The Ice Storm of January 1998 came with little warning, starting with a steady rain and then air too cold to allow it to evaporate. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the weather phenomenon, which brought life for many to a standstill, and forced communities to band together to ride out the storm. In the aftermath, resiliency set in and North Dundas, and its neighbours, persevered. Follow along with the Winchester Press as we recount the calamity and the recovery.    

WINCHESTER – It was a storm unlike any this country has ever seen. It didn’t show up with a bang, but rather a slow drizzle that eventually accumulated into an avalanche of ice that left 250,000 people in the dark.

Freezing rain, for most people, is merely an annoyance. It cripples traffic, extends the commute and cancels school buses. But in 1998, freezing rain became an emergency condition.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 10, an unprecedented 80 millimetres of freezing rain fell in the area, throwing the power grid and regional infrastructure into chaos. It was a trial by fire for the newly amalgamated Township of North Dundas and then mayor, the late Claude Cousineau.

“People were just working their butts off,” Cousineau told the Press in a 2008 interview, 10 years after the storm. “We had crews working in the garages [repairing generators] around the clock. And we had real good support from the army guys.”

A state of emergency was declared on Thurs., Jan. 8 with more than 45,000 customers in the Winchester area alone without power. Cousineau also called an emergency council meeting that day and staff pulled out emergency plans from the previous four municipalities to get everyone organized.

Countless volunteers stepped forward as community shelters were established at the Oddfellows hall in South Mountain, the Morewood Community Centre, the Winchester Curling Club, and North Dundas District High School (NDDHS). Local businesses also pitched in. Andy’s Foodland, Seaway Valley Pharmacy in Winchester and Mike Dean’s Super Food Store in Chesterville all stayed open, despite not having power, so residents could get supplies.

In those first few days, it was up to the municipality, OPP and the local fire department to make sure everyone stayed safe. Tony Fraser had only been with the fire department for three years at that point and remembers it well.

“What really stood out to me, and still does today, was the co-operative effort. Firefighters’ spouses, families and even people with no connection to us, showed up to volunteer, they wanted to help.”

One of the most lasting memories for Fraser is of the quiet that fell on the rural landscape in the aftermath.

“The utter quiet and solitude when we would go out on those country roads. The whole look of the landscape had changed. It was eerie and peaceful. It was as if Armageddon had come and gone,” remembered Fraser.

At that time there were about 100 volunteer firefighters and almost every single one of them worked around the clock for as many days as they could. They would do everything from replacing and repairing farm generators, pumping out flooded basements, carrying firewood and responding to emergency calls.

While many volunteers like Fraser were providing essential services, they also had families at home. With his wife battling pneumonia, Fraser’s family and friends made sure that everyone was well looked after. Fraser thinks that while it was a difficult time, it gave people and families a chance to reconnect.

“We would go to different farm houses and sometimes there would be two or three different generations all around the fireplace. Almost like a reunion. It was a return to a time that you’ve only read about,” Fraser said. “My in-laws had a garage with a woodstove in it. People would drop by at all hours to play ping-pong, table top hockey or just have a warm meal. There was a lot of benefit to it. People got to know each other again.”

On Mon., Jan. 12, the Reconnaissance Squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons moved into the area. There were 114 soldiers stationed at NDDHS, 68 at Winchester Public School, 25 at command headquarters at Ontario Hydro in Winchester and more than 200 in Kemptville. More than 15,000 personnel were deployed in total, making “Operation Recuperation” the largest peacetime deployment of troops in Canadian history. The military’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time and for many people they were a godsend. Capt. Fernando Martins, second in command with the Royal Canadian Dragoons at NDDHS, knew there was much to be done.

“We’re here to help with physical labour, pulling up lines, and delivering supplies. We also have trained mechanics with us, who are helping to fix hydro vehicles,” Martins told the Press at the time. “We are a self-sufficient organization. We have our own cooks, our own kitchen, mechanics, and other trades people in our ranks. We can help out in many ways.”

Tyler Patterson, a Grade 12 student at NDDHS at that time, remembers it well.

“I had to shower at the school because we had no running water at the house. We had to melt snow to get drinking water or to do dishes. But having those military LAV vehicles in the parking lot of the high school was pretty cool.”

Not only were the Dragoons in town, Premier Mike Harris, federal minister of agriculture Lyle Vanclief and Prime Minister Jean Chretien all paid a visit to the area.

Vanclief made it to the farm of Denis St. Pierre a mere three hours after power had been restored to the farm. He spoke with farmers about damage to property, insurance, farm credit, and government reimbursement for lost livestock and milk that had to be dumped during the crisis.

“There has to be patience. We’ve never been here before,” Vanclief said during the visit. “We’re not faulting anybody – we just weren’t prepared.”

The mention of price gouging brought a disappointed response from the minister

“It’s disgusting. A situation like this brings people together, but it brings out bad things too,” Vanclief added. “Keep your chins up. You’ve all shown how you can pull together through the community. This will be a stronger community and country when this is all over.”

Price gouging wasn’t the only example of questionable activities as six volunteers who came from Western Ontario left a restaurant bill of $1,100 with council. The bills, charged at Kay Tab’s, included chili, lasagna, pizza, chicken wings, 26 double rye and cokes, 40 beers, seven tequila shots and 12 double Crown Royals.

In an unprecedented visit, Chretien met with soldiers and hydro representatives at the Winchester Community Centre, which served as the emergency operations base. “Everybody is helping everybody; farmers are helping other farmers, and volunteers are moving in. A big thank you to everybody – you are all acting as great citizens,” he said. The prime minister also visited Parmalat Canada’s operation where he promised financial assistance.

By Jan. 19, life was starting to return to normal with the municipality focusing more on recovery and most kids back in school. However, some residents, like Patterson and his family, would still be without power for days.

“I made a bet with my teacher, Mr. Jean, to see who would get power sooner or who could last longer without it,” Patterson laughed.

His recollection of the Ice Storm echoes many of the sentiments shared by the people that lived through the event, including Fraser.

“I look back at it with a sense of fondness, not grief… It was something that caused us to come together, bind us together. For me it was a great learning experience. It proved the mettle of the community. It was a real coming of age,” Fraser said.