The old p.-d. g. Hydro-Québec, André Caillé recalls the ice storm

Photo: Ryan Remiorz, The canadian Press
In several cities in southern Quebec, the damage as a result of the precipitation of freezing rain have been colossal.

20 years ago, Québec was facing one of the biggest natural disasters of its history. Between 4 and 10 January 1998, the ice storm has left up to 100 millimetres of freezing rain on its way, plunging into the dark more than a million customers of Hydro-Québec, in the worst of the crisis. Last texts of a series on this episode marking.

Photo: Jacques Nadeau Le Devoir

The president and ceo of Hydro-Quebec when the ice storm of 1998, André Caillé, has become one of the faces of this unprecedented crisis. Interview with a leader who has feared the worst.


In what state of mind were you in at the beginning of the storm ?


We were worried about. Before the storm starts, we had weather reports that we indicated that there would be ice and that this would not be something ordinary. I was in Paris, I returned in haste to Montreal, and I got on the 5 January. We showed that the rainfall would exceed the physical limits of the network and that it was going to be a real crisis.


This is the number of total hours during which freezing rain fell from 5 to 9 January 1998.

We are immediately moved to action. The state of mind it was : he must act, he must do everything that we could to ensure the safety of people and protect property. I remember saying : this will be the general mobilization.


Were you ready to respond to this kind of crisis ?


We had a base from which to work, because it is the same way when there is any storm, but it is the scale of the resources which was not the same.


What we didn’t know in the first few days, it is that the storm would affect the integrity of the network of high voltage transmission. Normally, the ice affects the distribution network, that is to say the son that we see in the streets and that deliver electricity to homes. But when there is enough ice so that the transmission network collapses, this is not the same case. The big tower is not rebuild not in a day.


This is the number of structures in the transport network of Hydro-Quebec collapsed, a thousand steel towers.

It redirected the electricity with which we remained to Montreal, it was a major concern. Normally, the city receives 20 000 megawatts, and it has declined by up to 600 MW. When we had arrived at this level, it was time for it to stop, because at the bottom of 600 MW, it would have been much more serious. It was not necessary that the last line that came from the north-east of the city collapses, and she resisted. The freezing rain has stopped just before it falls.


And outside of Montreal ?


In the Montérégie region, it was really catastrophic. We brought in generators and made available according to priorities, including having the goal of protecting the livestock. Farmers could continue to feed their animals, milk the cows, the basis. There have been losses, but there has not been as much as if we hadn’t done any of that.


During the crisis, you’re in a daily press conference with the prime minister of the time, Lucien Bouchard. How can you take yourself to ensure a media presence while managing the internal operations ?


I met the senior executives of Hydro-Québec twice a day. Once in the morning and another in mid-afternoon, 30 minutes before the press conference. It was the point and we established priorities for the next few hours.


This is the number of municipalities that have been affected in Quebec by the ice storm.

To 16 h, I rejoignais Mr. Bouchard, it was the state of affairs with the officers of the civil security and we were doing the press conference. All in all, it lasted about an hour, so the rest of the time, I was at my desk. I had no difficulty reconciling the two, because in addition to that, Mr. Bouchard was in the same building as me, at the offices of Hydro-Québec.


You happened to be discouraged at one time or another ?


Completely discouraged, no. But there came a time, on Friday, 9 January, where I made a prayer. I said to myself : we did everything we could, but then it takes for it to stop. And a few hours later, the freezing rain has stopped.


When we are in the action, we do not think discouragement. Everything goes so fast. This was not the time to be discouraged nor the time to do something else. I do not return to the house, I was always in the office. It was the adrenaline to 100 %.


What have you learned from the ice storm ?


I learned that Quebecers are very resilient. The reason why we could make it through the crisis, it is that the context was generally positive, because people helped each other between family, friends and neighbors.


This is the number of shelters open during the crisis. About 140 000 people have slept at least once.

I’ve also learned that transparency is essential. The press conferences were not a distraction from my work, it was absolutely necessary. Because if people were to criticize Hydro-Québec, now we have not helped them. Our employees gave up because they were encouraged. When an editor line is applauded as he takes his coffee in the restaurant, it is not ill-motivated when he returns on the field.


Do you think that Hydro-Québec’s infrastructure have been adapted to prevent a similar crisis ?


Yes, I think so. We have rebuilt the network, making it more solid, and with the objective of reducing the impact by ten. Therefore, if an outage lasted ten days, it would last now a day.


We are much better prepared. There will be other incidents, but there will be a lot less and they will be less harmful.

The key dates of the ice storm

4 January in the evening and 5 January 1998 the Beginning of the freezing rain in southern Quebec.

6 January, Nearly 650 000 inhabitants of Quebec and Ontario no longer have electricity, the freezing rain continues.

7 January, the Entire region is in the dark, the freezing rain continues.

8 January The Quebec and Ontario declare a state of emergency, the army is called in reinforcement, the freezing rain continues.

9 January, The peak of the crisis. Some 1 400 000 subscribers did not have electricity; 3.5 million people, half of Quebec. Montreal is completely paralyzed, all the bridges to get out to the South Shore are closed, the treatment plants do not have almost any more water.

7 February The electricity is restored almost everywhere.

7 April 1999 submission of the report of the government commission on the crisis, chaired by Roger Nicolet.