The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto’s holiday ice storm

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto’s holiday ice storm

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
Stalled subways, like this one on the Bloor-Danforth line, left thousands of riders stranded (Image: Jeremy Hopkin)

December’s freak storm left 300,000 Toronto homes without power, while temperatures plummeted to record lows. It brought out the boy  scout in all of us. We plugged furnaces into car batteries, filled fridges with ice chipped off the front walk, helped neighbours in need. Here, six tales from that terrible, beautiful week.

i gave birth by flashlight

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
Power outages left some pockets of the city dark for days. Here, the view looking east from Yonge and Eglinton (Image: Dave Cheng)

I felt different that Saturday. I had no appetite, and I had a hunch the baby—my third—was coming soon. As the storm rolled in, I became weather obsessed, checking the news every few minutes and ­peeking out the window regularly. My husband, Al, backed both our cars into the driveway and de-iced them. I needed us to be prepared. And then…nothing. We put our sons, aged eight and five, to bed at 8:30, and after a while went to sleep ourselves.

At 3:50 a.m., I felt the first contraction. A minute later, another one. I called our midwife, Lisa, and then woke Al, who bundled me up and ushered me out into the freezing rain. A branch from the big ash tree in our front yard had fallen on our Civic, so Al, still half-asleep, helped me into our minivan, then attacked the new ice with a scraper. As I sat in the passenger seat, waiting for our neighbour to come over to watch the boys, Lisa called back. The power was out in parts of the Rouge Valley Ajax and Pickering ­hospital—did I want to do a home birth instead? We didn’t know what to do. My first baby had stopped breathing soon after birth and had required emergency help. Besides, what if our house lost power during the delivery? I assumed the hospital’s backup generators were working. It wasn’t the time to change the birth plan.

Al navigated the car down our icy street, swerving around the many fallen branches. All the traffic lights in the neighbourhood were out, so we crept through intersections, still debating the safest route to take. Would the 401 be safer because it had no stoplights? Or would the ramps be too icy? We took our chances on the expressway.

I screamed into a pillow during every contraction, now less than a minute apart. I was pretty freaked. Al was calm, focused on navigating the roads as quickly as he dared. As we got off the highway, still five minutes from the hospital, my water broke. I didn’t want to tell Al. My two previous births were quick, and I knew it meant we didn’t have much time left.

But amazingly we made it. When we pulled up to the ER, a paramedic escorted us by flashlight through the entrance. That’s when I realized: the backup generator hadn’t fully kicked in. The area where I would be delivering my baby was dark.

The hospital felt deserted. I saw just two other patients in the emergency room, both staring at me with pity. Al was outside struggling to park the car since the lot’s gates weren’t working. I was frantically telling the staff to page the on-call doctor because I knew the baby was coming, and my midwife was still battling the storm to get to the hospital. They tried to soothe me—I think they thought there was still plenty of time, that I was just being hysterical. I knew differently.

The dim halls felt like a network of caves. A nurse with a flashlight wheeled me into my room, manually prying open the useless automatic doors on the way. Every few minutes, a voice on the hospital PA system announced that Code Grey—indicating an infrastructure failure—was still in effect. I didn’t let myself think about what would happen if there were complications during the birth. (Later, I learned that the backup generators were up and running in most of the hospital, just not in my area.)

My room had one light in the corner that provided a feeble glow. After the nurses finished setting everything up, they examined me with a flashlight, and I heard one whisper to the other, “She’s fully dilated.” At last, my husband and midwife found me, within seconds of one another. As soon as I heard Lisa’s voice, I relaxed. In her 10 years as a midwife, she’d handled every kind of birth, including one in a car at the side of the 401. At least I had managed to make it to hospital.

The contractions intensified. I was screaming and leaning into Al, who stood next to my shoulder, repeating, “You’re okay,” over and over. My midwife softly said, “Paula, look at me. The baby wants you to be calm. You need to focus for your baby.” I ignored the pain, the two nurses assisting my midwife and a third nurse at the end of the bed holding the flashlight, and focused on pushing.

It only took two strong pushes. At 4:43 a.m., less than an hour after I’d felt that first twinge at home, my baby was born. No epidural, no nitrous, no episiotomy, no IV. I heard a small noise, barely a cry, but enough to know my baby was okay.

It all happened so fast. I sat in shock for a while with my baby against my chest—I didn’t even know whether it was a boy or girl. My child was warm against my skin, sleeping in complete peace. A few minutes later, in the glow of that small light, I took a first look at my newborn son, Pearson. Gazing at his tiny face, I felt a powerful wave of joy and relief.

Paula Mbonda is a 33-year-old Grade 6 teacher who lives in Pickering.

i powered our house with a chevy van

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
(Image: Diego Torres Silvestre/Flickr)

Like thousands of people in the GTA, we lost power on Sunday, December 22. I live in a three-bedroom split-level in ­Richmond Hill with my fiancée, Janis. The cold spread quickly, and within a couple of hours, the temperature in the house had dropped to 15 degrees. Janis and I could handle it, but I was worried about my 92-year-old mother, Vivian, who’d come in from London, Ontario, for the holidays. Driving her back seemed risky—there was no telling what the roads would be like.

In the early evening, as the house grew darker and colder, the news reports indicated that we’d be without power for quite a while, possibly days. I had to think of a way to keep us warm. I work as a communications technician, so I understand electrical circuits. I knew the 2007 ­Chevrolet van parked in my driveway had a 120-volt inverter that could generate 2,500 watts.

Before connecting anything, I made sure all of the power panel breakers were off, (especially the main breaker) in case the power came back on—which could be very dangerous. I carefully rigged up a connection from the inverter to our household electrical system, triple checked all the safety details and turned it on. The garage light came on, so I tested the automatic garage door. It worked! After a few more steps, the furnace kicked in and the fan turned on. It was a major triumph.

I used the van to power our home for 48 hours. Technically, you’re not supposed to idle your engine for more than one minute an hour. But I figured this was an emergency. The average home operates on about 24,000 watts, so my 2,500-watt system wasn’t strong enough to power the stove, water heater, or washer and dryer. But we had an $8 butane-powered hot plate. We used it sparingly (not ­knowing how safe it was to use indoors) to make tea, coffee, bacon and eggs.

Since we didn’t have a working stove, Janis and I spent Christmas Eve at our friend Brian’s empty townhouse about seven kilometres away, where we stayed up all night cooking the turkey, stuffing and vegetables so they’d be ready in time for Christmas dinner. We stayed in touch with my mother via ­cellphone—she was happy to stay in bed and remained calm throughout the entire ordeal. We returned to Richmond Hill at 9 the next morning and slept. When I woke up at around 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, the house still running on van power, I shuffled down to the basement, turned off all the breakers and then tested the utility room light. The power was back!

That night, we hosted a big, bustling Christmas dinner with lots of guests: Janis’s brother came down from Barrie, I invited some old friends, and they brought friends—there were 14 of us all told. We were so busy feasting and enjoying each other’s company that we didn’t get a chance to open our presents until Boxing Day. Not such a bad Christmas after all.

Charlie Ritenburg is a 58-year-old tech whiz who now owns a 9,000-watt generator.

i spent christmas at a red cross shelter

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
(Image: Tiana Feng/Flickr)

We lost power at our Ajax home at 2 a.m. on the night of the storm. When I woke up at 5:30 a.m., I had a shower—­luckily our hot water heater is gas—and got ready for work. (I’m a receiver in Walmart’s shipping department.) I assumed the power would be back on in a few hours, but I was wrong. When I got home from work, my 28-year-old son, Jeffrey, who two weeks earlier had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, told me he couldn’t stay in the house anymore; it was too cold. We could all see our breath. We stacked our fridge with bowls of snow to save the food from spoiling, and then my husband, Herman, drove us over to the Red Cross warming shelter at the Ajax Community Centre. He didn’t stay with us; he wanted to be at home in case anything happened. Terrible scenarios go through your mind: What if somebody tries to break in? What if the pipes burst? We also couldn’t bring our two dogs, Truffle and Delta, to the shelter; Herman would take them for rides in our van with the heat turned up.

Even at the shelter, Jeffrey and I were permanently chilled. The volunteers gave everybody thermal emergency blankets. They were thin, but I could wrap my whole body in them. When Jeffrey opened his, I saw the Walmart logo stitched inside. I laughed: I can never get away from work! There was free Wi-Fi there, so we watched movies on Jeffrey’s laptop and surfed the internet to pass the time. There were about 80 to 100 people at the shelter at any given time, but a lot of them came and went, like we did. There was nobody I knew personally, yet I recognized faces from around the neighbourhood. It was comforting to know we weren’t alone.
Half of the community centre’s banquet hall was partitioned off to create a sleeping room, full of cots. We never slept there, though. I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea. We’d go for a couple of hours to get warm, have a meal, come home for a bit, then back. Jeffrey and one of the Red Cross volunteers teased me about my restlessness—but I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. It’s hard to accept help. When we did go home, Jeffrey, Herman and I would go into the basement and huddle around the gas fireplace. We could turn it on, but the blower is electric, so it was only warm around the glass. We’d put our feet close first, then slowly shift to warm other parts of our bodies. At night, ­Herman and I cuddled close together under a soft mountain of blankets. In the morning, it was back to the shelter.

Herman joined us for Christmas Eve dinner, but Jeffrey and I were there alone for Christmas Day. The staff and volunteers decorated a Christmas tree and brought in a Santa Claus to hand out candy canes to the kids. For dinner, they served pasta, garlic bread and caesar salad. It wasn’t Michelin dining, but it was surprisingly good. Really, Christmas is just a day. I knew my family was safe—that’s all that really mattered. Shelter staff had cooked our meals, taken care of us for days and were unfailingly cheerful. How could that not make Christmas special?

Our power came back that night at nine o’clock. I was so excited I wanted to scream, but I didn’t want to make the others at the shelter feel worse. Herman came to pick us up at 11 p.m., after the house had warmed up. It was hard to wait those two hours. We had a family Christmas that Saturday. My daughter, Jennifer, came up from the city, and we made the same ham dinner we do every year. In fact, it was almost better—I got everything on sale.

Kim Chow and her family have lived in their Ajax home for 16 years.

i was trapped in my apartment

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
Roughly 20 per cent of the tree canopy was lost to the storm. Here, the view from Don Mills and Finch (Image: Scott Rogers)

I’m 71 years old and have been in a wheelchair since 1952 as a result of polio. For the past three decades, I’ve lived in the Don Mills and Lawrence area, on the third floor of a five-storey condominium mainly occupied by empty nesters. My renovated apartment meets the needs of my “independent” quadriplegic lifestyle: counters and sinks built low enough for my reach; taps I can turn on with a touch; ceiling tracks in the bedroom and bathroom so I can use an electronic lift to transfer between wheelchair, bed, toilet and bath. A remotely operated door opener enables me to let people in and out of my apartment. Batteries power my wheelchair. Floor heaters cater to my impaired circulation. Even my Ultramatic bed allows me to shift position frequently during the night. Of paramount importance is the ventilator I use at night, and often during the day, to keep me breathing. I am highly dependent on electricity!

On the night of the ice storm, I was happy to be comfortably in bed, having made it safely back from Oshawa, where my niece Brandi hosted our family ­Christmas party. I awoke at about 1:30 a.m. when my ventilator alarm went off to indicate it was switching to its internal battery mode—good for two more hours. Hopefully the power will return by then, I thought. At 3:30 a.m., I woke Rebecca, the attendant who stays with me overnight every weekend, and switched to my backup ventilator. This one had six hours of internal battery life. I slept lightly for a little longer.

One glimpse of the beautiful devastation out the window in the morning made it clear the situation was likely to persist for some time. Neither my land line nor my cellphone worked. Later in the day, as the immensity of the crisis dawned, my neighbours’ families and friends came to evacuate them. I too could have been evacuated, but none of my family, in Orangeville, Brampton or Oshawa, had accessible homes with ground floor sleeping options. Carol, my friend in North York with an accessible home, was also without power.

Staying alive—breathing—was all I could focus on. The first priority was to find a source for recharging the ventilator batteries. Vio, my building superintendent, located an active phone line at a neighbour’s. I called a friend whose husband operated the generator at the Donway Covenant United Church across the street. He turned it on, and Rebecca transported my ventilators up and down a pitch-black stairwell and back and forth across the icy street to recharge the batteries.

Vio checked in regularly, as did the property manager. The assistant super­intendent and an elderly fifth-floor neighbour named Terry brought hot water. Neighbours began spontaneously gathering in the dark halls and in each other’s apartments. Some brought candles. ­Howard, a neighbour in his 80s, drove Rebecca to Canadian Tire to get batteries and extra flashlights, and to Tim Hortons for food. We lit candles and shared our food and wine before they decamped for warm, powered homes. It was all very communal, but as the building emptied, things started to feel bleak. My door was unlocked to let people in, but I could no longer get in or out myself. I huddled under my down duvet as the temperature dropped.

Monday morning, the second day, ­Edelgard, who has been with me for over 20 years and usually stops in on Saturdays, drove in from Markham unexpectedly with hot water bottles and a thermos. Rebecca stayed. Jevana, my live-in weekday attendant, returned that evening. This was now a two-person job.

Phone calls to Premier Kathleen ­Wynne’s office triggered urgent pleas to call 911 and get myself to a warming centre. This was no solution. The centres had power and heat but lacked the resources to handle equipment-dependent quadriplegic persons such as myself. Rebecca and Jevana are not experienced in nor equipped for coping in such environments.

I called the Ventilator Equipment Pool, a provincial program that supplies ventilator equipment, from my neighbour’s phone. They found another day’s worth of battery supply and had it delivered by courier from Kingston in just a few short hours.

My niece Veronica, her husband, Dale, and their three sons appeared on Christmas Eve with a hot turkey dinner. Eight of us, including Rebecca and Jevana, bundled up in blankets and coats, and huddled round the table, recounting Christmases past as we ate by candlelight. Later, power returned to my friend Carol’s. If my power was still out on Christmas Day, she insisted, she would come down and drive me to her place in my van. I went to bed Christmas Eve feeling loved and secure, and believing I could get through this.

Early Christmas morning, I lay cocooned under my thick duvet and blankets, with the hose from my ventilator delivering cool breaths from outside the covers. I listened to beautiful Christmas music via the earbuds buried with me—songs from Handel’s Messiah transported ­­me. Louise, my sister-in-law, and her daughter Lynda arrived unexpectedly from Brampton with breakfast, before Lynda’s children had even awakened to open their stockings. At about 1:30 p.m., the power returned. Hallelujah! It was the best Christmas gift ever.

Audrey King is a writer, speaker and advocate for disability issues, and works with the ­Centre for Independent Living in Toronto.

A 1,500-pound tree crashed through my kitchen

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
Limbs from a 30-foot maple punctured the roof of this Mississauga home in six places (Image: courtesy Helen Raheja)

On December 23, I was visiting my daughter, Joanna, at her cottage in Muskoka, enjoying the peace and quiet. We spent the afternoon walking through the forest. All the trees were laden with ice—it was stunning.

As we headed back toward the cottage, my phone buzzed. It was my daughter-in-law, Amanda. That morning, she and my son, Mark, had driven my car back to the city from Muskoka on their way to the airport and had stopped to check in on my home. I live in a 1950s ranch house near the QEW and Mississauga Road, on a street lined with beautiful old-growth trees. I’d been nervous about the slippery roads, so I was happy to hear from them, saying they were fine—and then came the “but.” Amanda told me a tree had fallen through the roof of my house. I didn’t quite grasp what she meant until she texted me a picture. I gasped. An enormous limb had perforated the roof and landed on the breakfast table—right where I usually sit when I play bridge. It looked like a piece of installation art. Mark said that when he peeked through the front window, there was so much debris inside the house, he could have been looking outside.

A giant branch of our 30-foot maple had buckled under the weight of the ice and punctured the roof in six places. The biggest piece, weighing 1,500 pounds, fell five feet into the house. Another limb toppled my backyard fence.

You don’t often hear it these days, but the insurance company was amazing. By eight o’clock the next morning, they’d sent a disaster recovery team to assess the damage and start the clean-up. They had to call in an extra large hydraulic crane to lift the biggest branch out of the kitchen, then arborists cut the rest of the tree to prevent future damage, and roofers temporarily patched up the holes with a tarp. One wrong move, and the entire roof could have collapsed—they worked together as carefully as if they were defusing a bomb.

I’m still waiting for the roof to be permanently repaired and re-shingled, but I consider myself incredibly lucky. My father lost his family in the ­Holocaust and his son to leukemia, and taught me that any problem that can be fixed with money isn’t really a problem. Also, I could have easily been at home playing bridge—I’m just glad I wasn’t sitting in the west position.

Helen Raheja is a 66-year-old social worker who lives in Mississauga.

i saved a man from carbon monoxide poisoning

The Ice Age: six remarkable stories from Toronto's holiday ice storm
(Image: Fryderyk Supinski/Flickr)

When the storm hit, I felt excited. That might seem like a strange reaction, but for a lineman like me, it meant more work. I’ve only been in the trade for three years—before that I was a welder for eight years, but I was sick of inhaling smoke. Most of the time my job now involves upgrading people’s homes, securing them more amperage to accommodate renovations, that sort of thing. So I knew working this storm I’d learn a lot in a hurry, and it’d be a highlight on my resumé.

The call from dispatch came the day after the storm hit. The thing about storm work is you don’t know what you’ll have to do when you show up to a site. You’ve got to think on your feet. It could be as simple as closing a switch, but it could also mean reconstructing parts of the power line, putting up poles, putting in all new lines.

On that first day, my crew and I arrived on a scene in Scarborough where a massive tree had split four ways, like a giant had stepped on it. Trees were down ­everywhere, and there were live lines on the ground. I just thought, Oh my god. The devastation was surreal.
We spoke to a woman who told us she’d been lying in bed sleeping the night before when a tree came down on her house, went through the roof and landed in her bedroom. The branches had grazed her face. She was lucky to be alive.

As we went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, assessing the damage and fixing lines, people came up and hugged us, and gave us gifts of candy and chocolate. They were so gracious, and we were treated like heroes. But there were times that we were sent to an area to fix one thing, and then we had to move on. So that meant we would drive past a line that was down and people would yell out to us: “What are you doing? Why aren’t you helping us?” I’d have to say, “Listen, I don’t have power at my house either. I can’t even help myself!”

On Christmas Eve, we got the power back up in an east-end pocket that covered about 200 homes, and as my partner and I were doing our final drive-by to make sure everyone’s power was on, we noticed a garage door open about a foot. The situation didn’t feel right. I shimmied under the garage door and there was a guy sleeping in his car, presumably trying to stay warm, while it was running. I banged on the window and called out to him, but he was out. Finally I had to open the door and give him a shake. It took about 10 minutes for him to come around and respond clearly. I think we saved that guy’s life.

I worked 16-hour days for five days straight—adrenalin and the chocolate from grateful strangers kept me going. By ­Boxing Day, I needed to sleep. Let me tell you: I never want to see another chocolate again.

Robert Walters is not the real name of this Hydro lineman.