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Ice Storm Wreaks Havoc in Canada

January 10, 1998

MONTREAL (AP) _ Canada’s worst ice storm on record wreaked havoc across five eastern provinces Friday, halting air travel, shutting down the nation’s busiest rail corridor and forcing 3 million people to endure another day without power.

The death toll from the five-day onslaught rose to 10. The three latest victims were all from hard-hit Montreal _ an elderly couple killed in one of many house fires and a 90-year-old woman who died of hypothermia after refusing to leave her unheated home.

Across eastern Canada, residents were finding ways to cope with the storm that upended routines.

In Montreal, half of which was without power Friday night, owners of the Corner Snack Bar cooked their food on a gas grill and lit up their establishment with the headlights of a Chevy Blazer parked outside.

``It’s like a test for Armageddon: You can’t drive anywhere, you have no power,″ said co-owner Lee Thomas. ``All your major services are down. Slowly, but surely, everything starts to break.″

Motorists in Montreal relied on police and common courtesy in place of non-functioning traffic lights.

Many of the region’s radio stations abandoned their regular formats, instead flooding the airwaves with storm reports and calls from residents sharing personal anecdotes and helpful hints.

South of Ottawa, Francine Allaire cooked on a barbecue in her garage, to use up freezer food that would otherwise thaw. Pete Nooyen, a dairy farmer southeast of Ottawa, shared a generator with a hog-farming neighbor to ensure their animals were cared for. Linda Ford packed up her two children to wait out the weather at a friend’s heated home.

``It’s just plain cold. You can’t do anything but sit there and freeze,″ she told The Canadian Press from Osgoode, 20 miles south of Ottawa. ``It was fun for a little while but it’s just not fun anymore.″

The Insurance Bureau of Canada predicted that damage claims could top $350 million, which would make it the costliest natural disaster ever in Canada.

Airports in Montreal and Ottawa, the capital, were closed Friday. The national railroad, Via Rail, halted all service between Toronto and Quebec City.

About 3 inches of freezing rain fell on the Montreal area Friday, adding to the already thick ice coating tree branches. Uprooted trees and snapped-off branches littered rural forests and city parks alike.

Dozens of power transmission lines have collapsed under the weight of ice, and the provincial power company said repair crews were pessimistic about the pace of their work.

``Instead of taking three to five days, it’s going to take five to seven days,″ said Diane Viau, a spokeswoman for Hydro-Quebec. ``We’re looking at a variety of ways to accelerate our work but I can’t say when exactly the situation is going to improve.″

The storm began late Monday, dumping freezing rain across a swath stretching from Ottawa to the Maritime provinces.

The government deployed more than 4,000 soldiers in the stricken areas to help with relief efforts and to clear away fallen branches. Five soldiers were injured early Friday when a truck smashed into a military convoy between Montreal and Quebec City.

In Quebec, nearly 3 million people _ 40 percent of the population _ were without power. In eastern Ontario, officials said more than 100,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity, and more than 20,000 homes were powerless in the Maritimes.

Many people in blacked-out homes stayed put, keeping warm with fires or portable heaters. But Mustaha Dahamni said he was considering moving from his Montreal home to a shelter.

``It’s very bad,″ said the 51-year-old retiree. ``We sleep about three hours or four hours a night. We’re very tired.″

Most Montreal hotels were booked solid as residents without heat in their homes sought warmth. Many hotels offered discounts to local customers. But even they weren’t without problems.

At La Tour Belvedere hotel in downtown Montreal, John Comeau and his fiancee, Annie Montminy, huddled in a hallway _ the only place in the building with light _ to eat a dinner of chips and soda.

``We wanted to get stuff for sandwiches, but there is no bread around,″ said Comeau, from Lennoxville, about 80 miles east of Montreal. ``There’s no running water, either.″

Hundreds of Montreal residents abandoned their homes to take shelter at community centers and schools with generators.

``It’s a disaster,″ said Colette Fontaine, who was staying at a makeshift shelter in Montreal’s Robert Bourassa library. ``I’ve lived all over Canada and it’s the worst ice storm I’ve ever seen.″

Several businesses throughout the region obeyed authorities’ pleas to give workers time off in order to keep the roads clear. Some employees who did work brought their children with them, because most schools were closed.

As the blackout lengthened, with no swift end in sight, stores with emergency supplies reported that stocks were vanishing. Candles, fuel and portable stoves were hard to find in some areas.

Gary Marshall braved the 19-mile drive from Chateauguay to Montreal in search of fuel, wicks and instructions for two camping lanterns he’s never used.

``We’re out of everything and even to find candles I had to look here and there,″ Marshall said.

Dave Phillips, a federal government climatologist, said the ice storm was without precedent in Canada.

``It’s like a monsoon,″ he said. ``Like the rest of the world, we’re beginning to see in Canada that El Nino has a miserable side.″

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