Intervenor: Vol 23. No 1 January - March 1998

The Ice Storm Cometh & The Hydro Goeth


I first encounter Ice Storm '98 while driving at night from CELA to my home on Wolfe Island near Kingston. Around Napanee, Highway 401 suddenly turns into a skating rink, and vehicles begin to skid off the road. Upon my arrival in Kingston, I go shopping at an all-night grocery store - which then loses power and becomes completely dark while I'm standing in the canned goods aisle. A few hours later, after I catch the last ferry to Wolfe Island, the power to our house goes off as we sleep.


We awake early to the sound of ice-encrusted tree limbs bumping the roof or crashing to the ground. Our house, built in the 1970's during the heady days of cheap electricity, is becoming chilly due to the lifeless baseboard heaters. We close off most of the house, build a cozy fire in the fireplace, and cook breakfast outside on our camping stove. Old habits die hard - every time I go to the basement for more firewood, I flip on the light switch.

We scoop buckets of water from the basement cistern to wash dishes and flush toilets. We empty the fridge contents into a cooler, which we place on the porch; however, we are later forced to dispose of thawed food from the freezers. My computer literacy and legal skills are rendered totally irrelevant, and I revert to more basic hunting-gathering instincts - hunting down the ever-elusive "D" battery, and gathering the equally-elusive lamp oil.

My three-year old daughter Rachel repeatedly requests my wife Laura Lee to put on a video. Seven-year old Anna and I go outside and videotape some of the devastation: countless fallen trees, dangling power cables, snapped telephone lines, broken hydro poles, crushed buildings and cars. As if on cue, the battery on the videocamera goes dead with no prospect of being recharged. Luckily, our house and vehicles escape any major damage, but a large tree is leaning on our roof, our ancient oak tree is largely de-limbed, and most bushes and shrubs are bent low to the ground under the weight of the ice.

The barter system is resurrected as I go to a friend's farm to trade a bottle of whiskey for a few litres of kerosene - just like pioneer days. At night, we pull out the sleeping bags, stoke up the fireplace, and camp out on the living room floor.


We can see our breath in the house when we wake up. A series of thunder storms roll through the area, and bluish lightning flashes across the gray sky. We decide that Laura Lee and the kids should become environmental refugees, and they flee to the warmth of a friend's house in Kingston. Our friend has no power, but she has a wood stove and running water! I stay home to safeguard our house, and to stay with my mother-in-law Janice, who lives nearby on the Island. Her basement is flooded with two feet of water due to sump pump failure, and the oil furnace motor is completely submerged. Her house was built in the late 1880's, and probably pre-dates the arrival of electricity on the Island. I suspect that an ice storm back then would not have seriously affected the house's original occupants, who fortunately lacked our "essential" modern amenities.

On the horizon of Lake Ontario, I can see the twin stacks of Ontario Hydro's Bath Generating Station billowing smoke into the air, and I wonder where the electricity is actually going. I check my house and discover that a courier somehow made it through the ice storm of the century to deliver documents from a CELA colleague. I phone my colleague and thank him for the kindling.

At night, Janice and I huddle around candles, inhale kerosene fumes, and listen to round-the-clock newscasts on a small "Smurf" transistor radio that Anna rescued from the Island dump years ago. Only one radio station is left broadcasting in Kingston, and we hear grim stories about victims of hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and house fires. We are informed that Wolfe Island is one of the hardest-hit areas, as 300 to 400 hydro poles have collapsed along the Island highways. The Island Mayor declares a state of emergency, as does the Mayor of Kingston.


My ice-laden telephone lines fall to the ground, work for a while, then go dead. I meet an Ontario Hydro worker from Owen Sound who tells me that it may be one to two weeks before power is fully restored to the Island. I visit the historic Island hotel for a hot meal cooked on a propane stove. Coffee is unavailable because the hotel has run out of drinking water - so I treat myself to a warm beer in the darkened dining room.

I quickly discover that timing is everything - I just happen to be at a hardware store when a truck arrives with "D" batteries and kerosene jugs (limit two per customer). I buy kerosene for my uncle, and two dozen "D" batteries for myself and friends. On Wolfe Island, I sell my surplus "D" batteries at cost to the general store, which has none in stock. While I'm in the candle-lit store, four cans of camping fluid arrive from the ferry - our only lifeline to the mainland. I buy a can of camping fluid, and the storekeeper tells me to hide the "liquid gold" under my coat so I don't get mugged on the way home. I think he was kidding.

At night, Janice and I prepare for a -15C night. I drain the water lines in my house, and stand ready with plumbing anti-freeze for the drain pipes in case I have to abandon ship. At Janice's house, we fire up a second kerosene heater, and listen to the Smurf radio. We are told to disregard rumours that Kingston's water treatment plant has failed due to the power outage.

A miracle then materializes - a friend arrives unexpectedly from Kingston with a rented generator that is being lent to us by a person whose power has been restored. We wire the 2500 watt generator into Janice's electrical panel, and we manage to pump out the basement. I quickly entertain thoughts of hooking up the television to watch Hockey Night in Canada. However, these hopes are cruelly dashed when I realize that the local CBC station's 300 metre broadcast tower (located on Wolfe Island) has crashed to the ground due to ice buildup. I later visit the twisted metal wreckage of the doomed tower, which looks like a UFO crash-landed in the field. I am told that the local transmitters for PBS and TVO are off the air due to the ice storm, and I ponder what is worse - life without Barney, or life without Polkaroo?


At my house, the tropical fish have died, and the African violets are withering away. The two cats are content to just eat and sleep in the frosty house - not much change from their usual routine. Our dog is having the time of her life, chasing and chewing all the dead branches which cover our yard.

The Smurf radio advises that Ice Storm '98 will be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. I wonder how "natural" this disaster really is - was it caused by El Nino? Global warming? Hot air from Parliament Hill? We read in the local newspaper that the trusty Farmer's Almanac accurately predicted the arrival of the ice storm. Ominously, the Almanac warns of more huge storms in February and March.

The morning ferry trips to Wolfe Island bring an army of utility workers, countless bucket trucks, and long convoys of flatbed trucks carrying new hydro poles. The workers labour under extreme weather conditions until dusk, then return to their Kingston hotels at night. The new poles are installed fairly quickly beside the broken poles, but I notice it takes much more time for the line crews to restring the poles with new power cables, insulators, switches and transformers.

Then, another miracle occurs - my handyman friend makes a triumphant return to the Island after having disassembled, dried, and re-built Janice's furnace motor. We install the motor, plug it into the generator, and hear the furnace start up - we have heat! It turns out that the generator cannot run the furnace and the sump pump at the same time - so Janice and I take turns getting up every 90 minutes through the night to switch the furnace off and turn the sump pump on in order to prevent another basement flood. In the middle of the night, I fill up the generator's gas tank by the light of the full moon. I glance at the outside thermometer, which has dipped to -20C. Getting up every 90 minutes to ensure that we have heat seems to be a highly acceptable trade-off in the circumstances.


In the morning, Janice and I throw caution to the wind and unplug both the furnace and the sump pump from the generator so that we can plug in the coffee maker for fresh, hot brew - delicious! Later, I meet some MNR forestry workers from Sioux Lookout who wander into my yard. They fire up their chainsaws to cut up dead limbs and to remove the tree from my house roof. Army soldiers also assist in our cleanup operation, and Ministry of Transportation employees drop by with a tree-chipper to shred the massive brush piles.

The Smurf radio relays information about inevitable breakdowns in the social order - two people try to steal a generator from a local fire hall; price gouging is being reported across the region; scam artists are extorting large sums of money from homeowners for cutting and removing fallen trees; and one person is caught and convicted for breaking into a blacked-out house in Kingston. He is sentenced to one year in jail - double the usual time for such crimes, according to the Crown Attorney who wants to deter other burglars from taking advantage of the ice crisis.

Each night, while looking across the lake, I can see more and more lights twinkling along the Kingston waterfront. Standing on the blacked-out Island, I feel like an inhabitant of a developing nation, staring enviously at the people of plenty across the ocean. An Island resident later puts it in proper perspective for me by commenting that despite our hardships, we still have good food, potable water, and warm shelter - three commodities that are rare or non-existent in many other parts of the world.

As the days drag on, the state of emergency has acquired a surreal quality as Kingston's downtown core (where powerlines are below-ground) becomes active again. We can't even turn on a tap on the stricken Island, but it is possible to ferry to the City, order a good meal at a trendy restaurant, watch a movie (Titanic seems appropriate), and enjoy a cocktail before returning home. Was this how Paris seemed to soldiers in the trenches during World War One?

However, since Janice and I only have a 90 minute opportunity to leave the house, we decide to go out for a meal at the Island fire hall, which is being used as an emergency shelter. We enjoy homemade turkey stew and sandwiches, and we exchange war stories with other Islanders. An eager volunteer insists that we take home some of the groceries donated by Kingston stores. We try to resist since our cupboards remain well-stocked, and since there might be Islanders who have a greater need for the food. The volunteer persists, however, and we take home some noodle packages to keep her happy.


I pick up Laura Lee and the kids, who want to visit our house and see the pets. While in Kingston, I see scores of out-of-town utility crews and vehicles, including many from Scarborough, Toronto, and North York. I am so heartened by this show of GTA generosity that I almost wish I could have voted for Mayor Mel.

Several provincial Cabinet ministers, including Treasurer Ernie Eves and Minister of Natural Resources John Snobelen, visit the Island in the morning to inspect the damage. It appears, however, that Mr. Eves forgot his cheque book at Queen's Park, while Mr. Snobelen left his chainsaw somewhere in Whitney Block. Mr. Eves subsequently announces a multi-million dollar disaster relief package, and the federal government does likewise. I wonder if and when some money might wind its way to Wolfe Island.

In the afternoon, scenes from Apocalypse Now are recreated as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Defence Minister Art Eggleton arrive in military helicopters to visit Wolfe Island. They are accompanied by a phalanx of security staff, OPP officers and media types. Laura Lee and the kids meet and talk with the Prime Minister - an encounter that I manage to videotape with a newly charged battery from Kingston. We are later told that Mr. Chrétien is the first Prime Minister since Sir John A. MacDonald to set foot on the Island. I wonder what brought Sir John here - did he, too, enjoy the hospitality (or warm beer) at the Island hotel?

Shortly after the Prime Minister departs, there are rumours that power has been restored to the village on Wolfe Island. We rush home, switch on the main breaker, and are astounded as our household appliances roar back to life. Janice's house is also powered up at this time. The phone lines are working again, and the fax machine and modem quietly hum back to life. Rachel gets to watch her long-awaited video, and the Prime Minister's visit to Wolfe Island is highlighted on the CBC National News. Wolfe Island is finally on the map, and gets its fifteen minutes of fame.

Life slowly returns to normal, although it takes another full week for our other friends and neighbours on the Island to have their power and phone service restored. We collectively reflect upon our Ice Storm '98 experiences, and we hope that the Farmer's Almanac is wrong for a change.

CELA lawyer Rick Lindgren lives on Wolfe Island which was hit hard by the worst ice storm of the century (so far). Here, he chronicles his chilling experience in the age of global warming.