Fighting the darkness: how the 1998 ice storm crippled the capital for weeks – Ottawa

The freezing rain had been falling for days by the time Bob Chiarelli got the 3 a.m. phone call.

The power was out, so he dressed in the dark and got into the waiting police car outside.

Chiarelli had been sworn in as chair of the regional municipality of Ottawa-Carleton only three weeks earlier, before unseasonable rain and freezing temperatures coated the city in ice. 

He arrived at the regional command centre, where experts had been monitoring the thickness of the ice as it built up on branches, waiting for the critical moment the weight would topple the trees.

Later that morning, on Jan. 8, 1998,  Chiarelli called a press conference and announced Ottawa was in a region-wide state of emergency. 

Bob Chiarelli, then chair of the region, declares a state of emergency for Ottawa-Carleton on Jan 8, 1998. (CBC)

“That was the start of the ice storm, which most observers would say was a disaster of historic proportions,” Chiarelli told CBC News, looking back 20 years later. 

1-800-NO-RESPONSE

Brand new to the job, Chiarelli found himself in charge of the municipality’s response to a crisis that left thousands without power. His biggest problem was that he couldn’t get in touch with the electricity provider.

“I had to call the premier and say, ‘We can’t get any response, on any phone, or in any way,'” he recalled.

At that point, Ontario Hydro — or Hydro One as it’s now called —  was receiving one call every three seconds from customers.The number became known at emergency headquarters as “1-800-NO-RESPONSE.”

In the aftermath of the storm, Ontario Hydro was berated by the regional government for its handling of the crisis.

“There was a very poor response from Ontario Hydro,”
Mervyn Beckstead, former Chief Administrative Officer 

“There was a very poor response from Ontario Hydro,” said Mervyn Beckstead, who was chief administrative officer for the region at the time.

Beckstead said the criticism hurled at the utility was justified. He recalled how — even after the power company brought a representative to Ottawa to work with the emergency team — she didn’t have any decision-making authority.

It was clear, he said, that Ontario Hydro didn’t understand the seriousness of the disaster.

Delay took days

Erich Neumann was already exhausted by the time the emergency was declared. He worked for Gloucester Hydro, repairing downed power lines during the first wave of freezing rain.

He expected to return…

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