1998 Quebec ice storm: Memories from a reporter in the middle of disaster

Residents get out the shovels in Montreal following the ice storm of 1998. Rob Galbraith/CP PHOTO

During the ice storm, I would say pick a distance — maybe 10 kilometres — and spin a bottle.  If you headed 10 kilometers in that direction, you’d find an incredibly compelling story. During the ice storm, it felt like everyone was living something incredible.

Here are some of my memories of that disastrous time:

1) I was sent to do a story about a shelter at a recreational centre in Beaconsfield, in Montreal’s West Island, just a few blocks from where I grew up.

The first people I met were Mr. and Mrs. Scarlett, neighbours from up the street. The shelter was full of people I knew. It was terrible to see.

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2) My apartment in Dorval had power most of the time. One night, I called a friend and told him he and his family should come over. I hung up the phone and my power went out. I called him back and said never mind.

I was hungry and the only thing I had was a can of peas. I opened it, and ate them cold. The second I finished forcing them down…the power went back on. It was literally the only time I lost electricity.

3) To get home each night, I would take 55th Avenue in Lachine and the strangest thing would happen. One day, the west side of the street would have power, and the east side would be dark. The next night, the east side would have power and the west side would be out. Then it was the opposite again. I still think of it every time I go down that street.

4) Our old office faced the Jacques Cartier Bridge. It looked closed, so I called the Sûreté du Québec (SQ) to get an explanation. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Sorry to bother. I see the Jacques Cartier is closed.

SQ: I’m not sure.

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Me: Can you check?

SQ: Why would I?

Me: What do you mean?

SQ: I don’t care if the bridge is closed.

Me: What do you mean you don’t care?

SQ: Why would I care?

Me: You’re the police. This is huge!

SQ: We’re not the police. This is a restaurant.

I’d called the wrong number.

5) Cameraman Pascal l’Heureux and I went out to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, on Montreal’s south shore, to see how people were coping. We knocked on a few doors and met the Choquettes, an elderly couple and had been without power for days.

They had run out of firewood and couldn’t get any more. Desperately, Mr. Choquette went to his basement, and started pulling the walls apart to burn.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door and Mrs. Choquette answered it. There were two men from the Saguenay who said they had been at home and wanted to help. “We have a load of wood,” one man said. “Do you need any?”

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WATCH: Quebecers remember 1998 ice storm

Click to play video: 'Quebecers remember 1998 ice storm'
Quebecers remember 1998 ice storm

6) I drove home the night Montreal lost power. I needed gas. Thankfully, the Petro-Canada on Saint-Jacques Street in NDG, west of downtown Montreal was open.

I remember filling up and looking around. There was no wind. Nothing was moving. All you could hear was cracking and falling ice. I’ve never seen the city so dark. It was a completely surreal moment… and the point where I realized we were in the middle of a disaster.

7) I visited a school that had been closed for nearly two weeks. The board scrambled and put together a trip for a bunch of kids to Grand Forks, B.C. They called it “Operation Freeze Lift.” More than 50 kids were flown out for 10 days to the other side of the country. A school trip like that would normally take months and months to plan. They did it in two days.

I remember one of the kids saying he was looking forward to going to B.C. and going to school again. He told me he never thought he’d say that.

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GALLERY: The Ice Storm of 1998

Pedestrians make their way past broken branches as clean-up operations begin in Montreal following an ice storm in 1998. Ryan Remiorz/CP PHOTO
Hydro workers prepare equipment to replace downed transmission towers in St. Sebastien, Quebec, after an ice storm knocked out power to nearly 900,000 people in the province. Ryan Remiorz/CP PHOTO
Residents get out the shovels in Montreal following the ice storm of 1998. Rob Galbraith/CP PHOTO
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces walk to their headquarters in Westmount on January 9, 1998, after the ice storm of 1998. Robert Galbraith/CP PHOTO
Cpl. Chris Mckee (centre) along with other members of the Royal Canadian Dragoons clear branches from roads in the east end of Ottawa after a devastating ice storm struck eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec in 1998. Jonathan Hayward/CP PHOTO

8) On a Monday, I pitched a story to our assignment editor and news director. I remember every word of the conversation:

Me: “There’s an elderly couple, almost in their 90s. They’ve got no power, but refuse to leave their home.”

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Lis: “Okay, do it.”

Me: “There’s just one problem. They’re my grandparents.”

Lis: “How would you do it?”

Me: “First person.”

Lis: (pause) “Do you think it will work?”

Me: “Yes.”

Lis: “Okay.”

Cameraman Jeff Stephen and I drove to Granby the next day; it won a national award. The plaque hung at my grandparents’ home until they moved out. Then Gramps hung it up at the seniors’ residence, in the hall where everyone could see it.

They’ve both passed since then. Now it’s at the cottage.


Mike Armstrong is Global News’ national reporter in Quebec. 

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