Avert Magazine

Recalling the storm of the century

January 13, 2023
By Local Journalism Initiative

By Debbi Christinck

When freezing rain started falling on the evening of January 6, 2023, it brought back memories from a quarter of a century ago for many people who lived through a severe weather incident.

Dubbed the Great Ice Storm of 1998, it was a combination of five successive ice storms that struck a relatively narrow swath of land from Eastern Ontario to Southern Quebec continuing into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

It brought life to a standstill for many as millions of people were left without electricity, some for days and others for months as millions of dollars in damage was done to the electrical infrastructure. It resulted in the deaths of 34 people, cancelled numerous activities in larger towns and cities and led to the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War. More than 16,000 Canadian Forces personnel were deployed with 12,000 going to assist in Quebec and 4,000 in Ontario. Millions of trees were brought down due to the weight of the ice.


While Renfrew County escaped the full wrath of what was described then as the greatest natural disaster in Canadian history, thousands of residents elsewhere in Eastern Ontario and Quebec were affected by power outages.

The freezing rain started in this area Monday night, January 5 and continued until the following Friday. Even though Renfrew County escaped the wrath of the storm, there was still much devastation prompting then-Renfrew North MPP Sean Conway, after visiting the worst hit areas of the county, to comment, “I can’t believe the damage that’s been done.

“I’ve written a letter to Premier Mike Harris asking that a disaster relief program be put into effect as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying in the January 13, 1998 issue. “There are small townships like South Algona and Sebastopol that don’t have a big tax base. They can’t afford this massive clean-up.”

The County of Renfrew activated its Emergency Control Group to help municipalities that had declared a state of emergency. Then-Warden Dave Stewart, Reeve of Cobden, said there was concern for county residents.

“Approximately one-quarter of the residents in Renfrew County have been without electricity at some time through the week,” he said. “I felt it was important to have this committee in a state of readiness. We’ll provide whatever support we can if called upon.”

The storm was so severe Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Ontario Premier Harris and Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard did not join a trade delegation to South America, deciding instead to stay home so they could help lead emergency efforts.

Eganville was the first community in the county to call on CFB Petawawa to provide assistance when Branch 353 of the Royal Canadian Legion turned its hall into an emergency centre. One week after the storm had hit, soldiers and volunteers had provided food, water and supplies to approximately 350 people who were without electricity in the municipalities surrounding Eganville.

However, the largest task fell to Ontario Hydro work crews, assisted by crews from northern and southern Ontario, who were working around the clock to restore power in the county.

The storm affected many communities in the county with blocked roads and downed trees. It also showed the best of cooperation in the area and the scale of the response to the county, which did not come quite quickly enough for many affected residents.

Second class treatment?

When then South Algona Reeve Rita Culhane heard troops from CFB Petawawa and Pembroke Hydro had gone to Ottawa to help with repairs there, she lost her patience.

“I never slept all night,” she said. “I got up in the morning and went at Clouthier (Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP Hector Clouthier) and Conway and I got talking to them directly and they are probably saying `that old son-of-a-b**** from South Algona’ but I really don’t care and I told them to quote anything that I said.”

Reeve Culhane was furious because she felt she and others in the township who had been without electricity since late Monday night were being treated as second-class citizens.

“I talked to Clouthier first and he said, `population, population, you have to look after the big population’ and I got so mad. I said that is `bulls****”. They have the resources in Ottawa and those places to cope but we don’t have it in Renfrew County.

“Then I got to Conway’s office and he called me back from Toronto and told me he was on the ball since early morning. He was getting all kinds of calls. I said, `you know, I’m not going to accept being treated as a second-class citizen because I live in the County of Renfrew and we only have a population of 95,000.”

The reeve noted she had been coping until she found out on Thursday “we were the forgotten people. And we were forgotten.”

It appears her message got through.

“But the moral of the story is, I think the wheels started turning when enough people started calling,” she said. “Because let me tell you, the Hydro moved in. Clouthier and Conway, they found out that we were alive. I think that’s when they said, ‘Hey, we better wake up’.”

Trees damaged but species survive

While the damage to trees was extensive and the branches continued to bend and break after nearly 16 hours of rain and ice, Ray Bonenberg, manager of the Pembroke District of the Ministry of Natural Resources, said the county was “fairly lucky” compared to regions to the south where trees sustained much more damage because of more rainfall. He noted while millions of trees through the Pembroke District were damaged, the damage could be described as nature’s way of pruning the forest.

“I think we will be fine,” he said.

White birch trees were the hardest hit and thousands of those trees would die, he noted. The species has more fine branches than other trees and the ice tends to stick to them more and as a result they bend under the weight.

“They won’t ever come back,” he added. “They’ll remain bent.”

Hardwood species such as oak, maple, ash and basswood were expected to come out of the mess without much difficulty, he said.

There would be a lot of salvage to do in forests in the spring, he said, with so many branches and limbs broken.

“Certainly, there is going to be a lot of firewood though,” he added.

Firefighters assist

Firefighters in Eganville and surrounding areas were busy throwing their energies into helping municipalities cope with the effects of the storm.

“Our lads have been busy all week,” said Gerald Gordon, deputy chief of the Sebastopol Fire Department. “A lot of it has been clearing roads of downed trees so the Hydro crews could get in.”

The firefighters also organized regular checks to area seniors and vacated homes.

“We’re checking elderly people in the township who live in the back areas of the township, and elderly people who live on farms to see if they needed medication or water or anything,” he said. “Some of our guys went in by snow machine to check, but mostly everybody was good and most people were heating with wood.”

Volunteer members of the Eganville Fire Department were also kept busy. In addition to answering a few calls of downed Hydro wires and one of an accident believed to require extrication, they offered their volunteer services to the Eganville Legion, which had set up an emergency shelter.

In one instance, volunteer firefighters, concerned about a handicapped woman who had been in her house for 24 hours, wanted to have her moved.

“We didn’t have the equipment to do that,” Fire Chief Mike Lett noted, adding an ambulance was called in for the task.

Both Chief Lett and Deputy-Chief Gordon were quick to point out there were many other volunteers, firefighters and others who have contributed their time.

“Most fire departments, everybody pitches in and does the best they can,” said Mr. Gordon. “There’s not much else you can do in a storm.”

Eganville first to seek army assistance

Before any municipalities in Renfrew County declared States of Emergency, the Eganville Legion had already established an emergency centre with the help of troops from CFB Petawawa.

“We started organizing Wednesday,” Legion Manager Robert Pauhl said, estimating that army personnel and volunteers provided food, water and supplies to 350 people.

“The soldiers made trips to the surrounding communities of Golden Lake, Foymount, Dacre and Augsburg. The furthest they went was Ferguson Lake (in Brougham Township),” he said.

While most of the troops were deployed to Ottawa then, Renfrew County Warden Dave Stewart pulled some strings to keep two soldiers at the Legion. They made numerous trips with drinking water and other supplies accompanied by Jay Connaughan, whose classes at Algonquin College in Ottawa were cancelled.

“Sometimes it was just a matter of checking on people,” Mr. Pauhl said. “The older the people were, the more self-sufficient they were. They were using old cookstoves and lanterns. They were used to that style of living, without electricity, but they were happy we checked on them.”

The Legion was equipped with army cots but the handful of people who chose to leave their homes ended up staying with village residents.

“People were calling up to say they had empty bedrooms,” said Mr. Pauhl. “In any situation like this, you’ll find people who will get together to work together. It was heart-warming.”

Master Corporal Dave Boudreau of the Royal Canadian Dragoons B Squadron, noted Eganville was the first community in Renfrew County to ask the army for assistance.

“It was certainly no inconvenience to us,” he said. “We’re always glad to help out.”

Emergency plan in Bagot, Blythfield and Brougham

A State of Emergency was declared in Bagot, Blythfield and Brougham Township Friday because of the length of time many residents of the townships had been without power or phone service.

Reeve Barry Moran said council began working on an emergency plan Friday when telephone service was interrupted because of fallen lines. “I talked with the OPP in Renfrew Friday at noon and said we needed help because there are so many remote places here,” he said. “The township was waiting on a call from Toronto for a telecommunications system because of the phone interruption.”

Even though power was restored to most areas of the township, he was still requesting the telecommunications system because of high winds and the fear power and phone services would be interrupted again.

“We are fortunate in that we haven’t had any emergency calls, no fires, no accidents and that type of thing,” he said.

He said some residents were forced to leave their homes and seek accommodation in Renfrew. But he added in many cases the residents had wood heat to rely on.

Reeve Moran said the township fire department delivered water to residents throughout the week. The township also received permission to use both the separate and public schools in Calabogie. An emergency headquarters was organized at the separate school after the power was restored. In the event of another interruption, a generator, provided by the Town of Renfrew, was set up and ready to go at the public school.

The loss of power closed Calabogie Peaks Resort for the week and Reeve Moran said the storm could have a big impact on snowmobiling in the area because the main trails through the area are blocked with trees.

“They’ve got thousands and thousands of trees to cut,” he said. “The old railway line from Calabogie to Renfrew, it’s like when you look down it you can’t even see it. You couldn’t even walk down it, I bet.”

Volunteers help Admaston cope

Admaston Township Reeve Raye-Anne Briscoe noted while the township would be seeking some kind of compensation from the province as a result of the devastation caused by the ice storm, she was more concerned about the immediate state of affairs.

“It’s improving from a disaster situation,” she said. “Now the situation I think has gone to serious. We still have two areas, if not three, that are out of power. Three roads are still virtually blocked but there are all kinds of volunteers and men working on them.”

The township offices were transformed into an emergency headquarters and were kept open around the clock.

“We have volunteers manning the phones here 24 hours a day,” she said. “All the crews are being fed from here.”

Reeve Briscoe noted Denzil Spence, the mayor of Calumet Island, arrived at the township on Saturday with a crew of men and chainsaws. There were also volunteers from Pembroke and Horton Township. Alice and Fraser Reeve Eric Ashick transported the township’s woodchipper to the township and the township of Wilberforce also loaned its chipper. Darrell Ryan the clerk-treasurer of Pembroke and Stafford Townships, arrived Saturday night with two generators which were immediately put to work.

Even County of Renfrew CAO Norm Lemke visited Admaston on Saturday and helped to man the phones.

Reeve Briscoe estimated Sunday between 50 and 75 men had volunteered with chainsaws, trucks and other equipment to open the blocked roads.

“I couldn’t tell you where they are from,” she said.

The reeve said she was very appreciative of the support from individuals living outside the township but also from the County of Renfrew and the Town of Renfrew.

“The warden, Dave Stewart, was in constant contact with me and the County Roads Engineer (Ken Becking) has been in constant contact. I’ve got more help from the county than I could ever have asked for. As a brand new reeve I couldn’t have coped without their support, because I am brand new on the job. I’m not in office a month yet. This is something that has never happened in the life of this township.”

Demand for generators and hydro poles

An unprecedented demand for portable generators had area dealers scrambling for units that were shipped from across the world.

“We only had eight generators in stock,” Jeff Wilcox of George’s Service Centre in Eganville said. “This is not a big time of year for generator sales. Very few are sold in January.”

However, in a few days he was able to get 50 generators from his supplier, Honda, with another 20 on order.

“Honda has put out between 1,500 and 1,600 units from Toronto,” he said. “Now they are sending in four plane loads from Vancouver.”

The warehouses in Canada were empty with generators coming from Japan.

“Agriculture Canada called me Sunday morning because cattle are dying,” he added. “It is a serious situation.”

One of the reasons it was taking so long to restore normal hydro service was thousands of poles and transformer towers were destroyed. Shaw Lumber in Pembroke was busy shipping out its supply of 4,000 poles that were ordered by Ontario Hydro and Hydro Quebec.

“We’ve been working overtime loading the poles,” said Dana Shaw. “We’ve never had such an incredible demand.” He added once the supply runs out it will be six to seven months to dry and treat a new batch of poles.

“The steel and concrete poles are breaking as well,” he pointed out. “They’ll do the same as a wooden pole under extreme weather conditions. And those steel pylons are collapsing like spaghetti.”


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