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20 years after the Ice Storm: With more extreme weather expected, are we ready?

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2017-12-30 Andy Riga, Montreal Gazette

A rare confluence of circumstances is required for freezing rain to develop: precipitation falling in an area where a layer of warm air is sandwiched between two layers of cold air.

The bad news: Montreal is one of the most freezing-rain prone regions in North America. The worse news: climate change may make ice storms more frequent – and more drawn out.

That means we may yet see a replay of the extraordinary 1998 Ice Storm, which plunged half of Quebec into darkness, in some cases for weeks.

Twenty years later, is Quebec’s power supply more secure and are Quebecers better prepared for weather disasters?

***

A remarkable amount of freezing rain fell in southern Quebec between Jan. 5 and Jan. 10, 1998. In some places, 110 millimetres fell, double the normal annual total.

Unable to withstand the weight of the ice, Hydro-Québec structures toppled like dominoes, taking with them wires carrying electricity. The tally: 1,000 steel pylons and 24,000 wood poles damaged, and thousands of kilometres of power lines downed.

By Jan. 6, 700,000 customers were without power. And it got worse.

Four days later, 1.4 million Hydro customers were in the dark, representing 3.5 million people or half the province’s population. Businesses, bridges and highways were closed. Métro service was curtailed. Bank machines went down; stores that remained open couldn’t process credit cards. People were told to avoid blacked-out downtown Montreal. Mail delivery was suspended. There were lineups for gas.

Montrealers didn’t know it at the time but two key water-filtration plants that serve 1.5 million people lost power; they could not pump water to homes and fire hydrants. They were completely down for two hours and partially disabled for five more. Fortunately, no water contamination was reported, nor was any major fire called in. 

With the help of the Armed Forces and crews from other jurisdictions, power was gradually restored. By Day 12, a return to normal was in sight, though 285,000 customers were still without power. In a few areas – including the hardest-hit “triangle of darkness,” around St-Jean-sur-Richelieu – some waited 33 days for power to return.

Thirty Quebecers perished during the storm and its aftermath. Among them, 10 died of burns after using various means – candles, oil lamps, fondue pots – to stay warm, with another six dying of carbon monoxide poisoning after firing up generators indoors. Four people died after falling off roofs they were clearing of ice.

The storm also ravaged parts of Ontario and the northeastern United States. It was the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history. In Quebec alone, the damage was estimated at $3 billion.

***

Eyad Atallah studies extreme precipitation.

He’s expecting to be busy in the years to come, due to climate change.

Freezing rain normally occurs only a handful of times per winter in Montreal and it lasts only a few hours, said Atallah, a research associate at McGill University’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department.

The 1998 storm was almost unprecedented because the weather mix remained stationary for several days, he noted.

Due to climate change, in the future “it’s quite probable that when we do have ice storms, the accumulations of ice will be larger,” Atallah said.

“That’s because the amount of precipitation we expect in storms in general is going to go up as the atmosphere warms up. We’re already seeing that trend; we don’t even need to go into projections.”

Experts expect more precipitation will fall in the form of freezing rain in the future, and scientists think that due to climate change, “patterns will be moving more slowly and so storms may be more persistent,” Atallah said. 

But so far there’s no “statistically significant trend in the data” to predict an increase in the number of ice storms – prolonged periods of freezing rain that cause significant ice accumulation.

How should Quebec prepare?

“The only thing you can really do is work on infrastructure and on emergency-response management,” Atallah said.

At the peak of the 1998 storm, a single teetering transmission line remained to power the entire island of Montreal.

“If that line had gone down, the humanitarian disaster would have been much worse,” Atallah said. “Shelters would have been lost, hospitals would have lost power. We were really on the brink of a much bigger disaster.” 

But emergency-preparedness isn’t just Hydro’s responsibility, he added.

“People died (in 1998) of carbon monoxide poisoning because they were trying to heat their homes with inappropriate means,” Atallah said. “We have to make sure people are educated about what they can and can’t do. We need shelters that are stormproof, and to make sure that people have safer alternatives for heating homes.”

***

Marie-Ève Grenier is working to ensure that future power failures aren’t as devastating.

An engineer, she works in the Hydro-Québec division that operates and develops transmission lines.

The utility spent $2 billion in the aftermath of 1998, rebuilding its network and adding capacity, including new transmission lines serving Montreal and areas south of the city.

“We improved the configuration of the transmission system,” Grenier said.

“We built new lines so that we have ‘loops’ – if a transmission line fails, we have alternative paths for the electricity. If we have one line failure, we can count on another one.”

One of the new loops serves downtown Montreal.

In addition to the redundant power supply, Hydro upgraded the network of enormous towers that carry transmission lines and the wood poles that carry power to homes and businesses.

Every tenth transmission pylon is now a more robust “anti-cascading tower” that is heavier and stronger than other towers, Grenier said. That means fewer would fall in an ice storm, she said, noting that “in 1998, 40, 50 kilometres of lines were crashing down.”

And cables attached to anti-cascading towers are fastened in such a way that if ice-laden cables plunge to the ground, they won’t bring the tower down with them, she added.

After the storm, a public inquiry headed by engineer Roger Nicolet recommended Hydro-Québec bury distribution lines, which in most parts of Quebec are overhead, held up by utility poles.

But Hydro deemed that measure infeasible because burying all of Quebec’s distribution lines would cost $80 billion, Grenier said. 

“We decided to go for a compromise” by fortifying wood poles so they better withstand harsh weather, she added.

In 1998, many wood poles snapped in two or were toppled.

Newer poles are a bit thicker, and the part atop poles that holds up the wires, known as a “crossarm,” is now made of plastic instead of wood. In extreme weather, the plastic crossarms break, not the poles.

“You don’t avoid the power failure but it’s faster to restore it,” Grenier said.

Other post-1998 Hydro innovations include a de-icing gizmo that uses a revolver barrel and blank cartridges to break the ice on overhead ground wires.

Hydro also intensified vegetation control because falling branches and entire trees felled many power lines in 1998.

Grenier said Quebecers worried about a replay of 1998 can rest easy.

“We have a more robust, reliable grid,” she said. “We can’t be totally immune (to major storms) but the impact of another ice storm would be minimized and the service would be restored quickly.”

If Quebec experienced a repeat of January 1998’s weather, the power might go off, but “instead of a couple of weeks, it would be more in terms of days.”

***

Éric Houde is known as Monsieur Catastrophes.

He’s Quebec’s disaster point man, dealing with catastrophes such as the 2013 derailment of a train carrying crude oil that claimed 47 lives in Lac-Mégantic, and the 2014 fire that killed 32 people in a seniors’ residence in L’Isle-Verte.

The Ice Storm was a game changer for emergency preparedness in Quebec, Houde said.

“The government response is now structured, organized – it’s like an orchestra, everybody knows their roles,” every department knows its responsibilities, said Houde. His official title is director of operations for Quebec’s civil protection department, the outfit responsible for readying the province for disasters.

After 1998, Quebec reorganized and expanded its network of emergency-response offices and started working more closely with municipalities, which are responsible for managing emergencies within their jurisdictions.

“We ask the municipalities to inform people of local risks – whether that’s living near a waterway, a railway, an industrial park or some other risk – and to inform the population on the measures to take in case an event happens,” Houde said.

By law, Quebec municipalities must have an emergency plan in place, but Houde acknowledged that some are more prepared than others.

The province guides cities and towns as they analyze risks and prepare for any contingency. They should, for example, have access to a generator-equipped co-ordination centre, as well as sources of fuel for generators in a power failure and of drinking water in case the waterworks are down, Houde said.

He also has advice for the public.

“What I say to my family is, ‘(In an emergency) would you be self-sufficient for 72 hours? Would you have enough drinkable water? Would you have enough money in your pocket if the bank machines weren’t working? Is your car’s gas tank full in case there’s a fuel shortage?’” 

Houde wants all Quebecers to visit his department’s website to get a list of supplies that every home should have in its three-day emergency kit

In its 1999 report, the Nicolet Ice Storm inquiry said it should not be surprising that Quebec lacked a “culture of civil security focused on prevention and preparation” because, as a society, the province considers itself invulnerable.

Quebecers think “disturbances of the past will not be repeated. Events such as the War Measures Act of October 1970, the (Oka) crisis of 1990, the St-Basile-le-Grand PCB fire or the Saguenay floods are perceived as isolated one-off phenomena,” the report said.

But Houde said that changed after 1998.

“More and more people are conscious of the fact that you have to be prepared,” he said. “They know that preparation and prevention are key.”

Today, Quebec also knows it must learn from mistakes, Houde added, noting the province has a policy of debriefing officials after disasters.

This month, Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux hosted a meeting of provincial and municipal officials to review the response to devastating floods that inundated more than 5,000 homes in Montreal and other parts of Quebec in the spring of 2017.

The look back provided a stark reminder that emergency planning still needs work.

Coiteux’s department disclosed a government-commissioned survey that found widespread dissatisfaction among flood victims.

Six out of 10 said their municipality provided no safety tips before the floods and half said they were not satisfied with the municipal help they received during the flooding. Most also said they were dissatisfied with Quebec’s compensation program.

“It’s true that it wasn’t perfect,” Coiteux said of Quebec’s flood crisis management. “We can do better in all three phases” of a disaster – before, during and after.

ariga@postmedia.com
twitter.com/andyriga

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