It's the end of the world, as we knew it

Cleo Paskal, in Montreal, describes how extreme weather has led to a breakdown of civilisation in a country where they are used to the cold

THIS IS how my civilisation shattered. On 5 January, Day One, it started to rain. This time of the year, it should have been snow; instead, with temperatures hovering around freezing, it rained.

As the drops landed, they froze wherever they found purchase. For four days the ice built up, drop by drop. By Day Two, there was a crystal shroud on everything, two to three inches thick: cars, roads, trees, roofs, power lines.

The cables that didn't immediately break under the weight were soon knocked down by falling branches and ice-laden trees. Then the poles supporting the power lines snapped like toothpicks. And, finally, the steel pylons supporting high-tension wires crumpled.

People started to lose electricity the night of Day One. By Day Five, millions in eastern Canada and the north-eastern United States were immersed in the dark and cold. In Quebec, the worst-affected region, three million people were without power at the height of the crisis.

After the rain, the temperature dropped, and has not yet risen: it still gets as cold as -35C at night. So far 15 people have died, most from hypothermia, fires and carbon monoxide asphyxiation, and everyone without an alternative source of heat is being forcibly evacuated to shelters set up all over the province in schools, community centres, army bases, even shopping malls. There are over 100 in Montreal alone.

Any semblance of civilised behaviour disappeared with the electricity. Domestic violence has been rampant, and looting has broken out, further discouraging families from leaving their freezing homes. In the shelters, people have been stealing blankets from one another. And the price of batteries has gone up.

In the largest peacetime mobilisation in Canadian history, 15,000 members of the armed forces have been deployed, with the power to detain looters and to compel people to leave their homes. The soldiers are clearing away forests of dead trees, evacuating the seriously ill, setting up field kitchens, rebuilding generators and providing security in blacked-out areas.

Lack of power hasn't simply meant no lights or heat but, in many cases, no water, no petrol (because the pumps at service stations are out of action), nowhere to buy food, no postal deliveries and, sometimes, no phones. Hospitals, full past capacity, are running off generators, surgeries have been cancelled and the blood supply is critically low.

On Day Six, tap water was declared unsafe to drink. We were supposed to boil the water for five minutes before drinking it: a cruel irony for those with electric stoves. Since the beginning, CBC radio has been broadcasting survival information 24 hours a day, advising listeners to sleep as many as possible in a tent pitched inside their houses to conserve body heat. I now know too how to cook off a car engine, burn nail polish remover for heat and make a candle out of a potato.

Central Montreal is beginning to struggle back to normality after parts were blacked out for nearly a week, but police are still patrolling the area to prevent looting. Entire blocks remain closed off, and the vast majority of trees in the city have been damaged, if not completely destroyed.

Things are far worse for the million or so Quebeckers in the "Triangle of Darkness" just across the river from Montreal, who have been told it will take weeks to turn the heat back on. The province resembles a war zone, with homes and cars crushed by falling trees and farm animals dying by the tens of thousands.

People from across Canada are sending firewood, and the railways are trying to use locomotive engines to generate power for frozen towns, but local people too have been doing their best to help. The Rolling Stones may have cancelled their concert here, but the Montreal Symphony Orchestra is playing free in shelters.

After dozens of unreturned calls to the Red Cross, the city and provincial authorities and a range of emergency relief numbers, I finally went to my local shelter in Ville St Laurent. This part of Montreal is the most multi-ethnic municipality in the country, with nearly half of its inhabitants born outside Canada. Most come from countries where a police officer knocking on your door and telling you to leave home implies a destination far less benign than the local community centre-turned-shelter. Many left extremely reluctantly, and were distraught when they arrived at the shelter.

At the height of the blackout in Ville St Laurent, over 400 people were sleeping on mats on the floor of the community centre. I was put in charge of two rooms reserved for families with infants. Most were mothers and children - fathers stayed behind in cold apartments to ward off looters.

In one room I had an Algerian mother with her seven children under 11; a Vietnamese mother and her baby; a Ukrainian father, mother and baby; and an Irish grandmother, mother and infant. The other room was even more crowded, consisting mostly of an extended Chinese family. No one slept very well, apart from the Algerian mother who took a Valium shortly before lights out.

The starkest moment came during an afternoon shift at another shelter, normally a school, that had taken in some men from a nearby home for the mentally ill. No one had seen "the boys" for a while, so I was sent to try to find them and make sure they were all right. I found them in the school library, enjoying an afternoon of videos. Or, to be more precise, one video: A Clockwork Orange.

At least some people were making the most of the disintegration of civilisation.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific