It was 20 years ago today . . . when the skies turned an eerie gray . . .
With apologies to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, it was 20 years ago that Eastern Ontario was hit with a devastating weather phenomenon — the Ice Storm of 1998.
Beginning in the evening of Jan. 4, 1998, low pressure, warm air currents from the Gulf of Mexico met high-pressure, cold currents from the Arctic. When the two systems collided, the warm air rose above the cold. Precipitation fell as rain, but as it reached lower altitudes or hit the ground — it froze.
And it continued for six days.
Coincidentally, January 1998 was significant for another reason. Most of the municipalities in Eastern Ontario had just gone through a restructuring process. Everything was new, the power was out and all hell was breaking loose.
“I had yet to be sworn into office,” said Bill MacDonald, who had been elected Mayor of the newly-created Central Frontenac Township. “I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of tree limbs cracking throughout the sugar bush behind my house.
“I had a tough time just getting out of my driveway.”
Arriving at the Township office, MacDonald learned communications were sketchy at best.
“Not knowing the extent of it all, I told (clerk) Heather Fox and (roads superintendent) Ivan Duffy ‘I think we’ve got something we can’t handle,’” MacDonald said. “I declared a state of emergency.”
Further south, in the newly-formed South Frontenac Township, new Mayor Phil Leonard was in a similar boat. For Leonard though, things were even worse because as Warden (actually Chair of the new Frontenac Management Board), he was responsible for the entire County.
“When it started, we had the trucks out right away,” Leonard said. “But it just kept coming and coming.
“We didn’t have an emergency plan for the Township yet, but Portland Township (Leonard had been Reeve when Portland merged with Loughborough, Bedford and Storrington) was the only one of the four previous townships that did have one.
“I read the first page and immediately declared a state of emergency — which gave me more authority than I wanted.”
The Canadian military put a helicopter at Leonard’s disposal.
“They picked me up at the Keeley Road offices,” Leonard said. “(CBC reporter) Adrienne Arsenault was already on board.”
Their first destination was Camden East to see the western end of the devastation, Leonard said. The second stop was Tichborne, then Plevna, then back to South Frontenac where they landed at the Burridge Firehall.
“While we were there, a 911 call came in,” Leonard said. “An elderly gentleman had had a heart attack and they used the helicopter to airlift him to KGH.
“He survived but I had to hitch a ride back to Sydenham.”
Meanwhile, back in Central Frontenac, things were going from bad to worse.
“It seemed like all the roads were impassible,” MacDonald said. “You’d get a road cleared and next thing you’d know, it would be blocked by fallen branches again.”
But, Central did have a few things going for it.
First of all, like South, one of the former townships (Oso) did have an emergency plan and they wasted no time putting that into action.
Second, the Road 38 corridor still had power.
“It went from three-phase to two-phase but at least the high school had power and served as a shelter,” MacDonald said. “And we had the Township Hall as a command centre and the gas stations.
“That was a Godsend.”
And they had another resource to draw on — the people.
“I know it’s a bit of a cliché but we do have the pioneer spirit here,” MacDonald said. “I always thank the service clubs, the high school, the fire department — everybody.”
By way of example, MacDonald used this anecdote.
“Lindsay Burke lived at the end of Burke Settlement Road,” MacDonald said. “He needed medicine so Vern Crawford set off to get it to him.
“Vern was only able to drive partway down the road, so he walked the rest of the way to get Lindsay his medicine.”
Leonard echoed MacDonald’s sentiments.
“Ten minutes after I declared the state of emergency, the OPP came through the door saying ‘whatever you need, just tell us,’” Leonard said. “I can’t say enough good things about those people and especially Dave Willis.”
And even though South was up to its neck in ice, they still managed to send help to their neighbours.
“We had more big trucks than Central and we sent what we could spare up there,” he said. “We also arranged for help for Frontenac Islands and Kingston stood up to help there.
“Luckily, North Frontenac wasn’t hit as hard (essentially just the Snow Road area was hit bad) but keep in mind, when the power went out, everybody lost the electric pumps for the wells and so had no water.”
Luckily, Leonard knew Loblaw’s chief Galen Weston, having worked for him in the past.
“He delivered whatever I asked for.”
Leonard had praise for his constituents as well.
“Everybody helped out,” he said. “We created a system whereby if you needed help, you put something hanging out of your mailbox and we patrolled the roads with snowmobiles,” he said. “John Shabot of Hydro One was excellent, those people didn’t walk, they ran.
“Gary Davison was the fire chief in Loughborough and worked 24/7, Kingston helped out and Dupont gave us 20 5,500 watt generators that ended up all over the County.
“I can’t say enough about how everybody came together.”
It took a good month before things were returning to normal and the damage could be assessed.
“We did $5.3 million in repairs, most of which was paid by provincial and federal help,” said MacDonald.
“Our entire construction budget that year was ice-storm related,” said Leonard. “In one sense, it was a great time because of how everybody helped one another but it was the worst time in my 24 years in government.”
“I was a baptism under fire,” said MacDonald. “But I still believe from the bottom of my heart that because people in rural communities are used to doing for themselves, that set us up well.”