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
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The Independent Online
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.