From late Sunday, January 4 to Saturday, January 10, 1998, freezing rain lashed eastern Ontario and southwestern Quebec before heading into Canada’s Atlantic provinces. In Ontario, the storm dumped 85 millimeters of freezing rain on Ottawa, 73 millimeters on Kingston and 108 millimeters on Cornwall. In Quebec, 100 millimeters ravaged Montreal and parts of the province’s south shore. By January 18, 25 Canadians were dead.
Emergency crews worked around the clock responding to reports of trees pulling down hydro poles and ice toppling transmission pylons. Close to 110,000 homes, farms and businesses ("customers") in eastern Ontario were without electricity. In Quebec, 1.4 million customers lost power – translating into roughly three million people or half the province’s population. At the storm’s height January 9, more than 10 per cent of Canadians were without electricity. The worst of the devastation stretched more than 300 kilometers from Ottawa/Carlton through Montreal to Drummondville, Quebec (see Figure 1). Scores of municipalities and townships in the affected area declared a state of emergency and the federal government mobilized over 15,500 soldiers in the biggest peacetime deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces in the country’s history.
The severity of an ice storm depends largely on the accumulation of ice, the location and extent of the area affected and the duration of the event. Based on these criteria, Ice Storm 98 was the worst to hit Canada in recent memory. Previous major ice storms in the region, notably December 1986 in Ottawa and February 1961 in Montreal, deposited between 30 to 40 millimeters of ice – about half the thickness from Ice Storm 98.
Figure 1: Map of the affected area
As with any loss event, occurrences in remote areas are often inconsequential. However this storm brutalized one of the largest urban areas in North America – the extent of the region affected by the ice was enormous. Freezing precipitation is often described as "a line of" or "spotty occurrences of". But at the peak of the storm, the area of freezing precipitation extended from Muskoka and Kitchener through eastern Ontario, western Quebec and the Eastern Townships to the Fundy coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In the United States, ice also coated Northern New York and parts of New England.
Aside from the huge area affected, the ice storm was unusual because it went on for so long. On average, Ottawa and Montreal receive freezing precipitation 12 to 17 days a year. Each episode generally lasts for only a few hours for an annual average total of between 45 and 65 hours. During this event, the number of hours of freezing rain and drizzle was in excess of 80 – nearly double the normal annual total.