Three heroes of the shadow tell about their ice storm

Photo: Ryan Remiorz, The canadian Press
The workers Harold Boudreault Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean, and Roch Bresson, Sacred Heart, assemble a new tower above a field of Otterburn Park, in Montérégie.

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.

Away from the spotlight, many actors have played a crucial role to help the disaster victims during the ice storm. Three of them have accepted to deliver their testimony to the Duty.


Marcèle Lamarche, former executive director of Moisson Montréal

Photo: Marcèle Lamarche

When the ice storm hit in January 1998, Moisson Montréal had just moved from just three months in the premises it still occupies today, alongside highway 520. The excess space of the warehouse, which was to be used over the years, it has been useful much earlier than expected.


“At a certain time, he created what was called the black triangle [formed by the cities of Saint-Hyacinthe, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Granby]. The civil security we were told that we were going to take charge of the distribution of food to the affected municipalities, ” recalls Marcèle Lamarche, today general director of le Chaînon.


In normal times, Montreal Harvest delivered approximately 40 tonnes of food per day to approximately 250 community organizations in montreal. In the space of a month, this number was multiplied by seven.


“It was happening from all sides,” recalls Ms. Lamarche. In addition to donations from Quebec or Ontario, the organization has received a shipment by air to Vancouver as well as dairy products from Vermont.


“We received loads of New Brunswick, we didn’t know who it came from. It happened, the truck was emptied and sped off. There was no inventory. It was simply people who had decided to fill a truck and send it to us. “


At the height of the crisis, a quarantine of employees and volunteers buzzed about Moisson Montreal, not to mention the support of soldiers from operate forklifts or inspectors of the ministry of Agriculture who provided advice for the management of perishable foods. The ground outside was a freezer and a warehouse not heated was transformed into a refrigerator giant.


“I was a witness to all that entered. I have seen in the first line, the movement of solidarity and support to businesses and surrounding municipalities, said Ms. Lamarche. I remember a truck that was sent on the road. There was a little place and we had just received a shipment of pies, steaming hot pastries. We said : before you close the truck, we are going to put it in. When they go to open it, it will give them a dose of happiness. “


Twenty years later, the ex-director is also always grateful to those who gave all during these weeks charged emotions. “Of course, I saluted the work of the guys at Hydro-Québec who repaired the lines, but my heroes to me, were those who harboured these villages, while continuing to deliver food in the Greater Montreal area. “


Myroslaw Smereka, a former mayor of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu

Photo: Myroslaw Smereka

“We have had to adapt to a situation that no one has been able to consider,” says Myroslaw Smereka, who was then mayor of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu during the ice storm. This municipality in the “black triangle” has been one of the most affected in Quebec.


“I can say that I saw the most beautiful and the most ugly of the human. For a month, I have been responsible for the life of 37 000 inhabitants. There have been examples of quite incredible solidarity, but there were also acts of selfishness “, he says, referring to some people without scruples who stole the generator to their neighbor.


During the first days of the crisis, Mr Smereka was home to the complexe sportif Claude-Raymond, just to the side of the versatile information on the whereabouts of a good portion of the victims of the city. “It was paradoxical because, in the section of the pool, there was only one light in the little cubicle where I slept. I had to hide the face to sleep, so that my entire city was in the black. “


Following the first precipitation of ice, the high school hosted a crowd of about fifty people. But after a few days, nearly 2000 victims were crammed in the class of the versatile.


“Since the first day, we had appealed to the Red Cross to have beds, sheets, pillows, but nothing happened, tells the ex-mayor. The decision was made to purchase the necessary at Zellers with the money of the City. “


“People had almost brought nothing with them. Because, in their minds, it was never going to last more than two or three days. Nobody thought that it would last a month. “


Myroslaw Smereka guard visibly bitter memories of the relationship between the municipality and the political power of the time. He remembers that the staff of the military base of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu has not been able to respond for several days because of the negotiations between the premiers Lucien Bouchard and Jean Chrétien.


“We had a garrison in our city, a few thousands of soldiers, but they had not the order to help us,” he laments.


Not counting the cheques of $ 70 per affected offered by Mr. Bouchard. “It has not sent a single official to manage the distribution of cheques. It was us, who were already overwhelmed by the ice, we organize, ” he said. We struggled like crazy, but we made it ! “


The stress accumulated during this month of intense work has not been without consequence : in July, Mr Smereka was struck down by a heart attack. “I have a stent as a souvenir of this year. “


Gilles Dufault, former director-general of the hôpital Pierre-Boucher and amateur radio

Photo: Gilles Dufault

Dressed in his usual white coat hypertension, Gilles Dufault has spent the majority of the ice storm to handle the traffic exceptional the hôpital Pierre-Boucher, but he has also contributed to the collective effort of an unsuspected way.


In 1971, he discovered the world of amateur radio operators — these operators are volunteers who communicate between them by radio waves — seeing them at work in the emergency services support during the landslide of St-Jean-Vianney.


And in 1994, the regional Conference of the hospitals in the Montérégie has entrusted the mandate to install the infrastructure necessary to allow amateur radio operators to provide emergency communications between the public hospitals in the Montérégie region.


The vision of Mr. Dufault will somehow have been prescient, as in 1998, these facilities have greatly facilitated communication at the beginning of the crisis. While the storm was raging, amateur radio operators were able to transmit information from one hospital to another, but also to the police, the paramedics or the military.


“Every day, I have received reports that summarized the state of the situation in the hospital or in other hospitals, such as the occupancy of beds, or patients in the emergency waiting hospitalization,” says Mr. Dufault. With the traditional means of communication, we could not have access to this information. There was no phone ! “


“There was a amateur radio in the bus that were sharing the disaster victims in the temporary shelters. It was said to him take this road because this one was not passable. There was ice everywhere, trees, it was something ! “


“I remember one evening, says Mr. Dufault. It was 19: 30. A security officer comes to me and says, with a tear to the eye, that his parents live in Gatineau, they have left their home to go into a temporary accommodation centre and that he does not know how to reach them. We climbed to the centre of the emergency measures, it was quickly joined Gatineau on a particular frequency, it has been in contact with the accommodation centre and, in the space of five minutes, we could find the parents. “


For the rest, Gilles Dufault salutes the work of its hospital employees, who have worked day and night to accommodate and care for a record number of visitors. He speaks of a ” successful group indisputable, in the interest of patients and disaster victims “.