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When Everything is Cold and Dark: The Daily Lives of Ice-storm Victims

Early January. It gets dark at 5 pm. Outside, it is pitch black. The stores are running low on candles, oil lamps, batteries, fondue fuel and propane. There is a run on gas stations as people try to fill up their cars. They are afraid that stations will run out of gas, since no deliveries are coming. Lines of two and a half hours long are seen in some places.

Although many businesses are closed and most people do not have to go to work, gas is still needed to run generators and to fetch firewood, and for commuters working outside the Black Triangle. Iberville even went so far as to ration gas, to ensure that municipal services and emergency vehicles had enough. Some rural residents also had no water since their wells were not working. Generators were brought in from all over, from any place that they could be found. Those who did not manage to get one tried to concoct makeshift heating arrangements. The solutions were not always safe and a number of people ended up in the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. On January 13, an intense cold warning was issued and Premier Lucien Bouchard asked people to leave their houses: “If you don’t have adequate heating, please leave your home, for heaven’s sake!”

The major issue for homeowners was their basement sump pumps. Without electricity, sump pumps (unless they have  a battery backup system, which was rare in those days) do not work, causing basements to flood. In some places, neighbours got together to share a generator so that they could pump out the water daily. In other places, soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) were assigned this task on a full-time basis.

“It was that spirit of solidarity where everyone was ready to help someone else. People would ask “Do you need anything?” As many people from your neighbourhood as from outside were ready to help you.”

Nicole Mongeon, Shelter Volunteer

The key was having enough firewood to keep warm. Often military personnel supervised the distribution of free firewood, which was arriving in huge quantities from all over Quebec, including such regions as Abitibi, James Bay, Gaspé and Saguenay. The last region was returning the favour, so to speak, for the help it received from the Montérégie region during the Saguenay floods of 1996.