Meet 1 of the Hydro-Québec workers who restored power to thousands in the 1998 ice storm

Two Hydro-Québec employees prepare equipment to replace downed transmission towers in Saint-Sébastien, Que., immediately after the ice storm of 1998. Like them, Jack Bélanger worked long hours in bitterly cold weather. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Two Hydro-Québec employees prepare equipment to replace downed transmission towers in Saint-Sébastien, Que., immediately after the ice storm of 1998. Like them, Jack Bélanger worked long hours in bitterly cold weather. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Exactly 25 years ago, Jack Bélanger was 17 days into an assignment that was supposed to last only a couple of days: restoring power to an area of the province near Drummondville, Que.

He was cold, missing his family and hadn't showered in weeks.

As a Hydro-Québec lineman, he had been sent out on on Jan. 6, 1998 on Day 2 of what would later become known as the 1998 ice storm.

His boss had told him to pack an extra pair of jeans and underwear and had assured him he would be back in two days.

Things didn't go as planned.

"When we hit Drummondville, that's where we saw the first pylons completely down, crushed … if the pole wasn't on the ground, it was snapped in two," said Bélanger, who left his home in Quebec City and ended up on the road for 35 days. "We knew we were in for quite a ride."

Peter Tardif/CBC
Peter Tardif/CBC

Bélanger was part of the first five crews stationed in Drummondville following the storm that has since gone down as one of the largest natural disasters in Canadian history.

More than 100 millimetres of precipitation fell, breaking branches and severing hydro wires leaving more than 1.4 million Hydro-Québec customers in the dark for weeks. At the storm's peak, 3.5 million Quebecers were without power.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press
Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

'Panic mode' among workers in the beginning

The first few days on the job were the most brutal, said Bélanger, who was one of two linemen assigned to a truck.

Because of the severe weather, stabilizing the bucket truck became increasingly challenging. He recalled a worker once falling from the elevated platform.

"There was like a panic mode, the first five to six days, everybody really wanted to get this thing done," said Bélanger. "I think the hardest part, it became not a question of money … [but] your pride. "

Bélanger remembers driving past homes in the morning before he began his 12- or 14-hour long workday.

People would come out their front doors and wave, probably hoping the workers were on their way to restore their neighbourhood's power.

Bélanger says he wished he could get the work done faster.

"You can't tell them, but I still knew that I [had] four or five more days fixing my section, hoping that the section that feeds this section is also fixed, so it gets to you," said Bélanger.

Taking care of each other

At the end of each day, the crew would drive back to its accommodations — a local inn with no generator initially.

"It was $72 a night for the room," said Bélanger, adding they were given a candle and a sterno can so they could try to make toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Peter Tardif/CBC
Peter Tardif/CBC

"You would take your slice of bread, try to put it on top of the sterno," said Bélanger.

Apart from the diet of sandwiches and spaghetti — the only menu item available at the local Casa Grecque — getting five hours of sleep took a toll on the team, says Bélanger.

Exhausted, they had to be particularly attentive as they worked with the electrical lines.

Since there are only two linemen per truck, they had to look out for each other, watching for signs of frostbite and switching positions depending on the wind conditions, said Bélanger.

Even off the clock, they looked out for one another. Bélanger remembers waking up early in the morning to find his fellow lineman shaking.

"It was about 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. He says 'I'm freezing,'" said Bélanger. "He's sitting on his side of the bed and he's rocking and the sweat is just pouring off him. You can tell something's wrong … He spent three days in the hospital to get back on his feet."

During that time, there were no such things as replacements. While his coworker was recovering, Bélanger was working the truck on his own.

"You have to do everything, you know. You have to prepare your material. You have to bring it down … In the spur of the moment, I think the adrenaline gets you going," said Bélanger.

Submitted by Jack Bélanger
Submitted by Jack Bélanger

Sense of pride when power was restored

On Jan. 27, the crew finally experienced a reprieve of sorts. Power for Saint-Hyacinthe, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Drummondville was mostly restored through the repaired main feeders. Before the team started to work in more isolated areas, they were given a break.

"That's when we actually got permission to go home for 24 hours to basically go get some clothes, shower, see your kids. And people have no idea how much the wives went through," said Bélanger, who had two sons, age six and seven.

Peter Tardif/CBC
Peter Tardif/CBC

"I can't complain because, you know, I was doing my job but I had the hotel. I had no homework stresses, I had no baths [to run], I didn't have to take care of meals."

Even after the 35 days in Drummondville, when power was restored to all, Bélanger was only home for a week before he had to set off again.

"A lot of the work we've done to get the power back, it was like temporarily patching," said Bélanger. "So we went back for 10 weeks after that."

Looking back on a period of his life that feels like yesterday, he says he was filled with pride and touched by how grateful people were — and eager to show it.

"We had people at 10 in the morning who would show up that had driven, let's say half an hour, to find a Tim Horton's to bring us coffee. So you get a bit emotional."