25 years after the ice storm: “We will never be ready enough”

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25 years after the ice storm: “We will never be ready enough”

Pierre Bélanger, former Minister of Public Security of Quebec, looks back on one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history.

Pylons collapsed under the weight of the ice on January 10, 1998 near Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, east east of Montreal

Twenty-five years ago to the day, an exceptionally strong freezing rain storm hit Quebec, eastern Ontario and New Brunswick. Pylons believed to be indestructible have collapsed, plunging half of Quebec into darkness. “Nobody was ready […] and I think we will never be ready enough,” former minister Pierre Bélanger told the Tout un matin program on Wednesday. ICI Première waves.

At first everyone thought the images of the ice on the trees were beautiful, and then suddenly it happened very quickly and we felt like the sky was falling. […] For me, these are memories that will remain etched in my memory for the rest of my life.

When I finally got out of Montreal, the first day of the crisis, once I got to the other side of the Jacques-Cartier bridge, I saw huge building complexes totally in the dark. I felt like in Beirut, but without any damage. […] It was a rather terrifying feeling of death.

The ice storm crisis: 25 years already

ISSUE ICI PREMIÈRE • Tout un matin

The ice storm crisis: 25 years already. 15-minute audio content, ICI Première show. Listen to audio.

Impossible. No one was ready. I think that was the biggest takeaway. Everyone did their best, and what I find extraordinary is that even 25 years later, there are many stories of unknown heroes that we don't yet know.

It was not easy. I was a young minister, in office for a few months. I was 37 years old, a young father of a one-and-a-half-year-old baby, and we ourselves were disaster victims in my riding, in Anjou.

Also, let's not forget the context: we were in the middle of a biker war. I had three bodyguards for a few weeks because we had received death threats. […] A chance that [the former premier of Quebec] Lucien Bouchard had taken the leadership very quickly. […] It was essential, because there was no minister who had all the skills to be able to act quickly.

We created like a new ministry in the space of a few days to find generators and clothing, among other things. There were people arriving at the shelters without even a toothbrush. They had nothing, everything had to be found for them. And everyone was overwhelmed, even the Red Cross. […] The weakest link in the civil security chain had failed, that is to say the emergency plans.

A resident of Vankleek Hill, east of Ottawa, rests in the emergency shelter set up at St. Jude Elementary School. Residents of the area were left without electricity for several days.

Some municipalities dug up old plans hidden in their drawers, others had no emergency plan. The government had a responsibility and the ministry had to ensure that all municipalities had an emergency plan. It was a big miss. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

[Laughs] It was discussed in my office, yes, because we had to prepare plans. […] There was really only one single electric wire to power all of Montreal. The wire was oscillating and we had no guarantee that it would hold. If it [had] fallen, [the island] would have gone more than a week without electricity or drinking water. There would have been no more gasoline either because the gas stations would not have been able to fuel the vehicles. That would have caused panic…

So at one point I asked my deputies what the plan would be if we lost that thread. After a silence, one of them proposed to evacuate the city of Montreal… but to go where? In Quebec? They had never thought of that. […] And the idea had stopped there: I had never presented it to the Prime Minister, it was unthinkable.

Ice covered electrical wires hang dangerously a few meters above a street in Montreal.

I think we learned a lot. The network around Montreal is much less vulnerable, [but] with climate change, a new ice storm could happen tomorrow. So we reviewed our ways of doing things, but 40% of the bill that we adopted urgently in 1998 is still not in force.

It concerns the municipalities that had a big problem […] at the level of municipal organization, which needed to be reviewed in depth. […] From what I understand, there were negotiations with the municipalities. […] We were also on the eve of municipal mergers and the ice storm crisis made us understand to what extent there were responsibilities related to civil security that were entrusted to municipal entities that were far too small. At one point, the Sûreté du Québec was sent to look for the keys to a municipal chalet that a mayor had on him and who had locked himself in his house… That gives you an idea: it was the panic.

That's why when I see the temperatures we have right now, it scares me. We can't predict the changes we'll face tomorrow, but I don't think we'll ever be ready enough.

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