One of the reasons that I started my blog was to “share all the greatest things in my journey through this life” (see ‘About’). One of the most eventful natural disasters I experienced was the great Ice Storm of 1998. Even today, it’s common to talk about what you did during ‘The Ice Storm’ and how long you were without power.
It all began on the morning of January 5th, 1998 with freezing rain causing a “snow day”. By the next morning we awoke to a power outage – not unusual in the winter in Canada. The house was cold and rather dark, so we made a fire in both woodstoves, upstairs and downstairs, and soon we were nice and cozy. The youngest 3 kids lined up on chairs in front of the fire to warm up while we scurried around locating candles, sitting in the truck to listen to the radio, and making a cold breakfast. At the end of our laneway, the power line was broken and laying across our driveway. We telephoned Ontario Hydro and reported the “downed line” and the lady in Toronto alarmingly cautioned us to STAY AWAY from it before we got electrocuted – we reiterated again that there was no power anywhere! Note: cordless phones didn’t work – luckily we still had a old corded phone.
Ice Storm Day 1
We decided that a trip into town was called for, to find out what was going on and get some more news. When we got to town, there was no power there as well – no gas stations could pump gas; no banks could dispense money; some stores were dark, but open. We had remembered to bring a flashlight and helped shine our light for a while so others could see in the darkest corner of the milk isle. The poor cashiers had to actually add up the totals with a shared hand calculator and payment was by cash or cheque only. The news was not good – most of Eastern Ontario, West Quebec, and upper New York State were without electricity. The freezing rain had taken down power lines and even tall hydro towers crumpled under the weight of the ice. Arriving home that first day, we decided to make the best of it during the daylight : the neighbourhood kids came over in the afternoon for board games and playtime since it was too dangerous outside with all the ice falling off the trees. We went out for dinner that night at a local restaurant which cooked with propane and had a lovely warm fireplace and candles everywhere! Many of our neighbours were there as well so we discussed the situation and how ‘novel’ it was. Many of us out in the country have woodstoves, so keeping warm wasn’t a problem. My husband brought in a car battery and wired up some “car” lightbulbs (Battery/DC powered) at the top and bottom of the stairs, so we could see our way to the bathroom through the night – he was SO resourceful! That evening, we moved all our refrigerator foods out into the mudroom bathroom, which stayed at a cool 5 degrees Celsius (40 F). And our frozen food was moved to coolers at the north side of house, until we could BBQ or cook it daily.
Day 2: Same thing – freezing rain and no power. We cooked a hot breakfast on our woodstove downstairs as it had a better cooking surface. More games for the kids. After taking ‘orders’ from neighbours, Chris did a “supplies run” into the city, for items like batteries, candles, and kerosene – it looked like the electricity wasn’t coming on anytime soon. Surprisingly, the roads were in great shape.
Day 3: After all the mild temperatures, our sump pump pit was rapidly filling with water and I was getting concerned that the downstairs was going to flood if we didn’t pump it out within the next 24 hours. We baled about sixty 5 gallon buckets of water that day up a flight of stairs. Well at least we had clean water to flush the toilets and wash up. I called around to every single store within 100 kms to rent or even buy a generator and was already out of luck. Just by chance, my husband phoned up an old school chum who owned a Home Hardware Store in his hometown and luckily we got a generator. THAT saved us from disaster!
That morning, the Region declared a State of Emergency.
Day 4: With a generator, life got abit easier. We kept the sump pit empty and a few lights on. AND WATCHED TV! It was at this point that we realized how serious this situation was – National news broadcasts were reporting ‘live’, in the dark, from Montreal. The pictures of the devastation were breathtaking……in a horrible way. The media described it as post-apocalyptic. In town, some gas stations were now pumping gas thanks to generators, but most stores and banks remained closed. So we were able to keep the genny running outdoors during the day. Fearful of theft and respectful for the silence, we opted to shut our generator off at night while we slept.
Day 5 : We heard that the Community Centre in town had opened up as an emergency shelter, so we decided to take the cooped-up kids to check it out. It was wonderful! Their school friends were there to play with and all the church ladies had made hot meals right there. A local plumber even hooked up a shower in a toilet stall! Huge generators had been brought in to keep the place running and Bell Telephone brought in a bank of phones to use -free long distance. Many Bell switching stations’ back-up generators were stolen in the early days until they hired security guards – the phone lines were also down. Our relatives across the province were glad to hear that we were safe and okay since they had been unable to reach us for days knowing what was going on. A few days later, the army showed up helping with everything from serving meals, to playing with the children, to packing firewood into milk crates (every day, we would get a truckload of “milkcrate firewood” to distribute to our neighbours who didn’t have a winter supply).
We learned that other people were in dire straights with no heat and overflowing sump pump pits. Every afternoon, my husband would take our generator and go around firing up peoples’ furnaces and emptying their water for one hour per household – with a list of people provided by the town’s emergency headquarters. And after we went to bed around 9, he would take the genny and do the same thing, helping others all night long. One night him and our neighbour even got stopped by the police who were asking about “their business in town so late at night” (looters? thieves?) until they explained what they were doing and showed the list from the town……
Day 6 + : The freezing rain finally stopped and the sun came out! However, it was still VERY dangerous outside since everything was covered in thick ice. Trees had been crashing down every 10 seconds all week – one Veteran told us that it was just like Vietnam during the shelling in the war. We began going to the community center in the middle of the day so the kids could play and we could catch up on the latest developments as to when the power was going to come back on, while we ate a lovely hot meal. Nobody knew anything, especially the Hydro electricity people – they didn’t even know where the lines ran to-and-from! Schools remained closed for 2 weeks.
I think we were settling into a new way of life – a new routine – without electricity. Neighbours grew closer and looked out for each other.
On January 19th, 1998 at 10:13 a.m. Oakville Power showed up on our road and started to repair the fallen lines! Soon afterwards our electricity came back on. We actually didn’t realize it was back since we had turned off the main power breaker. Power utility companies from all over Ontario and the northeastern United States came to assist in repairing wires and getting the power back up and running. Honestly, it was actually annoying to hear the humming of all the electric things in the house after weeks of silence.
And all this because two weather fronts, one cold and one warm, collided and locked horns for 5 days right over our heads……..an El Niño year.
Living without electricity for a few weeks was a real eye opener. It made us realize -immediately and in your face- that it’s smart to prepare for life’s little surprises. Having a source of heat, food, and water were the most important. This sudden and unplanned experience was a good wake-up call for us to be more prepared. The government encourages Canadians to “be prepared to cope on their own for at least the first 72 hours of an emergency” http://www.getprepared.gc.ca/index-eng.aspx . Clearly, 72 hours isn’t near enough. Having enough supplies for several weeks or months is the more prudent thing to do.
After the Ice Storm, we replaced the woodstove upstairs with a cookstove that heats the house and cooks the food. We also invested in a large 10,000 watt generator and wired the house to run off it, if necessary. In 1999, we prepared for Y2k, just in case. The 2003 Blackout, which caused a cascading failure in the electrical grid over much of Ontario and the northeastern U.S. putting 55 million people in the dark, didn’t cause alot of panic at this house. We started up the 10k generator (the little genny went to the new neighbour’s to keep their fridge running and a few lights on) and we continued with a neighbourhood “patio” party on our back porch, playing guitar and singing under the LED patio umbrella lights!
Ice Storm 1998 *
P.S. I will update with some of my Ice Storm Photos……whenever I find my 1998 Photo Album!