Recalling a Canadian natural disaster
By Carey Fredericks
Jan. 3, 2008
There is, of course, no such thing as a routine emergency. Those words are an oxymoron – every emergency brings its own set of unique challenges that test first responders. Some, however, are more challenging than others.
Quietly, we are coming up on the 10th anniversary of one of the biggest natural disasters in Canadian history. Almost exactly 10 years ago, a routine low pressure system developed over southwestern Quebec and eastern Ontario bringing freezing rain to that region. It was hardly news.
But from Jan 5 to 10, 1998, freezing rain fell for 80 hours and it became not just news, but a catastrophic event that destroyed a large portion of Quebec’s power grid, left 4 million people without power in the dead of winter, killed more than 25 Canadians and pushed fire, EMS and hydro crews to exhaustion. Their work deserves a moment of reflection.
It seems hard to believe it’s been 10 years. My family was living in Ottawa at the time (just down the street from the Lincoln Heights fire station) and my memories are vivid. Miraculously, we never lost our hydro for an extended period. I was working as an editor with Southam News and my husband was Ottawa bureau chief for The Canadian Press. We didn’t see a lot of each other that week as the usual fare of capital-region political news gave way to human drama. He was dispatched to Montreal to help with coverage of the disaster while I managed the home front – our steady hydro supply turned our home into refuge for less fortunate friends and colleagues looking to escape the cold and darkness at home. We discussed the storm last night, both of us recalling details we’d forgotten – the plan to put our boys on a plane out of Ottawa to family in Nova Scotia if we lost our electricity; the shortage of bread and milk for a few days and, especially, the leadership of first responders all over the city and region.
The buzz of chainsaws was a reassuring reminder that help was on scene.
Some 14,000 members of the armed forces were deployed to help deal with the disaster’s impact, but for me it’s the crews and their saws I’ll remember.
You can read more on the storm and its impact here.