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Lights Out: Rewiring In Canada's Deep Freeze

The lights are still out in the "Dark Triangle," a huge swath of farmland and small towns south of Montreal. About 242,000 households are without power, leaving as many as 750,000 Canadians learning to live without electricity.

Two weeks ago, four times that many people were in the dark after an ice storm nearly shut down Quebec's electricity grid and, at one stage, closed downtown Montreal. Rain fell for about four days, turning to ice when it touched high-tension wires and the giant steel pylons carrying them. With the trees, they fell, crushed by the weight.

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Power came back to Montreal late last week, but there are still some restrictions on its use. For many people in southern Quebec, the lights might not come back on until the first days of February.

That has people here asking why Quebec, which is so rich in hydroelectricity, has been hit so hard by the great panne, as a blackout is known in French.

Even Quebec's top politicians now admit the province wasn't ready for the disaster.

Nowhere else in North America do people rely so much on electricity. Almost 75 percent of homes heat with electricity. Wood stoves are used as a backup.

"We have to find out what's going, on. We need to get some idea of when the electricity is coming back," says Lorraine Bessette sitting with her husband, Paul Barry, and their two children at a shelter in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, just 30 miles south of Montreal. They sleep at home, but since Jan. 5 have been visiting a shelter for hot food and conversation.

The shelter in a high school is full, the classrooms turned into dormitories with people stranded in their own town as refugees. Volunteers deliver meals to tables in the cafeteria; police and social workers try to keep order.

"Tempers are short here," says a Quebec police officer, "They've been cooped up in this place too long."

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There may be some good to come from this crisis and people are talking about a winter works project sent by nature.

"Rebuilding will mean work," says Daniel Barry, a construction worker, sitting in the shelter with his brother.

Economists agree. They say Quebec's economy will slow this month but will start to pick up in February. The state-owned utility, Hydro Quebec, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reconnect powerlines. "Enough wire to circle the globe 3 times" claims one headline.

Just a few blocks away two men have started early, selling generators from the back of a truck.

"We haven't pushed up the prices," Andre Simard assures a potential customer. "In Saint-Csaire they are charging double. Here, it's the summer price."

The customer is not convinced and walks away.

All high tension lines lead to Saint-Csaire and its electric substation.

This is the center of the blackout. All around the village, flat snow covered farmland stretches to the horizon. Now soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces are using armored vehicles equipped with bulldozer blades to clear rubble around utility pylons.

"We'll be here until the job is done," says private Martin Bernard of the Royal 22nd Regiment based in Quebec City, about 100 miles away. He and a dozen soldiers working here are part of the 10,000 or so soldiers deployed in Quebec and parts of eastern Ontario, the largest peacetime use of troops in Canada.

American linemen are polishing their French, as crews from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and even Michigan help repair the lines.

On the fringes of the Dark Triangle, the lights are coming back on. On Saturday morning, breakfast is served at La Terrase restaurant in blacked out Cowansville. A gasoline generator out back provides just enough power for lights, toasters, and an electric griddle.

"I wanted to leave until the power came back, but my wife wanted to save her plants. She's had them for 30 years." says Peter Turner, a lawyer whose home is being heated by a wood stove. "We're just waiting for the hot water."

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