The ice storm 25 years later The disaster was

The ice storm, 25 years later | The disaster was revisited in two documentaries

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25 years ago, Quebec experienced the worst natural disaster in its history: the ice storm. Two documentaries being screened these days go back in time to shed new light on those long weeks of cold and darkness.

Posted at 8:00 am


There were no signs that bad weather in early January 1998 would lead to disaster. A few tens of thousands of subscribers without electricity in the middle of winter? A little ice cream? Hydro-Quebec has already seen this, and on the morning of January 5 no one is expecting the worst.

But that’s the worst thing that happened: Within 24 hours, huge pylons supporting the high-voltage lines that carry electricity began to collapse. Shortly thereafter, dozens of wooden poles along Montérégie’s roads broke. Much of Montreal’s south shore was plunged into darkness. In the worst case, for a month.

Mutual Aid and Tragedy

“For most people, the ice storm was more of a disruption than a tragedy,” notes Étienne Boulay, presenter of Verglas 98, which is being presented at Historia. His friend Marc-André Chabot, who directed the documentary, focuses on the efforts of the Hydro-Québec teams and the mutual-aid dynamic that has been built among the population to support the disaster victims.

“There are people for whom it was camping in the living room,” agrees Jean-François Poisson, director of 35 Days of Darkness, which airs on TVA. There are also people for whom the ice storm is really not a good memory. People whose lives have been changed, who have lost family members. Among other things, his more dramatic approach gives the victims a voice.

The background story of the two documentaries is the same: the increasing power cuts, the freezing rain that doesn’t stop, the state crisis team trying to give the population the right time without causing panic, and the emergency aid that is being set up.

But even if the two films interview specific figures of the crisis, they prove to be different and complementary.

From Verglas 98 we mention, among others, the owner of a pet shop in Saint-Hyacinthe who cared for pets of vulnerable families or elderly people and this motel owner in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu who housed dozens of Hydro-Québec employees and who says he doesn’t want to raise prices to take advantage of the situation.

From 35 days of darkness, we capture stunning images of the work of Hydro-Quebec’s line workers who saved power for…the island of Montreal. At the height of the crisis, the metropolis’ entire network was connected to one (large) power cable.

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For Jean-François Poisson, placing the linesman at the center of his film was fundamental. “We saw them on the field, we told them they were good, but we had never really heard them,” says the director.

A quarter of a century later, one of these men recounts with great emotion that one night his manager shut down operations after raising concerns about the safety of the structures he and his colleagues were forced to work on at night. By the next morning, 80 of those pylons had collapsed. His reputation saved lives.

The ice storm was the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. It claimed at least 30 victims. Thousands of livestock also died. Sugar bushes and entire orchards were decimated. The crisis has left its mark, even if, as André Caillé says in different words in the two films, Quebec won the battle against the ice storm that year.

Jean-François Poisson believes that in the age of climate change we are far from experiencing this type of natural disaster again. “We will live with it, disasters like this that require us to meet again for a dime,” he said. The January 1998 ice storm is a good example of effective crisis management and collective generosity in this regard.

35 Days of Darkness, Wednesday 7:30 p.m., on TVA

Eissturm 98, Saturday 8 p.m., at Historia