Monday, January 8, 2018

Remembering the Ice Storm

When I lived in South Korea, from the beginning of March, 1997, to the end of February, 1999, my ties to home, to Canada, came through weekly phone calls to my parents and in-laws, through e-mail, and through my short-wave radio, which broadcast CBC's The World At Six as I was getting ready for work in the early hours of my day.

I heard about the ice storm, at first, on the radio. I didn't give it much thought: it's not uncommon for Eastern Ontario to receive freezing rain in late December or early January. I did think that the area that was being covered in this storm was larger than usual, but I didn't feel that there was any cause for alarm.

Besides, I had bigger problems where I was. South Korea was at the height of its economic collapse, and the value of the currency, the won, had plummeted. I was teaching English at a language institute and my director, who had based my pay on the American dollar but paid me in won, found himself paying out more than double the amount that he was used to at the beginning of my contract. On December 31, 1997, instead of receiving my pay, I was told that he couldn't pay me or DW (who was also teaching at the institute), and that he wanted us to leave Korea as soon as possible.

DW and I were in talks with the labour board, and we were trying to find living accommodations (thankfully, our friends, Jason and Jami, came to our rescue and put us up in their spare bedroom, in their apartment).

At the same time, DW and I were teaching privately—illegal, but done by many foreigners—and weren't about to abandon our students and that much-needed, supplemental income.

Later in the day, after I had heard the first report of the ice storm, I sent an e-mail message to my mom, to see if she was okay. Later that evening, she said that there was ice building up on the trees and the roads were slippery, but she and my step father were fine and he was planning to go into work.

Another typical ice storm, I told myself.

Photo: Monteal Gazette
Over the next couple of days, CBC Radio reported that the storm was becoming worse as accumulating ice was knocking out power throughout the region. I called my folks, who lived in Kanata, in Ottawa's west end: they were fine, still had electricity. DW called her parents, but the story in the City View neighbourhood of Nepean was different. The power had gone out, that day, but her folks were fine. They had their fireplace going and were using DW's and my camp stove out the back door to cook meals. They expected the power to return shortly, and told DW to not worry.

DW and I searched the Internet and found stories and images of the storm. We saw images of Ottawa's Centretown, with streets filled with broken branches and Hydro Ottawa crews fixing felled power lines. The thickness of the ice seemed dangerous, at more than a centimetre thick, in some images. As the days went on, we saw that some electrical towers had collapsed under the weight, and power outages from Kingston to Montreal were starting to become dangerous as the days went by.

Photo: CBC
As DW and I learned that our hagwon director became less cooperative with the labour board and had shifted his records to reduce the number of employees, and how the labour board were at a loss to help us, we secured new jobs, thanks to our loyal Korean students. DW would start teaching at the national university; I would be teaching at a private university on the southern outskirts of our city, Chŏnju. Not wanting to overstay our welcome with our friends, and because we needed to leave Korea to renew our work visas, DW and I decided to return home.

The ice storm lasted six days but hadn't inconvenienced our parents. My folks never lost power for more than a couple of minutes; the power in my in-laws' neighbourhood was out for only a couple of days.

Photo: uncredited
We wanted to surprise our folks with our return visit, so we didn't tell them that we were coming. When we arrived in Ottawa, a friend picked us up at the airport and brought us to her parents house. On the drive from the airport, we were shocked at the destruction of the storm. The trees on our route, particularly near the airport, were smashed, devoid of their branches or bent down to the ground. A week after the storm, cleanup crews were still tidying up.

During our stay, we watched the news as they reported the lasting devastation. Some areas were still without power, as tens of thousands of towers and poles had collapsed under the weight. Ottawa had some scars but, by comparison, had fared better than Montreal and some of the small towns and villages in the path of the storm.

While DW and I missed the storm, we still felt that we were part of it. From the reports, to conversations with our family, to seeing the destruction in the aftermath, the ice storm of 1998 is something that we won't forget.

How about you? Where were you? How did you cope with the storm?

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