Derecho across Quebec: The day the trees came down

A badly damaged Hydro pole on the road to Entrelacs, Que., after a derecho storm in May 2022.

I love a good storm.

We live in a little house in a big forest, in the low mountains of the Laurentians. The house is built in a small depression where weather sometimes acts strangely but the wind is usually calm. From my bedroom window, I’d watch my favourite tree, which rose a dozen feet above its neighbours and swayed deeply in strong wind.

Although we had received two storm warning alerts on our phones that Saturday afternoon, I looked to my tree to judge how we should react. My tree advised us to go downstairs, but I waited still. Then the wind did a thing I’d never heard; it sounded like a faraway train and lightning was sizzling just above us. The power flickered, then went out. We went downstairs and assured our 10-year-old and her visiting friend it would be over soon. We counted Mississippis between lightning and thunder.

There were no more than two Mississippis.

Time moves differently during a big storm, so I’m not sure how long we sat on the couch with the dog. Maybe 10 minutes. We watched through the patio doors and chatted about what we’d make for supper and that it was a good thing we’d filled the bathtub with water as soon as we got the weather alert, in case the power didn’t come back quickly. When the skies quieted, we stretched and took our books upstairs to read in bed a while. It was a Saturday, after all.

As I do after every storm, I looked out the bedroom window to thank my tree. Except my tree wasn’t there. “Oh no. Ohno ohno,” I whispered, slipping my sneakers onto my bare feet. I pushed my way through spring undergrowth and healthy weeds to the clearing where my tree lived. There was its trunk, straight and tall as a hydro pole. And there was the top of it, evergreen and more than 10 feet fall, snapped off and suspended by the branches of nearby trees. With no idea how widespread the storm damage was, I stood in the clearing and mourned my favourite tree.


SATURDAY NIGHT

Because we live in cottage country, I took a walk around the properties of my closest neighbours so I could alert them if there’d been any damage. Our private road was strewn with branches. An ancient birch stretched across my neighbour’s lawn, its roots pulled from the ground and nearly as tall as me. Giant branches hung on and loomed over hydro wires. Yet there was no property damage.

Though it had mostly stopped raining, none of us were in the mood for barbecuing. We determined the children could not live on Nutella alone when they were also anxious about a night without the soft Christmas lights strung from the bunk bed. As darkness fell, I decided to make the 15-minute drive into town for comfort burgers and fries. And that’s when I started to realize how widespread the devastation was.

The narrow two-lane road was littered with trees, many with hydro wires tangled in their branches. Residents had been out in the hour after the storm to cut back some of the vegetation, leaving barely a car-width to drive around them. The top of a hydro pole had snapped off and hung over part of the road like a cross. It would become a touchstone for me over the coming week.

The local burger joint, Claudette’s, was lit up with generator power. They close at 8 p.m., but when I arrived at nearly 9, they were still taking orders. The parking lot was full and a crowd was lined up at the window to order. The staff looked tired, but they were cheerful.

“Your English is really good,” said the man behind me in line and I laughed and told him I grew up in Ontario. He told me this was his bachelor party.

His group had been caught in the storm while on the highway and had to pull over and hold their breath till it passed. Their hotel in Mont-Tremblant called to cancel their reservation. They’d driven all over the area, even the big town of Ste-Adèle, and nothing was open. As we waited for our orders, we chatted about close calls in storms past, in Quebec and Florida and elsewhere. The groom told me his bride had nixed a plan to go skydiving into shark-infested waters for his bachelor party, but he’d found danger anyway.

I made the slow, careful drive back home, where my wife had brought in all the outdoor solar lights and gathered flashlights and glow bracelets for the kids. We’d made it. What a lovely adventure! I warned her that I didn’t think the power would be back by morning.


SUNDAY

The battery pack my wife uses for her CPAP during outages did a great job through the night but power was low by morning. Saturday is the day we generally refill prescriptions, so a drive to charge the battery pack and phones and pick up pills was in order. It meant driving the other way on the road, toward Chertsey.

It made the drive to Ste-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson the night before look like smooth sailing. I drove over hydro wires and around old-growth trees that took up most of the road, under wires that touched the roof of my car. And when, at last, I pulled into the pharmacy parking lot, it was to be greeted with darkness. No power, no pills.

The grocery store was running its freezers and cash registers on generator power, but most of the lights were out. It was creepy, gathering fruit and bread and salad and water. Somehow the generator was also powering the radio, and Bon Jovi’s Bed of Roses hung over my head like some sort of ghostly earworm.


MONDAY

 

New neighbours down the road offered to recharge our battery pack with their little generator. Their kindness gave me delightful goosebumps. Yet I still had to go into the city to return my kid’s friend and to charge all my devices so I could work the next day. I found an open pharmacy in St-Sauveur that filled a prescription for the medication we most needed. The highway was clear and cell service in the city was awesome. In Montreal, it was like nothing had happened.

While enjoying the city’s internet, I learned the storm wasn’t an ordinary beast. It had been a derecho, which the U.S. weather service describes as “a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to the strength of tornadoes, the damage typically is directed in one direction along a relatively straight swath.”

Quebec’s derecho had been 100 kilometres wide by 300 kilometres long. Immediately after the storm, more than half a million Hydro-Québec customers were without power. There were more in Ontario. Eleven deaths would eventually be attributed to the storm.

On the drive home, I passed seven hydro trucks from New Brunswick. More neighbours coming to help. I would have baked them all cookies if I’d had electricity.


TUESDAY

Power was still out at the local elementary school. My kid taught herself how to ride a bike. I worked and we all showered at city hall, which Ste-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson had opened to the public on Sunday after using the space to feed as many Hydro workers and first responders as they could. It had been four days and our tempers were running short, though we kept it together and worked as a team. Hydro-Québec said some people would be without power until Saturday; they had to clear all the trees before they could work on the lines. I only cried when I was alone in the car.


WEDNESDAY

We were getting good at this. We eased into a routine where I drove into town in the early morning, working in a parking lot until city hall opened. I spent most of the day there, charging everything and looking out the big windows onto Lac Masson.

We fretted over the months’ worth of meat in the freezer — a lot, but not enough to cover our insurance deductible. The bathtub was running low on the water we used to flush, so we hauled a dozen buckets from the lake. And my brother-in-law arrived with a cranky old generator and a full gas container.

Ah! The sound of a running fridge and freezer! Music to my ears. Music for four hours, until he’d left and the generator’s exhaust broke off. “Fix it with a soda can,” he said by text, as though that was a thing we could do. I was already afraid of the damn thing. But at least we’d run the most important appliances for a few hours.

We were so tired. The kid had a bad cold. I finished Where the Crawdads Sing, the first book I’d completed since the start of the pandemic.


THURSDAY

Hydro-Québec said it was the most devastating storm since the Ice Storm of 1998. We were proud of ourselves for holding it together. I had friends at city hall and the chance to practice my French. I slowed for Hydro crews every back-and-forth to town, waving and giving them the thumbs-up. They’d been working 16-hour days clearing vegetation and planting new poles before repairing the wires. It was slow and painful and many of trees had yet to be cleared from the roads. There were just too many.

After work, we started gathering our things to return to town for showers. We were sticky and anxious and tempers were hot. I started to feel as though I’d be okay if I never showered again; it just wasn’t worth the stress.

And then the power came on.

“Plug in all the things!” I yelled. “It won’t last!”

But it held. After six days and two hours, the power held. We all sat down and listened to the fridge hum.


THE FOLLOWING DAYS

It ended for us on Thursday, but many people in the Laurentians and other parts of Quebec and Ontario went days more, till Sunday and Monday and later, before their power was restored. We were fortunate.

You might think a widespread power outage would be the great equalizer, but it wasn’t, not in any way. There were layers of privilege. Those who had the means had large generators. Many had smaller generators but were able to fill them despite high fuel prices. Others still had vehicles to get back and forth to town, and to fill their trunks with lake water for flushing. For many, losing hundreds of dollars of food was just a financial inconvenience.

Many, many others were isolated physically and financially, unable to work, unable to replace what they’d lost. Their vehicles and homes were damaged by old-growth trees ripped from the ground.

I was overwhelmed by the kindness of neighbours and strangers and the businesses that struggled to stay open to help in any way they could.

And that, my friends, is what unity really looks like.

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