Ice Storm of '98: A Retrospective
Your Ice Storm Recollections:
I was seven months pregnant at the time, so my experience of the ice storm was colored by anxiety as I wasn't sleeping well, worried about what we would do if I went into labor early, and didn't go outdoors much until there was snow on top of the ice. In general, though, the two weeks we spent without power or phone were blissful - getting together with neighbors for meals, playing games with the children by candlelight, and organizing our days around keeping warm and fed.
I remember getting up early the first morning of the storm with no power, finding the battery-powered radio and turning it on to find nothing. No stations at all, up and down the dial. I wondered what catastrophic thing could have occurred, never realizing that some ice could do so much.
And the ice kept coming and coming, the trees breaking and snapping with loud cracks like gunfire. Our neighbor came by with hard hats (necessary with so many limbs falling) so he and my husband could walk down the road and look at the damage.
On the third night, with freezing rain still falling, a tree next to our house was leaning precariously over the children's bedroom, and as the wind picked up it seemed that it would soon fall on top of the house. We spent the night at our neighbor's house, the tall pines outdoors creaking and snapping with the weight of the ice and the pushing wind. I needed to go outdoors to use the "facilities" in the middle of the night, and from that hilltop I saw the glow of a friend's house burning - the generator had ignited a fire that destroyed the house.
Trees crashed and snapped and fell all night, and we were sure that when we walked back to our house the next morning, we would be looking at a huge hole in the roof. Miraculously, only the top 20 feet of the tree had snapped off and landed on the ground next to the house.
I remember the deep sub-zero cold that hit after the ice stopped. I was up in the middle of the night, feeding the woodstove and listening to the house crack and moan. The heavy sheet of ice on the roof shifted and adjusted between the heat coming from below and the cold above.
We emptied the contents of our freezer into the woodshed. There were only minor losses to raccoons. We had night after night of feasts in the neighborhood, as each household contributed the best items from their freezer - steak, wild berries, grouse and pheasant.
Word came that the governor would visit the region to view the disaster. The helicopter flew over our house. It was below zero, I was wearing a big winter coat, a hat, Sorel boots, trudging the well worn path through the snow from our spring to the house, with two large pails of water. I felt like a babushka on the steppes, carrying my heavy load across the vast white expanse, shading my eyes to see the helicopter overhead.
Every day centered around the chores that needed to be done in daylight. Carrying in more wood. Splitting wood. Carrying water. Heating water. Washing dishes - once a day, in the morning. Washing bodies - less often, in the evening.
We had a woodstove and a gas stove with a pilot light, so heating and cooking were easy. Every house up and down the road was well equipped, so once the freezing rain stopped life went on with a very rural rhythm. Making coffee was a challenge - one family took down their decorative antique coffee grinder from a shelf to grind beans and devised a method of brewing. We were running out of diapers - our one real crisis - but then a store in Colton opened for "flashlight service" and we were able to get some more.
We felt connected to the neighborhood in a way that doesn't happen usually. We all had time to spend with each other, and it was wonderful. Families baked bread for each other, dropped by to visit, shared toys and stories. We had no mail, no phone, no computer, no television. We had NCPR for a few hours a day only - we had to ration our batteries, since the prediction was that the power would be out in our area for three-four weeks.
The National Guard came down the road to check on people. "Come on in! Have a sandwich!" my husband said. The Guardsman replied, "This is so weird! We're going to houses to check and see if people are okay, if they need help, and everyone says, 'Come in! Have some coffee! Want some lunch?' We thought we would be dealing with chaos and people looting stores."
The power lines on our road run through the woods, so the word from Niagara Mohawk was that an overland vehicle that could set poles would be needed to go into the woods and replace the poles that had snapped. They said that there were only a few such vehicles available, and it would be a long time before they could get to our area. Then, two weeks after the storm, a truck with poles appeared, and a crew of men. They carried the poles into the woods, and set the new poles in by hand, working as a team to lift them up. We had our power back.
The 10th anniversary of the ice storm reminds us that, for those of us who were here at the time, it is one of those defining experiences. All you have to do is mention "ice storm," and you get a flood of memories and anecdotes, as the NCPR retrospective project will prove. Seemingly in the blink of an eye our routines and the comfortable complacency that comes with them were replaced with problem solving and new, mostly improved, connections with family and community. The sounds of normal traffic were gone, replaced by eerie silence punctuated by the explosions of ice-weighted limbs. Streets lights and car headlights at night replaced by deep darkness and military vehicles passing through town at night, an image of what I imagined at the time a combat zone might look like. Until the generators were hooked up at NCPR, scanning up and down the radio dial found only post-apocolyptic static. Once the generators restored the station's voice, people were clustered around radios by candlelight, and NCPR in particular became the primary loom that wove our region together.
At the time, we owned a rental house a block away from our residence. I was coming back home after draining the pipes there when I saw a fire truck pulled up in front of our house, and since we were heating entirely by our woodstove my heart skipped a beat or two. When I got there it turned out the volunteer at the wheel was looking for me to help evacuate the senior citizen high rise apartments on Riverside Drive here in Canton, because he knew I had experience moving people in wheelchairs. I wish I'd had a tape recorder with me, because hearing shared perspectives on the extraordinary weather from people who'd made the North Country their home for 80 or 90 years was an incredible privilege. I would love to have caught this particular long view on tape to share with the NCPR community.
Our family was settling into a new routine defined by learning to cook on a woodstove, striving to keep the carpet clean without benefit of a vacuum cleaner, an extended game night, and listening to the radio for updates, connections, and haikus (of course). I recall hearing Barb Heller requesting a call from anyone who knows how to drain the water system of a house so that step-by-step directions could be passed along to others. Although I am not a professional plumber, I am typical of many people in the North Country and possess some basic handyman skills acquired through trial and error, heavy on the error. I think almost everything I know that is truly important I have learned in exactly that way.
So I called my friend Barb expecting that I would tell her the procedure, she would probably write it down, and then read it over the air. The next thing I know, I am recording step-by-step instructions for general broadcast; a five-minute downpayment on fifteen minutes of fame promised by Marshall McLuhan. Pam and I had a chuckle about that, and I set about getting another armload of firewood for the stove. When I came back in from the woodshed, Pam informed me that there was a phone call for me, and no, she didn't know who it was. It was the first of what turned out to be scores of calls from people asking me to drain their pipes for them. Pam stayed by the phone and took calls, scheduling me for personal appearances all over the village of Canton. I knew some of the people who called, but others were strangers. Many were calling from their houses, leaving for warmer places only after I'd secured their plumbing, but there were also quite a few who had already left and told me they'd left a key with neighbors, had hidden one somewhere, or simply left their houses unlocked. In those cases strangers trusted me with their homes, a testament to this extraordinarily wonderful place we call home and a reminder of why these are the people we choose to live among. Every time Barb re-played my phone call, we'd experience another spike in calls, keeping boredom at bay for the next several days and stretching my fifteen minutes considerably. Somewhere during the second day, I stopped by the radio station and took advantage of Barb's offer of the loan of her strap-on ice cleats, figuring that she at least owed me that. Now I have my own pair, and bought some for Pam, too. Mighty handy here where ice storms of more regular scale are frequent.
People still remind me of that. My parents presented me with a ball cap embroidered "PowerPlumber" and featuring a depiction of downed power lines and a pipe wrench. When I hear about power outages resulting from similar storms in other parts of the country this year, I find myself wondering if their communities are finding what we found. As long as the heavy hand of accumlated ice is visiting them, I surely hope they find each other, and are spared any serious destruction.
We've since moved out of the village and to some acreage in Madrid.
One of my husbands standout memories of the 98 Ice Storm was traveling from our home in Vermontville to Loon Lake (County Rt. 26) on Day 2, accompanied by his brother, to check on my parents who were in their late 70s and lived 3 miles up the road. Naturally, we were all worried how they were doing, and had not been able to contact them since all phones and power were out everywhere. Much to their (pleasant) surprise, as he and his brother reached their road, along came my folks in their big old pickup truck, having just plowed their own way through the wreckage of trees and ice. As if it were any other day, my dad simply reported that they were "heading to town to pick up a few things." They ended up faring better than most, even though they were without power for 2 weeks; they had a wood stove for warmth, another for cooking, and a collection of antique oil lamps to light up every room in the house. Water was the biggest issue, solved only when our power was restored after 6 days and we could bring them the generator we had just purchased during the storm.
As for myself, I remember walking out into our yard and thinking that war might sound something like this, but would not be so strangely beautiful. The power poles just up the hill from our house went down like dominoes I think I recall that 14 were toppled, politely staying just off the road between the potato fields so it remained fairly passable. We had to abandon our home to stay with relatives nearby because our house was threatened by 2 huge red pines that had begun to crack at their 3-foot bases and were leaning towards the house. Luckily we found a tree service that got through and cut them down even before the power was restored, saving the house. Quite the experience, all in all memorable, but not one we are eager to repeat.
I had foot surgery scheduled that morning and it did take place. I stayed with a friend that night and the following morning I needed to use my crutches to get into the car to get to my own house. I had crampons that flipped down and helped keep the crutches from slipping on the ice covered walkway and driveway. Power was out and the power lines were hanging over the driveway and in the trees. As I was being helped to the car, a wire sparked in the trees and a branch caught on fire. We barely made it under the wires to get out of the driveway so I could get home where my pet was waiting. What an experience!
I remember that I had loaned my generator to some friends off the grid while there's was fixed and I found out the day before that they were finished with it. So on the morning of the ice storm I put my chainsaw in the truck and went looking through the porch for my hardhat. I was talking on the phone to my girlfriend in western NY (that experienced their ice storm in '91) when there was a crack and a limb came through my window. I skipped the hard hat and cut my way through to Sylvan Falls to retrieve my generator.
Then I had to figure out how to hook it in to my electrical system. I only blew a couple of bulbs in the process of running 220 through one of the 110 circuits. Truthfully, I probably would have done fine without the generator but other friends weren't as fortunate. On the second day I got a call from a friend that basements were flooding so I put the generator back in the truck and spent the next week going from house to house pumping. I would return home and run the generator at my house for a while in the evening and the morning then set out again. I checked on friends and helped out where I could. Mostly I just waited...and I am not a patient man.
And lest I thought maybe I was making it up and this was the way all communities handled such disasters, I was trying to make conversation with a Niagara Mohawk worker in western New York a few years ago (he was taking care of a line that had come down in weather). He wasn't paying much attention until I mentioned I had been through the ice storm in the North Country. When he heard that, he stopped what he was doing and told me that he had never been treated better by a community in all the years he had been working for Niagara Mohawk. He had been all over the northeast doing that kind of work and other places people just wanted to know when their power was going to be back on and why it was taking so long. In the North Country we treated our utility workers as saviors while other places treat them as...well, I don't know what.
I was in the line at the post office the other day and I watched Loretta pack things into a Priority Mail box for an older couple and tape it up. She said, "By the time you bought the box and paid for parcel post shipping, it would have been just as much." There aren't many post offices left that offer that kind of service and I would have waited a long time in line with a smile on my face to see it done.
I was proud of our community and I still am. We're an independent lot, but we take care of each other. That sense of taking care of people is deeply ingrained and I think its the greatest gift, not for receiver but for the giver. Many lost time and money in the ice storm, but what we gained in community cannot be measured.
Interesting that it has been 10 years since the 1998 ice storm. We got our generator during that seige (6 days without power), but for some reason this past fall my husband decided it was time to revisit the whole generator connection. He moved it into the garage from the basement, reconfigured what circuits it would serve (confronting me with decision such as which rooms I really wanted heat in when we were both still in shorts!), bought a cover for it, and is now all set for the next emergency! I know we'll have less rooms in use, but we know that the new arrangement will be much safer. It's always better to think through these things when you aren't facing the emergency of no heat and temperatures heading south. I don't really know what prompted him to do this at this particular time, but as he says, "If the power fails, I'm ready!"
Guess I better go recheck and resupply our emergency kit in the basement. I think you ought to do the same. You never know.
Mary G. Lighthall
Remembering the Ice Storm, my mind thinks of you and yours. With batterries here, you kept me informed. And what a job you did. I remember an announcement, " There is an 18-Wheeler" someplace by a church. "If you need wood go get some, if you can help unload just go over there." Now there was a community working together. And it went on: how to cook on a wood stove, how to start a fire, how to set up a generator, phone number to call if you need prescriptions filled. All this kept me going, alone in my house. I heard nothing like this from any other media.
Plenty of wood and a gas stove!. Water in the cellar and no electricity to run the pump. Racking brain to remember high school physics. A sump pump to rent, and it was DC. Batteries in tractor, schlep them to the cellar. When dead, take another down. Slogging round in the water, brought thoughts of DC. Now was that the one that couldn't hurt you? AC could. Guess I was just lucky with that decision.
After the ice was melted away, we swapped stories. A dairy farmer shared a bad case of perhaps permanent tiredness. At least I needn't blame mine on old age. Twice a day he moved a his generator back and forth from from farm to neighbor's farm . Cows were milked, and the income was saved. This after building a road to connect them.
Yes I remember, and WSLU and Peru are big in my memories.
Mary Jane Lamb
Thank you for the memory. I was just thinking of the ice storm yesterday - our well in the barn ceased to give us water.
Remembrances from the fifth anniversary
The night of January 5-6, 1998 brought a substantial amount of freezing rain. The weight of ice brought down some large pine limbs across my driveway and the roads were in very bad condition so I stayed home from work, cleared the limbs and plowed the driveway. The roads were fine on Wednesday morning and I went to work as usual. The weather closed in that afternoon and the drive home from work took about 30 minutes longer than usual due to poor driving conditions. Despite the nasty weather, there was no indication that evening of the disaster that was about to descend upon us. The ice storm hit in earnest that night.
I awoke from time to time during the night and heard the bits of ice and some tree limbs falling on the roof. However, I was quite warm under my blanket of cats and didn't notice anything unusual until I got out of bed around 0600 and found the house to be a bit cold. The electricity had gone off at 0020 on the morning of Thursday, January 8th, and with it went the electric baseboard heat. Thus the first order of business was to light a fire in my airtight fireplace and start to get some heat back in the house. There was a noise like rifle shots outside as tree branches broke under the weight of ice and my deck as well as my roof were littered with broken maple branches. The scene outside was one of both beauty and disaster. All of the trees were coated with ice and many were bent over into arches. A large birch in the front yard was down with its roots pulled out of the ground. Two other large birches had fallen towards each other and their crowns were intertwined. Both the driveway and the road were completely impassible.
Despite all of the damage the telephone lines were intact so we weren't completely isolated. The CBC in Ottawa devoted its programming entirely to ice storm news and it quickly became apparent that a widespread disaster was upon us. My situation was much better than that of many in the region. The fireplace was built as a heating unit and was quite capable of keeping the entire house warm. I also had a plentiful supply of wood. There were batteries for the flashlights and portable radios and enough food for my 16 cats and myself for a few days. The lack of electricity rendered the well useless and the water pressure was sufficient to replenish the cats' bowl, but little more. There was plenty of snow and ice so no one would go thirsty.
I was concerned about my resident flock of chicadees and how they had fared through the storm. It was with a feeling of relief that I noticed their return to the feeder. They had become accustomed to the black oil sunflower seeds that were always there and were shared with the blue jays, nuthatches, mourning doves and squirrels. With the cats and the birds in good shape it was time to consider the neighbors.
I had offered some wood to my next door neighbors but they had enough to get started, then found that their small wood stove in the basement was insufficient to keep the house warm so they decided to move in with relatives.
Since the fireplace required a new supply of logs every two to three hours I remained close to home. The time was spent removing broken branches, repairing some of the damage and bringing firewood into the house.
There was no feeling of panic or helplessness since I was reasonably self-sufficient. The house was regaining warmth and I had two portable radios as well as the telephone to keep in touch with friends and the rest of the world. The first few meals were peanut butter sandwiches. I managed to salvage most of the food in the fridge by storing it in a cooler on the back deck. The temperature remained a few degrees below freezing so items such as orange juice, cheese and margarine as well as Pepsi and beer kept quite well.
I live on two acres off a tree-lined dirt road. My driveway as well as the road was completely blocked by fallen trees and branches. Around 1600 I heard the sound of chain saws at the end of the driveway. Some friends of my neighbors had cut the way in to their house and had come back to cut me out. There was a tremendous spirit of cooperation and people did what they could to help others. At the moment I had no particular desire to go anywhere, but it was a good feeling not to be trapped.
The next morning I had a call from John Firth, a very good friend and co-worker who lived in Portland. He wanted to know if he could buy some wood from me. I told him that he couldn't buy any, but that he could have all he wanted and to just come and get it. He arrived shortly in his 4-wheel drive pickup and cut some more branches that hung over the driveway. We loaded his truck with firewood and brought some to his mother's house, the rest to his. On the way back for more we stopped at the local store for a few supplies (there were no D-cells to be had anywhere, but I had enough). We then took another load of wood back to his house. This trip gave me my first look at the devastation in our area.
By Saturday the roads were in good shape and the township road crews had come to cut the trees that blocked the rest of our road. A Bell telephone crew was in to remove the large tree that had fallen across their line, but had not severed it. It did, however, break the Ontario Hydro lines which were also broken in several other places. Our telephone service remained intact since Bell had installed portable generators at their exchanges, but we were without electricity for two weeks. I was able to replenish my supply of cat food and obtain two 10-liter jugs of spring water for myself and the cats. They were drinking bottled water for the duration.
The electricity had been restored to Smiths Falls, just north of Portand, and to many parts of Kingston but it was apparent that it would take quite some time to restore service to all of the affected areas and my little road was not a top priority. There were crews here from all over Ontario as well as Manitoba and several States. These guys worked from dawn until well into the night nonstop and did a fantastic job.
Life at my place was fine. In the morning I would take the ashes out of the fireplace and start a new fire for the day. This kept the upstairs very comfortable and the temperature in the basement never went below 10 degrees C. The fire would die out overnight but the house held the heat pretty well. I would bring wood in every day to ensure a good convenient supply. I had several flashlights and used the flourescent tube from an emergency lantern for area lighting. The cat poops were tossed into the woods and the litter pans were washed out with snow. I could brush my teeth ok, but it was hard to wash. On Sunday I drove into Kingston for a shower and a load of laundry at a friend's house. I think that the hot shower every evening was what I missed the most.
The Park Service had brought a truck-mounted diesel generator to the Portland community center and volunteers provided hot meals for all who wanted one - 3/day, no charge. They also had a hose where we could fill up water jugs. I went there every day for water and a hot meal or two. The water was used to flush the toilet and to wash (it took 10 liters to flush the toilet). The office in Kingston opened on Monday but those of us without power remained home to keep the fires going. I cleared the tree limbs off the roof and deck and started some general clean up work with my chain saw. I would be cleaning up brush and trees until well into the summer. The power was restored to Portland after a week, but the community center continued to provide meals and water until the surrounding areas were on line. I was able to go to the Firth's house for showers and laundry which was quite convenient.
During the second week some members of the Canadian Army showed up to see if I required any help. They were covering all of the back roads to ensure that no one was stranded without aid. I was fine and in no need of assistance, but their gesture was appreciated. I'm sure there were many who really did require some help.
The power crews got to my road during the second week and spent three days repairing broken poles and lines. The electricity returned around 1830 on January 22nd, the fourteenth day. I returned to work the next day. We were not charged vacation time for the two weeks off.
The ice had backed up under some of the shingles and the roof leaked in a few areas. This caused some water damage inside. I'm insured with State Farm and they did a very good job of assessing the damage and providing prompt compensation. I had my roof completely reshingled and in the process the roofers made some repairs and renovations that were not storm-related. I have a better house because of it.
This storm was a major catastrophe for many people. My cats and I fared quite well and it's a good feeling to know that we can take care of ourselves. I was most fortunate that this house came with a good fireplace.
This article was in
a Connecticut newspaper after the ice storm. It was by
"Civilization is about this. When massive natural disaster
struck this hardscrabble region of farms, villages and little snow
country cities, there was virtually no crime, no violence and no
looting. Nobody broke into abandoned homes to rob his neighbors.
Instead, these unpretentious North Country people banded together
in rare gallantry to protect one another.
"One good thing came out of this cruel, ice-encrusted nightmare.
That was watching these North Country people and thousands of other
New Yorkers as well.
"As they offered this nation a vivid display of just how decently
and honorably human beings can behave toward one another."
Your work during those weeks was invaluable to us sitting out there in the dark, as you were too. I think that going on the air in the same circumstances all of us were experiencing had an even greater impact on the appreciation of all your efforts. Not only the information you were giving to us but the evening call ins as well. It connected us all and that was important for those of us that felt so alone and isolated from everything.
It was great to hear Mitch Tyke's voice on North Country Public Radio again. It's been good hearing his reports on NPR, but to hear him on NCPR really brought things home, especially when paired up with that other fountain of information during those morning hours of the the ice storm days, Barbara Heller. I loved hearing Bob and Mitch's story about turning off the small generators and listening to the new big one. I remember listening to that live!
I live outside of Bloomingdale which is just north of Saranac Lake. Saranac Lake only had a day and a half of icing and only a couple of days without power. The Red Cross set up their base of operations for the entire North Country in Saranac Lake because it was the only community of size that had power. I helped them out from time to time - it was interesting observing their operation - quite impressive. Saranac Lake received almost no damage from the storm since the icing was so brief. It was at the very southern edge of the storm. But the 6 mile drive from Saranac Lake to Bloomingdale was like going from normal to war zone...and it got worse the farther north one drove. I was amazed at the difference in just a couple of miles.
I felt lucky in that I only lost power for a week. Imagine any other time feeling lucky to be without power for a week, but everything is relative and I was very aware how much worse things were further north of my home. Interestingly, it was all guys from Long Island that got power and phone back at my house. Long Island Lighting were the crews that restored power and it was a couple of guys with Bell Atlantic (that was before the name was changed to Verizon) from outside of NYC that hooked the phone back up.
As a photographer, I got out and around the North Country to photograph the phenomenon. With that opportunity I was able to talk with work crews all over the place, from all over the place. The one thing I heard repeatedly was how nice people were here in the North Country. One fellow commented that down where he works (I won't say exactly where, but it is well south of the Adirondacks) if they don't show up with an hour and a half of when someone loses their power they are greeted with angry customers. "Up here, we show up to where people have been without power for over a week, and they come out with coffee and cookies for us!" He was amazed.
Listening to tonight's broadcast brought back a lot of the emotions felt during that time - not sure if that is good or not, but it shows how effective the show...and how powerful that storm....was.
I love those mountains so much! We visited Ausable Chasm that summer (following the storm, ed.), too. The normal path had been re-routed, due to falling trees. The iron stairs and walkways were twisted and broken. For someone with a nightmarish fear of heights (me!), this didn't inspire confidence as I walked down into the gorge! My home state of Arkansas had a similar storm the year before last. From the time we hit the border all the way up through the state, logging trucks were as common as roadkill on the side of the roads. The trees had fallen so close to the road that branches would brush the sides of the vehicles as we passed. Entire forests and fields were leveled. We visited in March; the storm hit during the early winter. It was a massive cleanup.
I remember Ice storms as a child. They were so beautiful. As an
My elderly mother, Lois Clark, in the village of Canton, survived alone in her home by closing off her kitchen and heating with her gas stove, sleeping on a lawn chair and eating canned soup. We were not allowed to travel into the area with a generator or to help her in any way. The phone lines remained open, which we were immensely grateful for.
Ready or not
It's been ten years since the Ice Storm (always capitalized) administered its mighty dope-slap to the North Country. If you can remember what healthy woods are supposed to look like, you can still make out the edges of the devastation when entering or leaving the region. It'll be another decade before all the debris has mulched back into duff. But good intentions decompose more quickly. Looking around the house now I see that we still have no heat source that doesn't require electricity, and that the battery stash has long been looted of anything containing an erg of oomph. The candles looked quite romantic burning down to nubs on the dinner table, and the canned goods supply is down to one portion of cream of asparagus soup and some ripe olives.
It may just be that constant vigilance is an oxymoron. Nervous fatigue sets in. How long can you look into every shoe and never find a bomb? How long before we rebuild on the floodplain or the coastline or the flank of the volcano? And if, somehow, we stayed prepared for disaster, would it be for the next one, or for the last one? I can remember when they decommissioned the public fallout shelters and disposed of all the stock. Half the North Country stored old baby clothes and sundry in sturdy brown barrels with a yellow Civil Defense logo on the side. Every science classroom was stocked with an almost-new Geiger counter. And I bet it's not that hard now to find a good price on a used power generator: "1998 Honda 2 KW, low hours, runs like new."
Share your received wisdom (if you have received any) from the Ice Storm of '98. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This moderately devastated version of our old logo graced the front of the Ice Storm Survivor shirt issued in February 1998. On the reverse we listed the upside of catastrophe.