Montreal struggles out of a modern-day ice age

Eastern Canada is slowly returning to normal after a huge ice storm. Nearly a million people have been left without electricity, and thousands have been stranded.

Dazed Quebeckers, no strangers to ferocious winters, are still shaking their heads in disbelief. Out of the blue, their normal, sophisticated 20th-century life has simply been suspended and they have been returned, literally, to the ice age.

At the worst stage, 3 million people, half the entire population of Quebec, were plunged into darkness and cold as the power system collapsed. Montreal, the second largest city in Canada, of more than 2 million inhabitants, became a ghost-town as the entire downtown commercial and business centre was suddenly blacked out. Thousands of office workers stumbling out in shock onto surreally dark streets found that the metro had also ground to a halt, its power shorted. For once, apocalyptic banner headlines reading "c'est l'enfer" ("it's hell") in local papers were entirely justified.

Now, 13 days after the start of the "storm of the century", life, at least in major urban areas, is slowly and patchily starting to return to a semblance of normality. But 350,000 households - more than a million people - in Quebec (and thousands more in New Brunswick and Eastern Ontario), are still without light, water or heat.

This is particularly serious as temperatures have plummeted to as low as minus 20C and tens of thousands have had to evacuate their freezing homes for temporary shelters in schools, gyms, synagogues and libraries, heated by generators - and they still don't know when they can return home.

The devastation is awe-inspiring: some 600 giant transmission towers have crumpled like giant toys, while tens of thousands of broken pylons and electrical poles litter the snow-covered ground in every direction. Snapped, ice-encrusted cables trail and loop across roads still blocked with branches and trees that toppled under the sheer weight of the ice.

A freak five days of freezing rain coated power lines with up to four inches of ice, many times more weight than they could support. And as they collapsed and shorted, they overloaded other parts of the system which also blew, in a domino effect.

At one stage, four out of five links of the so-called "ring of power" surrounding Montreal, which supplies the city's electricity, collapsed. The entire city and surrounding area came within a hair's breadth of being blacked out, according to Lucien Bouchard, the Premier.

They have still not been repaired, making the whole system highly vulnerable, even though some temporary ancillary lines have now been hastily set up. But this fragility has meant that most businesses, factories and stores and all schools, universities and government offices have remained closed for a second week.

The Premier appealed to businesses to stay closed until last Thursday to prevent the system overloading (as happened again on Monday). Hydro- Quebec, the company that runs the power network, is still rationing electricity by "powershedding" (prolonged cuts), to conserve energy until more lines can be restored.

But by far the worst-affected area is Montreal's densely populated South Shore and areas further south, dubbed the "triangle of darkness", where thousands of households, and entire sizeable towns, are still cut off.

Nearly 10,000 Canadian troops have been drafted in to help with one of the country's worst natural disasters. General Maurice Baril, the armed forces chief, compared the scene of devastation on the South Shore to "Sarejevo without the bullets".

Hydro Quebec workers, battling round the clock to restore power with the help of the army and of American crews who have been called in from as far away as Connecticut, say the damage to electrical towers, pylons and power lines is so bad that the grid infrastructure will have to be completely rebuilt, rather than just repaired.

American workers battling in Arctic conditions say they are appalled at the conditions and at the extent of the damage. "I've never in 40 years in this job seen anything like it," said one whose truck was practically covered with an American flag.

Now police and troops are making urgent door-to-door searches for people, especially the elderly, who are still staying in their freezing homes. They are trying to persuade them to leave for shelters, afraid of the very real danger of hypothermia in the savage cold (there have already been several deaths).

There are also grave dangers from carbon monoxide poisoning as people have been desperately trying to heat their homes with unsuitable devices like portable barbecues. Already an astounding 600 people have been hospitalised after falling ill from the insidious, odourless gas, and nine have died.

Meanwhile, the troops, the biggest number ever mobilised in peacetime, have been given police powers to patrol blacked-out evacuated areas to prevent looting and vandalism and to make arrests.

At times Montreal seems to be on a war footing - an impression reinforced by military helicopters landing uniformed troops in city suburbs and military trucks trundling down the snow and ice-clogged streets.

The sense of crisis is reinforced by daily live broadcasts by police, security and Hydro-Quebec officials, and by Premier Lucien Bouchard, giving crisis updates, warnings, advice, and help - and blanket coverage of the storm on television and radio which has totally taken over from normal programming.

Practical advice - helplines for those worst affected, and for the luckier citizens to donate blankets, food and provide beds and shelter - provides a real lifeline. So, too, do addresses for shelters and for cafes and restaurants offering free food and hot drinks, and hotels offering to put people up at cut rates.

Hearteningly, there has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathy and support - 15 offers for every one person needing a bed - and thousands are working as volunteers at shelters where, after nearly two weeks, people are exhausted, stressed, fractious and depressed. Some refuges house as many as 2,000 people, including children and even sometimes pets.

"I just want to go home," is the refrain heard everywhere, "but I can't and I don't know when I can".