Looking back at Montreal's 1971 'storm of the century,' half a century later

On March 4, 50 years ago, southern Quebec got hammered by what would become known as the storm of century.

Montreal and the surrounding would be paralyzed for days. On that day in 1971, within a span of 24 hours, nearly 45 centimeters of snow blanketed the city, with even heavier snowfall off the island.

Winds picked up to speeds over 100 kilometres per hour. People abandoned their cars in the street. Some lost power for over a week, and 30 people across the province died.

For those old enough to remember those challenging days, they say it’s something they’ll never forget.

“We couldn’t go to the hospital,” one woman told CTV News. “[Hospital staff] told me if things got worse, they were coming with a helicopter to pick me up.

Unable to drive, some swapped out their cars for snowmobiles. 

“My husband and a number of friends had skidoos," said Montreal resident Ann Foster. "They went to rescue people off the highway,” 

It was far from child’s play for those in the thick of it. But for the kids who lived through it, the deep snow created a once-in-a-lifetime playground.

“[The snow] was so high… you could actually climb from the snowbank right up to the roof,” said Ginette Arseneault, who was a child at the time. “We were sledding down the roof.”

But what would happen if the same storm stuck today? 

According to the city, a lot has changed in 50 years. Today, Montreal would be much better equipped to handle a similar storm. 

“It would be a different story,” said Philippe Sabourin, spokesperson for the city of Montreal.

“It would be a challenge… but we do have everything in place to avoid the kind of situations we faced in the 70s.”

Since the 1970s, the city has seen comparable snowfalls. In 2008, there was so much snow over the course of the winter season that the city ran out of places to dump it.

In 2012, Montreal beat the 1970s record, with a think blanket of 45 centimetres

And looming even larger in recent memory, in 2017, a major storm left hundreds of Quebecers stranded for 17 hours.

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