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Farmers look back on the 1998 Ontario and Quebec ice storm
Farmers look back on the 1998 Ontario and Quebec ice storm

One of Nick Thurler’s barns collapsed during the storm

By Diego Flammini
News Reporter

Two decades ago, an ice storm pummelled parts of eastern Ontario and Quebec, leaving many residents without power and requiring military assistance.

Over 108 millimetres of freezing rain and ice fell in Cornwall, 73 mm fell in Kingston and about 85 mm fell in Ottawa during the storm, which lasted from Jan. 5 to 10.

Nick Thurler, a dairy farmer from Dundas County and member of Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s board, remembers the sights and sounds of the five-day event.

“I looked up at (the barn) and I knew it wasn’t good,” he told CBC yesterday. “I heard this big bang and it was like a domino effect. We were in shock at first and couldn’t believe what was happening.”

The roof on one of Thurler’s barns collapsed under the weight of the ice. A feeding belt situated inside the barn also collapsed. And a total of 20 cows were lost and euthanized as a result of sustained injuries.

He rebuilt the barn a few months after the storm.

Thurler estimates the total loss of milk production was about $100,000.

In the aftermath of the storm, the family initially wanted to sell the remainder of the dairy herd, but their insurance company classified the storm as an act of God, meaning the family wouldn’t receive much financial support.

They did receive about $150,000 from insurance to cover the lost cattle, and $40,000 from a provincial program for farmers impacted by the ice storm.

The family eventually decided to keep the cows because “we needed the milk cheques,” Thurler told CBC.

The community rallied around the farm family in need.

Neighbours helped separate the herd between two buildings. And three times each day, Thurler and others escorted 100 cows from a feeding shed across the road to be milked. But a mastitis outbreak meant Thurler had to sell 80 cows the following spring.

Looking back on the ice storm, Thurler is reminded of how lucky his family was, despite suffering some on-farm losses.

“Nobody got hurt and we could have easily lost someone that night if someone fell through the roof,” he told CBC. “You can always replace a barn.”

In Quebec, the Petch family was without power for nearly a month and spent a majority of the time huddled around a wood stove.

Tim Petch, an apple grower from Hemmingford, Que., can also recall the sound of frozen branches falling to the ground.

“It was a smash and shattering, just like glass going across a marble floor,” Petch told The Canadian Press yesterday, adding that many of his trees lost nearly half of their branches.

The 1998 ice storm, by the numbers

The total economic impact of the 1998 ice storm was between $5 and $7 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

As the storm pertains to farmers and rural areas, it caused extensive damage, according to a 1999 Statistics Canada report.

The storm:

  • Left 90 per cent of eastern Ontario’s and one quarter of Quebec’s dairy farmers without power,
  • Impacted about 20,000 rural homes, 1,300 farms and about two million people in Quebec alone,
  • Forced farmers to dump $6 million worth of milk (2.3 million litres of milk in Ontario and 3.3 million litres of milk in Quebec) and
  • Resulted in a $5 million loss for Quebec’s maple syrup industry.

Top photo: A feeding belt in one of Nick Thurler's dairy barns collapsed after the barn's roof caved in under the weight of ice.
Photo: Nick Thurler/CBC