53: The Great Ice Storm

53: The Great Ice Storm

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Great Ice Storm

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.

~Margaret Mead

The Great North American Ice Storm of 1998 affected the lives of millions of people in eastern Canada and the northern United States. The culprit was a stalled low-pressure system that took its sweet time moving out of the area. When the storm hit I was living in Ottawa and I was able to see its devastating effects firsthand.

Things were very difficult in the city, with power outages and shortages of basic essentials. Stores and supermarkets were taken by surprise by the extent of the power cuts. On the positive side, it was an opportunity for the community’s spirit to be exhibited. People were checking in on neighbours to make sure they were able to keep warm and fed. Everyone shared their resources. The hospitals and essential services were given priority in having their power restored. Despite the prolonged outages, everyone seemed to wait patiently.

Ontario and Quebec Hydro employees were working full out for days on end to restore power. It would only be a matter of time before they were overcome with exhaustion, given the massive task facing them. After a few days of trying to deal with it locally the call went out to unaffected areas of the two countries for help. In response, electric utilities from all over North America sent workers and equipment to help with the cleanup. The mild temperatures at the root of the weather phenomenon did not last as long as the power outage and, as the weather began to turn colder, other problems began to develop in an icy world without electricity.

At the time of the storm I was working in a paper mill as an electrical technician. The mill was an enormous complex straddling the border between Ottawa and Hull, located on a group of islands in the middle of the Ottawa River. Our whole installation was self-sufficient in electrical power as we had six generators dependent only on the flow of the river. Throughout the storm we remained able to generate enough hydro to supply our papermaking needs. As days passed and the after-effects of the storm worsened, the company made the decision to shut down production and to send our self-generated hydro into the system feeding the city of Hull. This went a long way toward alleviating some of the dire conditions that were developing in the area.

Without much to do at the mill, five friends and I decided to volunteer with the City of Ottawa. Regional administrators had activated a rescue plan and were slowly and steadily coming to the aid of people living in outlying areas, but it was an enormous task. We knew that the people living in the city were having a difficult time, but nothing had prepared us for how bad things were in the countryside. Hydro poles and transmission cables lay in ditches. Abandoned cars and trucks littered side roads and many routes were completely blocked by huge ice-covered tree limbs. Smaller trees were so laden with ice that their topmost branches had bent far enough over to touch the ground and become frozen there. Roads that were clear of debris resembled ice rinks and there was very little salting and sanding. Everything had an ice covering.

Had it not been for the seriousness of the situation I would have described it as visually stunning. Light sparkled like glass decorations from the trees and bushes. Houses and cars were coated with thick ice coverings and huge icicles hung everywhere.

With our toolboxes in the back of the city-loaned trucks, we made up work teams comprising a millwright and an electrician. We headed out into the countryside with a list of the places in direst need.

The main issue we were dealing with was the repair and maintenance of faulty generators. City authorities had managed to get their hands on hundreds of generators — some new and working well and others that needed a lot of TLC to get them into working order. In many cases there had been no time to properly evaluate the units before they were sent out, so it fell to our little teams to catch up with on-site maintenance and repairs.

The sights that met us were often heartbreaking. Many farmers had been doing their best with what they had available, but you can imagine trying to keep a fully automated farm running when the power goes out and the standby generators do not work. Often, as we approached up the farm driveway, the farmers would come down the road to meet us and direct us to the generator site in an effort to minimize time before we got to work. Of course, when the units were back in service the farmer would want to show his gratitude by inviting us in for lunch or tea. Being practical individuals they understood when we pointed out that we needed to continue on to help the next farmer down the road. We had to stay on track and get through the dozens of calls for help. The farmers’ gratitude was nevertheless appreciated, and inevitably their wives sent us on our way with bags full of sandwiches and soft drinks.

I have to say that I have never worked so hard in my life. Certainly I have never been so cold, so dirty, and yet so happy. We were on the road from sunrise to well beyond sunset. As time passed and the crisis continued, the circumstances for some farmers and their animals became even worse. It was not uncommon to arrive at a farm and to find the farmer reduced to tears after he had tried everything he could think of to save his animals. We were the last hope for many.

Being able to bring some relief to people in these extreme conditions was the best reward I could ever have hoped for. Volunteering during the crisis had immediate and long-lasting effects on the lives of my fellow volunteers and myself. It started me out on a life of working to help others who are in difficult circumstances beyond their control. I have an indelible memory of a big, gruff-looking farmer who, lost for words, took me in his arms and hugged me tightly when we managed to put his generator back into service. To him it meant the difference between life and death for his animals. We were just happy we could be of service.

~James A. Gemmell

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