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MONTREAL — Life on the Iles-de-la-Madeleine was slowly returning to normal Friday after a fierce winter storm cut residents off from the rest of the province and sent waves crashing into coastal homes and across roads.
Military arrives to bring relief to storm-battered Quebec islands
Jeanne Lebel, 61, spoke of sitting up all night Wednesday as 130 km/h winds buffeted her house and waves surged halfway up her kitchen window.
"(The sea) was knocking against my kitchen window, in the middle of the kitchen window," she said in a phone interview.
As her seaside house shook, she sat with her dog and took comfort in a portrait that hangs in her kitchen of her great-grandfather, who died at sea during a seal hunt.
"I said, 'If he falls, I'm leaving,' " she said. "He's still there."
Lebel, who has health problems, said she called authorities earlier in the day seeking to be rescued, but nobody came.
"I was ready to be evacuated, I just needed help," she said. "At 140 km/h, it's hard to even open the doors."
The island was completely cut off from the outside world on Thursday after heavy winds and rough seas knocked out both fibre optic cables that connect the islands' telecommunications services to the mainland.
Service was partially restored late Thursday, although officials said the grid remains fragile.
A Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft carrying supplies and personnel landed in the Iles-de-la-Madeleine late Friday afternoon. A second Hercules was en route as part of what was dubbed Operation Lentus.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement that up to 250 Canadian Forces personnel would conduct "health and welfare patrols and provide assistance to officials in the evacuation of residents if required."
Some 2,000 Hydro-Quebec customers remained without power on Friday, down from 4,500 at the height of the storm.
Quebec provincial police have been going door-to-door to check on those without power, and emergency shelters have been established for those who need a place to stay.
The displaced citizens include about 40 residents of a low-cost housing complex, which burned to the ground Thursday morning. No one was seriously injured.
Mayor Jonathan Lapierre said municipal officials and provincial police were able to use a satellite phone Thursday to request aid from the provincial government and make emergency calls.
And while he is relieved there don't appear to have been any serious injuries, he said the blackout highlighted the island's isolation and vulnerability when communications are cut.
"It's impossible to evacuate people who are sick, who are suffering from trauma, road accidents, heart attacks," he said in a phone interview.
"There are almost no medical specialists here, no radiologists. We can't make contact with hospitals in big cities for assistance," he added. "Once an island like the Iles-de-la-Madeleine is isolated in terms of communications, it's fully isolated from all reality."
He said he has asked the provincial government to provide mobile satellite phones that will work under almost any conditions.
Leonard Chevrier, a long-time resident of the island, said he doesn't think Thursday's storm was the worst to hit the islands.
But he said the lack of communication is a big problem given the area's aging population.
While his own home is fully off-grid and is powered by solar panels and batteries, he said he worried about neighbours who were unable to call for help or check on loved ones.
Chevrier blames climate change for the increasingly frequent storms and high seas hitting the island, causing rapid erosion.
"The sea has been flowing over the road for two or three years now, but it's worse every year," he said.
Some areas that lie near the sand dunes have lost between two and 10 metres to the sea, he said.
He expects the power and telecommunications breakdowns to worsen in the future, since each storm also weakens the lines and poles of the existing power grid.
"So now, if there's another storm in a week, more will break," he said.
— With files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press/Somnia/AA
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