By Tom Collins
Twenty years after Canada’s worst-ever ice storm in recent memory caused millions of dollars in damages, many farmers keep emergency generators at the ready just in case.
For six days from Jan. 5, 1998, Eastern Canada was pounded with rain that immediately froze when it touched anything solid, building up enough weight to drag to the ground electricity wires, wooden poles and even apartment-tall metal towers. About 85 mm of freezing rain, ice pellets and a smattering of snow plummeted around Ottawa. That was almost double what previous major ice storms recorded.
Icicle hell pulled down or bent millions of trees, damaged 120,000 km of power lines and telephone cables, 130 major transmission towers and about 30,000 wooden utility poles. About 16,000 soldiers were deployed to help with clean up and evacuation. They knocked on thousands of doors to ensure people were safe. There were at least 25 deaths, many from hypothermia. At the peak of the storm, 4 million people in Eastern Ontario, Western Quebec and northern New York state were without power. Some Ontario residents were without power for weeks.
An estimated 10,000 farms in Eastern Ontario recorded losses of about $11 million. Within a month, piling ice caused more than 20 barn roofs to implode. At Thurler’s farm at Brinston, south of Winchester, 15 dairy cows died when the roof caved in. Some dairy farmers began milking by hand.
Many farmers scrambled for generators to milk their cows and draw water. Stores sold out of generators, while flashlights and batteries were almost impossible to find. Neighbours stepped up in a big way. Dairy and hog farmers shared generators to run milking machines and to care for new-born piglets. Neighbours used chainsaws to cut out David Shaw’s roadway so that he could bring water to his beef animals. Families with hot water became community drop-in centres for folks in need of a shower.
It was also difficult to get milk off farms as processing plants were shut down. Statistics Canada says about 2.3 million litres of Ontario milk and 3.3 million litres of Quebec milk were dumped. StatCan says 1 million litres of Ontario milk was sent to a processing facility in Michigan.
The ice storm caused a 25 per cent reduction of Ontario maple syrup production in the following months.