In better times than these, the Montregie region - a wedge lying southeast of Montreal and extending almost to the New England border - is a pleasing realm of tidy farms, hard-working factory towns and picturesque church spires.
Today it’s called the “Triangle of Darkness,” the zone worst hit by a devastating ice storm that left millions of people in Ontario, Quebec and the maritime provinces without heat or power beginning Jan. 6.
Most of eastern Canada is struggling back to life and light. In the Triangle, however, nearly 1 million people are still shivering in darkened homes or cheerless emergency shelters and have been warned that it will be at least a week before power is restored.
“It’s like the apocalypse here,” said Louise Roussel, a retired nurse who has worked long hours for the last 10 days in an emergency shelter where 300 people, ranging from elderly invalids to squalling infants, lie on Army-issue cots listening to the latest bad news on the radio.
“There’s no escape, we are in a frozen hell,” she said.
Military convoys rumble along barely cleared streets through a weather warscape of shattered power poles, grotesquely twisted transmission pylons and toppled trees by the tens of thousands. Every structure and standing tree is sheathed in thick ice whose terrible weight is responsible for the wreckage in one of North America’s worst natural disasters. And snow keeps falling.
The ordeal has been worsened by plummeting temperatures, increasing the danger of hypothermia. “The cold is a killer, a real danger,” said Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, imploring citizens to abandon their homes.
Military troops have been given police powers to guard against looters and enforce emergency regulations under the War Measures Act.
Police, meanwhile, have been given sweeping authority to forcibly remove people from their homes, if necessary. Teams of troops and police, armed with warrants empowering them to enter homes without permission, are going door to door in the most stricken communities, advising residents to seek refuge in emergency shelters and ordering the evacuation of those deemed to be at risk, a controversial practice apparently not supported by any law.
“If a family seems in good shape, we are advising them to leave, but not ordering them,” said police Sgt. Josee Allard. “But if we feel a person’s life is in danger, we will remove them, and worry about legalities later.”
At least three people have died from hypothermia, the medical term for loss of body heat. In addition, health officials describe an “epidemic” of carbon monoxide poisoning - more than 640 cases, including six fatalities - caused by fumes from makeshift heaters.
Canada is a land almost defined by ice and cold. “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver,” in the famous words of balladeer Gilles Vigneault: My country is not a country, it is winter.
Quebecers, especially, take pride in their ability to swagger through whatever winter can dish out. But the savagery of this ice storm stunned normally imperturbable meteorologists.
“There’s never been a Canadian weather event that has impacted more people than this,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada. “This is big-time sorrow.”
From the capital city of Ottawa to the country’s second-largest urban center, Montreal, more than 3.5 million people were trapped in the cold and darkness for more than a week in a storm that caused more than $1 billion in damage and triggered the largest peacetime military mobilization in Canada’s history. Some 14,600 troops were deployed to the region to clear roads, dole out hot rations from field kitchens, and assist in jammed emergency shelters.
At least 10,000 soldiers along with 6,000 police and 5,000 utility workers, including many crews from New England, were working around the clock in the Triangle on Thursday as temperatures hovered a degree or two above zero. Blinding snow slowed helicopter evacuations of trapped rural residents and deliveries of generators, medical supplies, bedding, and food.
“The most urgent task is convincing cold, frightened people that they must leave their homes,” said Colonel Gaston Cote, chief of army forces in the region. “The cold is affecting not only people’s health, but their ability to reason.”
But tens of thousands of people are sticking to their homes, fearful of looters or reluctant to abandon household pets. Emergency shelters, full to overflowing, refuse to admit animals.
“I will not leave my cat to freeze, it’s unthinkable,” said Patricia Foisey, who is in her 60s and lives in a rural district near Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville. She has a small fireplace, but the temperature in her house was just 37 degrees, a dangerous level for prolonged periods, according to health officials. “Missy is my best friend.”
Relief officials also report that new immigrants to Canada, especially people from oppressive regimes, are so fearful of authorities that they hide when soldiers or police knock on doors. Xee-Sau Tse, 88, from China, was found frozen to death in her Brossard house after ignoring police.
In Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, another devastated community, enormous construction bulldozers were clearing roads of ice so thick that it could not be dented by ordinary snowplows. Nearly every factory and business in town was closed. Residents spend their days scrounging for candles, batteries and food that can be eaten without cooking.
“We live on bread, Spam and candy bars,” said Jean Bergeron.
Farmers, especially apple and maple growers, have been terribly hit. Quebec is the largest maple syrup producer in the world, and the heavy ice destroyed tens of thousands of sugar maples, in some cases shattering entire stands.
“You sit there and hear the trees exploding like artillery,” said Roddie Dupont, 63, whose family has farmed the same land for 150 years.