Sunday, January 06, 2008

Remembering The Great Ice Storm

The other day I was awoken by the tapping sound of freezing rain beating up against the window. And as I always do when I hear it, I couldn't help but think of La Tempête de Verglas or The Great Ice Storm.

Has it really been ten years?

I was living in the McGill University ghetto in the heart of Montreal. There had just been a big snow storm. Many of the streets hadn't been cleared. Then the freezing rain started.

By the time it was over there was so much ice on the sidewalks they had to use jackhammers to clear them.

And then the lights went out...

Outside it was brutally cold. At a convenience store on Parc Avenue they were selling candles by candlelight for five bucks each. At night the dark streets of the ghetto were deserted.... except for police cruisers slowly going by with all their lights flashing to let people know they were out there.

My new boyfriend Sébastien was away in Europe. Most of my friends had left town for the holidays. Or moved in with relatives who still had power. My friend Billy who lived next door stuck it out for a few days then moved to a temporary shelter in Place Ville Marie. But I had a pup called Kerouac. So I stayed put.

For some mysterious reason the old apartment building still had hot water...and the phone worked. After a few days when the temperature inside fell to 10 degrees I retreated to the bedroom.....filled the tub in the adjoining washroom... and slept under a mountain of duvets....with Kerouac as a hot water bottle. When the stuff in the fridge went bad I ordered pizza or chicken. Some places still delivered.

I listened to the news on a small transistor radio. When the blackout first happened and I tried it there was just eery static...all you could hear were American stations fading in and out.

And then out of the void .... loud and clear and Canadian.... came the good old CBC.

Not just bringing the latest grim news from the Great War on Darkness. How the pylons were collapsing an army of hydro workers was out there battling desperately to keep Montreal from being plunged into total gloom.

But also throwing the airwaves open to people from different parts of the they could describe what was happening to them...and how they were coping.

There was an urgency to our communication and an immediacy I have never felt before or since. We were one big telephone party line - all talking directly to each other.

People needed to hear from others... because so many were frightened.

There was a feeling that ANYTHING could happen.

And even when the lights went on again in downtown Montreal everyone feared that they could go off at any time. No one dared put on one extra light or appliance.

And the images on tv were APOCALYPTIC.

The Triangle of Darkness. Hydro workers using helicopters to smash ice on pylons. Convoys of army trucks heading down from Valcartier. Disoriented old people in crowded shelters. Thousand of dead pigs and cows being bulldozed into mass graves.

I think I read somewhere that sixty per cent of the people who lived through that storm were traumatized to some degree by it. Some say the sight of freezing rain still makes them anxious.

For me it was the most awesome story I've ever been caught up in. It was the moment I realized how FRAGILE our juiced up society really is. How you could end up as a refugee in your own city. But also how tough the people of my new country were.

I was proud of my province. It was a heroic effort. I liked the way Canadians helped each other. I'm glad I was there.

But I also have to admit that at the time there was something really disturbing...even scary... about it. A feeling that EVERYTHING was coming undone. That a natural catastrophe was on the brink of becoming an urban apocalypse.

Something I can't really explain in words. Not even to Sébastien. It's the only thing I'll NEVER be able to share with him.

Because when it comes to the Great Ice Storm. Or La Tempête de Verglas.

You really DID have to be there.


P.S. Kerouac now prefers to sleep in MY bed rather than his. And I let him. I figure the way he kept me warm during those freezing nights when he was a pup.

Now he's an old dog.... it's time to return the favour.


  1. great post simon. i remember riding via rail to quebec city in the aftermath of the storm and seeing the thousands and thousands of trees that lined the rail corridor all bent double or broken. it was an truly eerie spectacle. and the last line of the post made me tear up and scritch the ears of my creaky 19 year old cat. cheers.

  2. Anonymous10:01 AM

    when i came back to Canada yesterday, there was absolutely no snow on the ground, and the weather was warm, even though i had just spent my time in a tropical climate! Gotta love global warming.

    i also remember a time when there was only a bit of snow in toronto and they called in the army....


  3. HI PSA...thanks I enjoyed writing it.When I watched some of the videos on the Radio Canada website a whole bunch of memories came flooding back. I wanted to include a bunch of other stuff like the nightly War Room newser with the Dark Lord Lucien Bouchard and the head of Hydro....reporting on whether we were winning or losing. Megawatt by Megawatt.That was special. And you're right about the trees. When I saw what had happened on Mount Royal I was really upset. But you know I went back last summer and I could hardly notice. Isn't nature wonderful?
    As for your cat...19-years-old...that's wonderful and amazing!!!.Something tells me your furry friend has been REALLY spoiled :)

  4. Hi Rashid!!! Welcome back. Where did you go? No wait...don't tell me. Just what I need you little telling me about sandy beaches and palm trees swaying in the warm breeze...while I stare out at the Grey Abyss... :)
    I also remember when they called in the army here. But really I'm not surprised. Toronto's snow clearing operation is not good enough for a major city. Here they force homeowners to clean their own sidewalks. In Montreal they have tiny bulldozers that zip along and can clear a neighbourhood in a couple of hours.
    Of course they NEED to. Did you know that Montreal is one of the snowiest....if not THE snowiest major the world?

  5. Awwwww

    That was a great story, Simon.

    All the more reason to spend winter in Mexico!

  6. Anonymous2:05 AM

    thanks for sharing.