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 ...how 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 city...so 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.