Ross Murray's Border Report
Ross Murray
is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at
Posted 01.11.08
Stanstead, Quebec


Reliving Quebec's "Ice" Storm of 1998

STANSTEAD, QC | Here along the Quebec-Vermont border, the '98 ice storm was like being the best man at a wedding -- all the anxiety and sense of impending doom without actually having to suffer.

A part of me feels we missed out on a great adventure, something we could tell our grandkids and radio phone-in shows. But then I remember that people suffered terribly, died even. I then feel blessed. And a bit of a jerk.

I remember feeling equally conflicted at the time. I was the editor of The Journal back in 1998 and was ready to capture the drama of the ice storm when it hit us. Okay... Let's go... Any time now...

But the ice never came. Instead, we got five days of rain. Pure rain. Someone could have sold T-shirts that read, "I experienced the ice storm and all I got was wet socks."

All that rain - including 60 millimetres on Thursday alone - caused the Tomifobia River to overflow in the usual places. The most dramatic moment occurred when security officials shut the bridge at Bacon's Bay because they feared ice flowing in the high water might damage the structure.

It didn't.

Not exactly collapsing Hydro pylons.

And that's good. Yes, that was good. But not a great news story.

I kept traveling the roads looking for the story, picking up details of what had been hit and what people were doing. In fact, if you traveled up Highway 143, you could actually see where the rain had turned to freezing rain. Appropriately, it was at North Road in Hatley.

The story at the border really began the weekend after the ice storm when people started gathering supplies for displaced and darkened victims.

Here's how it worked: Granby officials called Magog for help, Magog called the surrounding communities, especially the churches, and by Sunday evening four 27-foot trucks filled to capacity with food, bedding, and clothes were on their way to Granby.

And there was more.

The Beebe Fire Department collected blankets. Students at Ayer's Cliff Elementary collected fifteen bags of groceries. The White House seniors' residence gave $90. A plea to Stanstead council by a former border resident living in Otterburn Park resulted in a spontaneous collection of firewood - seven cords in all.

Here at last was our story: neighbours helping neighbours, happy to do so and feeling pretty fortunate. In fact, on the Tuesday after the ice storm as we prepared that week's Journal, I wrote this headline for the front page: "WE GOT LUCKY"

And then the lights went out.

It was 1:30 p.m. Snow that Tuesday had put further strain on a weakened electrical grid, shutting the lights on those parts of the Eastern Townships that until then had managed to keep power.

With the help of The Journal's neighbour (but of course!), we hooked up a generator and, with a Polaroid camera (Polaroid!), updated our news section on this latest turn of events and made our press deadline - only to learn that The [Sherbrooke]Record couldn't print us that night. All those stories about relief efforts and the convoy of American hydro trucks crossing the border would have to wait. I was disappointed.

But a little excited too. We were going to have an adventure after all!

I came home to a dark house and shifted into crisis mode. Portable radio? Check. Flashlights? Check. Candles? Check. And most important, is there anything in the freezer we should eat before it melts? Check.

As night fell, the family hunkered down on mattresses on the living room floor. I don't know why. For heat? To test drive what it would be like to stay at a shelter? At any rate, we were all set.

How long would we be in the dark? Would we need to evacuate? Would the media christen our region with some cool name, like "The Dark Rhombus"? I guess we'd have something to tell our grandkids after all.

The lights came back on at 10:30.

Oh well, "helping neighbours" is a pretty good story. Fortunate helping neighbours...