Report from the ice-bound north

January 13, 1998|By Gwinn Owens

ON Sunday evening, my daughter and her family were forced by the Montreal ice storm to abandon their home, having given up the struggle to survive for three days without electricity, sustained only by the feeble heat from a natural gas fireplace.

They did what tens of thousands of Montrealers are doing -- moved in with friends whose houses still have electrical power. From a week ago, when the storm began, life has been a series of emergency measures and successive surrenders in what public officials are calling the worst natural disaster in Canada's history. Some 4 million people are affected.

''We are managing pretty well,'' my daughter said. ''But it seems to get worse every day.'' Their only unencumbered services were a battery-powered radio and their telephone. The house has no electric power, no drinkable water and dwindling supplies of non-perishable food. Everything in the freezer and refrigerator is lost. Without nearby soup kitchens, she and her husband and their twin 6-year-old daughters would be very hungry, if not starving.

The same front that brought rain and freakishly warm and wet weather to Baltimore last week moved northeast and poured its moisture over the Quebec province, where the surface temperatures were well below freezing. The rain started on Tuesday and continued through Friday, adding layer upon layer of heavy ice on trees and power lines. The weight has brought down scores of massive high-tension-line towers throughout Quebec, presaging not just days, but perhaps months or years, before the power system is back to normal.

For a while, my daughter's house in the municipality of Westmount was one of the lucky ones -- it didn't lose power.

Consequently, she and her husband did what many good citizens all over Quebec have been doing, taking in neighbors whose dwellings were iceboxes. But on Friday, they, too, became powerless, and their home was no longer of any use as a sanctuary. But the fireplace eventually was not enough and they, in turn, moved in with friends.

On Saturday, to get a hot meal for lunch, they walked two blocks over the slippery ice to a synagogue that had set up a shelter. Dinner came from a soup kitchen in a pavilion in a nearby municipal park. Soup was literally all that was available -- not enough to fill up on, but sufficient to ease the hunger pangs.

Icy layers

If dealing with the power failure wasn't enough, they got more bad news Saturday. Local officials went door-to-door in Westmount warning everyone to boil tap water before drinking. But with no power, how do you boil? Luckily, my daughter had some bottled water on hand. Some of her neighbors were able to transport water from an adjacent town where the water supply was considered safe.

The clearing away of tens of millions of downed tree limbs is being undertaken by federal troops. Exhausted, sleep-deprived utility crews could no longer cope with the task. The branches have made most roads impassable as well as making a shambles of the power and phone systems. Though public authorities have urged everyone to stay home, many of those who venture out are wearing hard hats or bicycle helmets.

The south shore of Montreal, across the St. Lawrence River, is isolated from the main city because massive chunks of ice are falling from the superstructure of the bridges, rendering them too dangerous to cross.

''You can't believe the weight of the ice until you see rows of those massive steel high-tension towers crumpled to the ground,'' my daughter said. Neither she nor her husband are working. McGill University, where he is a professor of English, is shut down as is the Canadian Center for Architecture, where she is assistant director.

While immediate concerns are the necessities of survival, the long-range picture has its bleak aspects. The thousands of trees that shade the streets and bless the parks of Montreal, Canada's second-largest city, have been assaulted by the ice, denuded of limbs and branches; some were actually uprooted. ''I think the landscape of Montreal has been permanently changed,'' my daughter said.

There is a bright side: The people of Montreal have turned to helping each other; homes, food, clothing and vehicles are shared. Those better off are helping their suffering neighbors. So far, the death toll in all of Quebec is minimal.

The catastrophe may have political repercussions. In October 1995, in a referendum, the voters of Quebec failed by only a few percentage points to approve their separation from Canada. Now, federal troops from all over Canada are working around the clock on a mercy mission for Quebec. The U.S. Air Force is providing transport planes to fly in food and supplies. Perhaps in the next referendum the separatists will have second thoughts.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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