“I just started crying I was so happy to see them”
DND Photo Members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons clear away fallen trees during the 1998 Ice Storm. Base Petawawa deployed 1,700 troops to the disaster area in and around Ottawa, eastern Ontario and western Quebec.
Some called it the 'Storm of the Century.'
When 100 millimetres of ice pellets and freezing rain swept through Ontario and Quebec, it created one of the largest natural disasters in Canadian history. It's been 20 years since the great Ice Storm plunged more than 1.5 million homes and businesses into darkness
The unprecedented storm resulted from a combination of low-pressure warm air currents from the Gulf of Mexico and high-pressure cold currents from the Arctic. When these two weather forces collided, the warm air rose above the cold. The precipitation consequently fell as rain but froze as it reached lower altitudes. The Maritimes and the northeastern U.S. also fell victim to the same weather system, however, they were spared some of its worst effects.
The rain began falling on Jan. 5, 1998 and continued for the next five days. The severity of the storm snapped 30,000 hydro poles, flattened whole forests and drove 100,000 from their homes. Giant pylons supporting the high-power transmission lines supplying Montreal and the southern and eastern regions of Quebec buckled from the thick ice which was 78 millimetres thick in some places. It was grim for those trying to hang on in unheated homes. Temperatures dropped to -15 Celcius.
With the crisis growing and a state of emergency declared, the Canadian Forces ordered 15,700 personnel into the disaster area – the largest deployment since the Korean War. Spearheading the response in Ottawa, eastern Ontario and parts of western Quebec were troops from CFB Petawawa's 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (2CMBG). Rolling out of the base, 1,700 soldiers, along trucks, supplies and equipment headed for Ottawa where they reorganized at the Corel Centre. Operation: Recuperation soon became the largest peacetime mobilization in Canadian history. The storm initially shut down Ottawa, Montreal, Kingston, Saint-Hyacinthe and Granby preventing 2.6 million people from going to work. Power and criticial services were soon restored to most cities, with the exception of Montreal which became known as the 'Triangle of Darkness.'
Towns and villages outside the larger urban zones were more adversely impacted by the storm. It was these desperate communities that Petawawa troops focused their attention. Their mission primarily was to assist civilian relief agencies and government departments, such as Ontario Hydro, provide shelter and medical care, restore power to homes and aid in the clean-up.
However, their biggest objective was to prevent the loss of life. Police, soldiers and firefighters went door-to-door in residential neighbourhoods, checking to see if residents of unheated buildings should be ordered to shelters. It was similarly grave in rural areas. The loss of electrical power deeply affected pig and cattle farmers, as they could no longer provide water or adequate ventilation to their barns full of livestock. Many barns collapsed under the weight of the ice, killing the animals inside (10 million litres of milk had to be discarded). The ice storm had created several dangerous situations for those trying to cope with it.
For example, a family in Chelsea, Quebec became overcome by the exhaust fumes from a portable generator. Members of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment were on patrol with the municipality's fire department when they received an emergency call. Private Chris Smith, along company medics Cpl. Randy Murphy and Cpl. Hank Theissan, responded with firefighters to the home where they found the woman and her children were being overcome by carbon monoxide.
Spending six days covering the ice storm for the former Petawawa Messenger, I had the chance to hear these stories and speak with these soldiers. Many were veterans of peace support missions in Cyprus, Bosnia, Croatia, Somalia and Rwanda. Now they were helping their fellow Canadians in their hour of need. In several instances they found themselves responding to serious emergencies.
Across the affected regions, downed power lines had confined other homeowners to their properties. In Metcalfe just south of Ottawa, members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons rescued an elderly man from his home after neighbours discovered he couldn't leave becaused power lines blocked the entrance to the man's roadway. Marilyn Moffat, a registered nurse, informed Cpl. Paul Graham, Master Cpl. Terry Brake and Cpl. Mike McColeman that the 79-year-old had contracted pneumonia and needed to be taken to hospital.
While Graham took an LSVW truck and drove it cross country to find another way in, Brake and McColeman followed Moffat and attended to the man. They decided to transport him in Moffat's car to the end of the lane. There they cautiously lifted the senior citizen over the wires and placed him in a van which transported him to the hospital in nearby Winchester.
Petawawa soldiers stepped in to save other lives in ice storm-weary communities. In Goulbourn Township, Gunner Garnet Binns, with 2nd Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery (2RCHA), saved a couple from carbon monoxide poisoning. Patrolling in Munster Hamlet, Binns was flagged down by a local who reported their neighbours were in trouble. Rushing to the home, Binns saw a disorientated man stumbling at the doorway. The artilleryman helped the homeowner outside before entering the dwelling to bring out the man's wife. They had been overcome by fumes from a generator that was running in their garage.
The gunners of 2RCHA also rushed to the aid of a 10-year-old girl who crashed her toboggan at her family farm. The girl flipped two feet in the air before landing on her back. Gunner Harold Bromley and Bombardier Tim Jacquard were operating generators to heat the farm's barn to keep its livestock alive when they saw the child lying on her back going into shock. They covered her in a blanket, stabilized the girl's head and neck and then stretchered the victim to the ambulance. She ended up with a fractured leg but would recover.
Just the reassuring sight of the troops was enough to alleviate fears. Monique Labelle was overcome with emotion when she saw a convoy of military trucks pull into Casselman, east of Ottawa.
“I just started crying I was so happy to see them,” she said. Janet Stavinga, mayor of Goulbourn, simply told me: “I'm very glad they're here.”
Speaking to the nation by radio, Prime Minister Jean Chretien aimed his words directly at the victims: “We know the terrific personal toll this crisis is exacting. We know communities are pulling together as never before. And this darkness is being lighted by thousands of individual acts of kindness. Everything that is humanly possible is being done to restore order to your daily lives. You are not alone and you will not be alone as long as you are in need.”
The major task in western Quebec for Para and Oscar companies of 3RCR were clearing roads blocked by fallen trees. For the infantrymen, their work became restricted to the precious daylight hours they had because cutting trees near power lines proved to be too risky at night. In Vankleek Hill and Hawkesbury, the challenge was flooding for 2 Combat Engineer Regiment. The scale of the disaster was spectacular. The RCD's 'B' Squadron were responsible for eight communities in Osgood Township, an area that cover 400 square kilometres. The squadron not only distributed food and water to community halls but assisted volunteer firefighters in battling two structural fires.
“You can see how things can disintegrated in such a short period of time,” squadron commander Major Bernie Derible told me. He likened the ice storm to the collapse of society that he witnessed in Rwanda.
Across the disaster zone, military police from 2 Military Police Platoon joined OPP in patrolling to ward off looters. The blackout provided plenty of opportunity for it but the weather was tough even for the criminal element. Driving past homes with no light in window and streets shrouded in darkness, future 2CMGB sergeant-major Shawn Mercer told me it reminded him of patrolling through bombed out villages and towns in Bosnia. But the morale and logistical support from the military couldn't have been understated.
“They've been just superb - professional, efficient and accommodating,” Ottawa-Carleton regional chairman Bob Charelli, who would go on to be an MPP and provincial cabinet minister, told me after a meeting with Brig.-Gen. Rick Hillier, then the commander of 2CMBG. “We have nothing but compliments for them.”
Not only did they deliver their own supplies but the blankets, candles, food and fuel donated by Canadians from coast-to-coast. The soldiers, themselves, became viewed as rock stars, especially by the kids.
“When I told my daughter the military was coming she was afraid,” John Menard, an emergency centre co-ordinator in Limoges, a village in the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, told me. “Now she can't stay away from them.”
The troops would stop by the shelters in the evenings to join in card games with the adults or board games with the kids. Some would just sit and engage in conversations with the evacuees or relief exhausted volunteers in the kitchen.
As the crisis continued, firewood became a rarer commodity than food and water. In Goulbourn Township, 2RCHA drove around delivering firewood to those residents who were holding out in their own homes. It was especially tough for the elderly. Warrant Officer Tippy Graham, who was himself a native of Manotick, told me of one family that was contemplating chopping up the kitchen table to feed to the fireplace.
Operation Recuperation saw some military units deployed until February of that year. The Great Ice Storm claimed 35 lives and injured more than 900 people. It was Canada's most expensive natural disaster causing $5.4 billion in damages. It did have one silver lining as the men and women of CFB Petawawa formed lifelong friendships with communities, whose citizens were grateful for the timely deliverance.
Governor General Roméo LeBlanc put it best when he said, “In Canada's worst storm, the world witnessed the best in our Armed Forces.”