Lisette Renaud - Canada - 12/26/2007
The 1998 Montreal ice storm
Saturday, January 4, 1998, weather warnings were issued that an ice storm was on its way. It had already started creating havoc in the Ottawa region and was now moving east toward Montreal. We had been hearing about a coming storm for a couple of days, but most did not pay much attention to it. After all, Montrealers were used to this kind of weather. It would not be our first ice storm. We would just wait it out. The Christmas season was over, the children were getting ready to return to school and life was slowly returning to normal... so we thought.
Sunday evening, January 5th, the ice rain started falling and everything it touched was immediately transformed into sparkling and shimmering objects that made everything look like a wonderland. It was simply magnificent and though I would have loved to stay up to admire the beautiful scenery, I had to retire for the night since I would have to leave for work early the next morning, around 5:30 am, for my long bus and metro ride across the city.
We were all snuggled into bed, Jonathan our orange tabby keeping our feet warm, when we were awakened in the middle of the night by a loud crashing noise coming from outside. We jumped out of bed and ran to the window.
Outside, the beautiful ice covered trees were bending or snapping by the weight of the ice. The back yard and lane were littered with broken branches and trees. The clotheslines were stretched to their limit. Everything was covered with a thick coat of ice and though it was still beautiful to see, it now looked dangerous. We began to see at a distance flashes of orange light as power transformers shorted out. Then we heard a terrible crashing sound coming from the front of the house. Rushing to the front window, we saw that a large branch from the big beautiful tree in front of our house had crashed on the stairs.
We had never witnessed anything like this before. "How am I going to get to work?". I had to go to work or we would not get any money. Robert had been diagnosed with a very rare disease a few months earlier and was unable to work. The only income we had was from my secretarial job at a chemical plant at the other end of the city.
At 5:20 am, Robert helped me walk to the corner to catch my bus. It was so slippery; we had to hold on to fences all along the sidewalk, to keep from falling, while dodging falling branches. The road was littered with broken branches. We were the only ones crazy enough to be out on the street. It was still dark outside, but the streetlights helped us find our way among the debris.
We noticed as we walked, that some houses were without power. We still had some, at least when he had left the house. Robert kissed be goodbye and headed back home. "I'll call you when I get to work".
My bus was quite late arriving. I was surprised it even showed up at all. Some city crews had begun clearing the debris from major bus routes, but more trees and branches kept falling. When I finally made it to the metro station, which was only a few blocks away, I was quite relieved. Inside the subway, one couldn't tell a major storm was raging outside. My 2-hour trip to work consisted of taking one bus, 1 metro and two other buses. Well I had made this far, so I felt I would be OK. Surely by the time I would be off work, things would be pretty much back to normal.
The conversation on the subway, by the few who had braved the storm, was obviously the weather. Some were saying they were already without power at home, so they hoped their work place would be OK. At least there, they would be warm. When I got to the end of my metro ride and came above ground to take my next bus, things did not look too bad, at least much better that where I had come from. I finally made it to work only about half an hour later than usual, however it was 7:56 and I was on time. "Thank you Father! " I whispered under my breath.
I called home to let Robert know I had made it OK. We still had power at home. Good, everything would be fine. In the office, everyone was listening to the news to hear what was happening in the city. Reports of power outages, falling trees, damage to cars and houses due to falling trees were getting pretty wide spread. I called Robert in late morning and found out the power had gone out at our place too. However Robert said, "Don't worry, we have heat". Thank you Father! Then I remembered that when we first moved to this particular, our landlord had wanted to convert the natural gas furnace and hot water tank to electric, like the majority of houses in Montreal, but that we had requested he keep it to natural gas. It was radiant heat from a tall narrow furnace in the hallway, and did not require electricity to start. My Sovereign God knew all about this. He knows the end from the beginning.
At work, the lights flickered a few times, which prompted a move to pull all the old black phones out of storage, because no fancy electrical phone would work in a power failure. Around 3 pm, we lost power. Most employees were sent home, while some key people stayed behind trying to locate a generator etc... "Don't come back to work until we call you. We will try to get a generator. We can't do anything unless we have power". I thought, "Yes, I'd much rather be home with my husband during this crisis. Thank you Father!"
It was now 3:30 pm and darkness was starting to fall. Though it had stopped raining, trees were still snapping and falling. Most of the bus routes were running but with fewer buses than usual, so the wait was quite long. The area where I worked (Pointe aux Trembles) was only partially in the dark. Some sections still had power. Finally made to the metro station. I was trying to put all this behind me, thinking that life would soon be back to normal, when I was brought back to reality with an announcement coming from a loud speaker. "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. Some metro lines have now lost power. Should this happen to this line, the metro cars have enough power to get you to the next metro station, where surface buses will take you to your destination. These surface buses will take the exact same route as the metro"...
Though I'm sure it was meant to reassure passengers, it actually did the opposite. "Father, I said, you promised to take care of your children. I am your child. Father, I put my life in your hands. I know you will take care of me and I thank you Lord".
The bus rides were quite interesting. I saw so many people, with fear and worry on their faces, probably wondering what awaited them once they got home. The sector where we lived was in total darkness. The bus drivers had no idea where the bus stops were and even had difficulty finding the right streets to turn on to. Many where equipped with flashlights. The only light that could be seen was from the headlights from the few cars or buses on the road. Once I got onto my street, it was treacherous to walk among the debris in the darkness. Because the sky was completely overcast, there was no light from the moon or stars, just total darkness. Some brave souls were going around with flashlights checking up on people.
I finally made it home to find my husband sitting at the kitchen table listening to the battery operated radio by candlelight. I was so grateful to my heavenly Father for bringing me home safely to a warm house. We had heat, we had water to drink, hot water to bathe, we had food, bathroom facilities. We had all the necessities of life. We had a wonderful cold supper and then went to bed and listened to the radio, thanking God for His mercy.
But the news was not good. Another ice storm was on its way. Shelters were beginning to open all over the city in places where there was still power. Many had to leave their homes. It was getting too cold in their unheated houses or apartments. The sick and the elderly were the most vulnerable. Some, who had no battery operated radios and therefore completely unaware that another storm was on its way, thought they would wait it out. Some were found freezing in their own homes, in terrible shape and were taken to the hospital, and some people died of hypothermia. Most hospitals were operating at minimum capacity on back up generators. Many roads and bridges became too dangerous to travel on and were closed.
The next day brought more of the same. Now shortages were being felt all over. Most of the gas pumps were not operating because of the power failure. Those who were had long line-ups and rations were being imposed. Candles, batteries, water and many other necessities were in short supply. No trucks were able to bring in supplies as road were closed. Most stores, services and banks were closed. Most interac machines did not work. Those who did were emptying quickly. The ice storm brought out the best and the worse in people. There was much price gouging reported on the media. Generators, candles, batteries were being sold for twice the price. However there was also a spirit of sharing. Some people who had power were offering to take in people in need or taking pets for people who needed to go to shelters. Pets were not allowed in the shelters.
Outside the rain was falling again and the ice on the cars was getting thicker by the minute. Our car, like most of the others parked on the streets, was stuck in ice and could not be moved. We would try to break the ice forming on the car, but more would build up instantly, so we gave up. Even if we had managed to free the car enough to get it started, we couldn't have gone anywhere, because of the debris on the road and most other roads (except for bus routes) were nearly impassable. Besides where could we go? The gas tank was low, the banks were closed, most stores were also closed and without cash, it would be almost impossible to buy anything, that's if you could find something to buy. So we stayed in our little kitchen talked and listened to the radio and waited. Since are supply of batteries was running low, we had to ration our listening time. Our phone line was very noisy, but it was still working. We were able to reassure our children at the other end of country that we were OK. Other members of our family, though struggling, were faring pretty good also.
During that incredible week, we were able to help others at our place, since we had heat, hot water, running water and bathroom facilities; quite a luxury in times like these! In the afternoon, I received a call from work that they had acquired a generator and would be open for business the next day, even though they would be operating at a minimum capacity.
Early Wednesday morning (January 8th), in the dark, but this time equipped with a flashlight to find my way around the fallen debris on the road, I made my way to the bus stop. I waited and waited but no bus came, so I walked the few blocks to the nearest metro station. I was at work around 9am. It had taken me 31/2 hours to get to work. I was cold and tired, but grateful to be in a safe place. "Thank you Father for being with me!"
Things were deteriorating pretty fast. A small battery operated TV was brought in to work, to keep up with the developing story. At home, things were still the same inside, though outside looked more and more like a war zone. We saw reports of pylons, these large towers that hold electrical wires, tumbling like dominoes under the weight of the ice, were quite alarming. It would be weeks, even months to repair them. Some shelters were relocated because they experienced loss of power. That day, January 8, 1998 a state of emergency was declared and the military moved in.
On the tail of the two previous ice storms, a third one was predicted to move in. It was relentless. The thought of living like this for weeks and months was discouraging to many people. Unlike our grandparents who could survive most emergencies, today's families are very ill prepared to overcome this type of disaster, especially those living in the big cities. Most people only have enough food for 2-3 days before having to run to the store for perishables like bread, milk, eggs etc... Water is something we've all taken for granted. There are no wood stoves in the city, except for the odd ones who mainly use it for ambiance on special occasions. It was reported that some people who had wood burning fireplaces and had run out of wood, were now burning their furniture just to stay warm. Some succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning because they used BBQ's indoors or generators indoors. Fires were reported because of improper use of candles. It was a nightmare.
"Father, I prayed, my life is in your hands and I know you will not abandon me, because my trust is in you". That night, I made it home safely again. Our food supplies were now getting pretty low. We would need to get more food soon. "Lord, I prayed, you know our needs. I trust in you".
Then came Friday, what has since been referred to as BLACK FRIDAY. I had made it to work with God's help. Late that morning, I spoke to Robert. He said things were getting really bad. They were talking about evacuating the Island of Montreal, because they feared a total blackout in the downtown. But how would you evacuate more than 2 million people? Where would all these people go? How would you transport them, when all the road and bridges were closed, there was little fuel left.
Then around noon, we were told to go home before things got worse. Everyone was taking the threat very seriously. I called Robert and told him I was leaving work and did not know when I would make it home, but that I would get there. I knew I had to trust God to get me home and to provide food for our family.
When I got on the bus, the bus driver asked me where I was going. I told him I needed to get to a metro station. I actually needed to get to the green line I told him. He said, I just got report that part of the green line is now closed. One section of the orange line is still opened. Maybe you can get to that one before they lose power completely and take buses from there. Yes that would be a solution. It would take me a very long time, but it was possible. I finally made it to a subway station and took one of the trains that would take me where I could take a bus home. I had my January bus pass, so I did not need any money for transportation, which was a blessing, since I had no cash with me at all.
I was sitting on the subway thanking God to have made it this far, when everything went black for a few seconds. Then the power came on again and a voice on the intercom said. "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. We are experiencing a power failure and are now operating on a generator. You will be taken to the next metro station where surface buses will take you to your destination". - "Thank you my Father", I whispered under my breath.
The metro stopped at the Berri-DeMontigny station. This is the largest metro station, where 2 lines cross. It's a very deep underground subway station: three levels. Because of the power failure, the escalators were not operating, nor were the elevators (for those in wheelchairs or unable to take the stairs etc...). As soon as the subway car doors opened, it was a mad rush to get out. You could see and feel the panic as people rushed up the stairs pushing and shoving as they went. On the stairs I saw older people men and women, sitting on the stairs as people rushed pass them. Some were crying, obviously upset, as they couldn't go up the stairs on their own. Some strong men were going around trying to help them. It was a very sad situation.
Arriving at the top of the stairs, subway employees were handing out transfers, as the transfer dispensing machines were not working. Someone with a loudspeaker horn was trying to reassure people not to panic and that surface buses would take passengers to their destination. But once outside, it was a frightful sight. Mass chaos and panic as people tried to cram into buses. There were thousands of people but only a few buses. I prayed: "Lord, I trust you! What shall I do?" I felt very strongly that I should walk. It was a very long way home. It would take hours, but I felt in my heart that this is what I was supposed to do. I would soon find out why.
I started walking home. I was dressed warm, had good boots. Sadly, as I looked around, I saw women in fancy high heel boots and obviously not dressed very warm. I really felt sorry for them. As I started walking on St Catherine Street (the main Street in Montreal), I noticed that all the lights were out. I thought: "Oh it must have happened!" There had been earlier threats that the downtown core might lose its power. I had also heard people talking on the metro that the Montreal Water Filtration Station had lost its power and that people were being advised to boil their water for 15-20 minutes before using it. People were wondering how they would do that. Some were saying they would now have to consider going to a shelter, something many were reluctant to do.
On my way, I noticed that the street was now filling up with people. I then realized that because of the power failure in the business district, people were being sent home. Hundreds of people were lining up at bus stops, but by the time a bus arrived, it was already full and it wouldn't even stop. People were getting angry and panicking. I kept walking thanking God for His leading. As I walked along the street, I had to be careful of falling icicles from tall buildings. Sometimes I would walk on the road. I was getting pretty soaked, tired and hungry. I had been thinking earlier, as I was coming up the stairs at the metro station, that since I had ended up downtown, due to the metro power failure, that maybe I would be able to find an ATM that worked. But when I saw that the power was out there too, I realized it would be impossible. Anyway I thought, they would all be empty, as the media had been reporting.
I kept on walking and praising God for His goodness to us and His provision. As I walked by a bank with an ATM, I heard a little voice inside me say: "Go in and take money out of your account". I said "Lord, it's closed, there's no power and anyway they've been reporting that most bank machines are empty anyway". The voice said: "Is there anything too hard for me. Go in and get your money out". I went in. The door was unlocked. It was dark. There was no power. I said: "Lord, there is no power!". The little voice said: "Put your card in the machine". I did, and to my complete amazement, the machine came on and I was able to withdraw money from my account. I held the money to my chest, thanking God for His miracle. I went out praising God and walked as if I was on air. I was so grateful for what had just happened, I could have screamed for joy, but contained myself, so people didn't thing I was crazy.
Some time later I arrived at Ste Catherine and Atwater. I had said to God: "Lord you provided me with money, now please provide me with food to take home". Then I saw a little supermarket dimly lit that was operating with a generator. I went in. There was a stench in the store that is hard to describe. It was a mixture of humidity, sweat and rotting food. The shelves were almost empty except for items that were useless in this type of emergency. The produce, meat and frozen sections were all covered with plastic and stunk. The line up to the only opened till was so big that it serpentined across all the aisles. It would take hours to get through to the cash. I started looking around and managed to find a box of crackers that had surely been missed on one of the bottom shelves. It was not bread like I had hoped for, but I was very grateful to God for this wonderful gift. I thanked God and got in line.
When I was finally the next one in line to go to the till, I spotted on the empty shelf beside me at eye level, a loaf of bread. I could not believe my eyes. I took it. Then thinking that maybe the lady behind me had put it down for a second, I turned to her and said: "Is this yours? "She said "No!" I held it to my chest and thanked God for his goodness.
I paid for the bread and crackers and went out of the store where I had just witnessed another of God's wonderful miracle. It was now very dark out. I walked out of the store praising God and singing hymns in my heart. Then a thought came to mind: "Robert must be so worried. Lord if I could just let him know I'm OK". But I had not seen a public phone that was working. Cell phones were not very popular at that time. I did not own one. Besides, the towers were basically all down.
As I continued on my journey home, I spotted a line up of people who were waiting to use a public phone that was obviously working. Praise God! I walked toward the line that was getting bigger and bigger. Once in line, I thought "Its' going to take me so long to get to use it, I may as well keep walking. I'll have time to walk home before I could even get to use the phone". So I was getting ready to leave, when all of a sudden people in front of me all started to leave, until I was the second in line. "What just happened here I thought? " It was then I realized that a bus had just come (not one I could have used) that had plenty of room in it, and people just rushed to take it. "Another miracle! Thank you Lord!" I called Robert, who had been worrying about me. I told him where I was and told him I was OK and would be home as soon as I could. He confirmed to me about the power failure of the downtown and the Water Filtration Plant. I told him I had bread and money and would tell him all about it when I got home.
When I finally got home more than 7 hours after leaving work, Robert was waiting for me with a hot cup of tea and a hot bath. I was frozen, cold, tired and hungry. How I appreciated that wonderful gift. He had spent much time in the car, using a 12-volt heating element plugged into the ashtray to boil water for 15 minutes to make me a cup of tea, which he had kept in a thermos until I got home. What love! Among tears of joy, appreciation and love I shared with him my incredible journey. How I thank God for my wonderful husband!
This was the last day of the storm, a day I will never forget, for it taught me that God is still in the miracle business. Though we were still without power for a few more days, we fared well. God continued to meet our needs every step of the way. The Bible says that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. How wonderful that the same God who opened the Red sea so His people could escape the enemy, fed His people in the wilderness for 40 years, can make an ATM to work when there is no power or cause a loaf of bread to appear on an empty shelf. This is the Almighty God we serve. Praise His name forever!