centre of the storm when he lived and worked as a township councillor in what was then Bagot-Blythfield-Brougham Township, now part of Greater Madawaska. He said they lost power for three to 10 days depending on where one lives in the municipality, and many local roads were blocked by heaps of fallen trees.

“We had a rudimentary emergency plan, but nothing for something of this scale,” Emon said. Phone service was knocked out, and in an age when cell phones weren't plentiful and coverage was spotty at best, the only solution was to try and find a public phone somewhere that did work.

Still, he said they got through it.

“This happened during a period when you could get about with snow machines,” Emon said. Volunteers with the Calabogie Snowmobile Club paired up with the volunteer fire department to head out. Using a grid search, they methodically checked residents' homes to make sure they were okay, and delivered items like water and fire wood to those that needed it.

He said food wasn't really an issue as many residents always stocked up, and most had stoves, fireplaces and wood burning furnaces, with plenty of firewood on hand. Anyone who lacked ways to keep warm would be paired with people who did have heat until the crisis was over.

Emon said he went to Cornwall and Petawawa to rent generators for the township as none could be found nearby, and they had to break into Calabogie Public School to set up a warming centre which had an electricity supply through generators. He added he contacted the Renfrew County District School Board after the fact to explain - heading to Renfrew to find a public phone that worked – and they were okay with it.

Fortunately, the township was spared medical emergencies or accidents of its residents, so they just needed to keep monitoring the situation until the lights went on.

Emon said they learned valuable lessons from the experience: to make sure one had warming centres set up and obtain a good supply of accurate and detailed maps of the area to aid in checking in on residents to make sure they are okay.

“More than anything else, people wanted information,” he said, on how their relatives and neighbours were doing, when roads would be cleared, when services would be restored. 

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