Ice Storm of '98: A Retrospective
10 Years After, pt 1:
The January, 1998 Ice Storm took people by surprise, an unremarkable weather front that turned lethal when it stalled over the border country of northern New York and southeastern Canada, dropping freezing rain for an unprecedented five days.
Spotty power losses began Tuesday, January 6 in the North Country. Power was out for 1,000 electric customers in Massena. Service was restored but lost again on Wednesday as the freezing rain continued. Damage from icing on tree limbs and utility wires was widespread. Despite colder temperatures overnight Wednesday the 7th, the rain kept falling. And freezing. Utility crews began to lose the battle: Listen
Niagara Mohawk technician Dave Seymour said he'd never seen anything like it. Treetops came down in an agonizing succession of sounds: first the break, like a rifle shot, then a shattering as the ice fell, then the percussive thump. Utility poles snapped like pencils. Tangles of branches and wires blocked highways. Plows couldn't get through and roads quickly disappeared under deep, icy ruts.
On Thursday, January 8th, approximately 100,000 Niagara Mohawk customers were without electricity. The utility predicted it would take five or six days to restore power. But it was more than three weeks before the last 100 homes had lights again. Jefferson, St. Lawrence, northern Lewis, Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties were all but paralyzed. States of emergency were declared. Emergency shelters opened. Travel bans were declared.
Safety and survival were top priorities. Volunteer fire departments became hubs of local relief efforts. St. Lawrence County Administrator Don Brining was concerned about continuing bad weather: Listen
It was much the same in Essex County: Listen
But Emergency service Coordinator Ray Thatcher was also watching flooding along the Ausable River. He worried about the remoteness of some county homes, as well as the continuing power losses:
But that would be a long, cold couple of weeks for Thatcher's county.
Meanwhile, there was a remarkable spontaneous generation of survival and coping skills that's wonderful to remember, and impossible to do justice to here.
Remember, travel was restricted or banned outright, and telephone service was very spotty. But word got around. Neighbors traded meals or lived cooperatively. People fed line crews and local road workers. Firewood exchanges were organized; doctors took calls at home; volunteers drained plumbing and installed generators.
The countryside was still dotted with local corner stores that now, just ten years later, are mostly gone. News of deliveries of bread, milk, kerosene and batteries traveled the grapevine; lines formed at the local gas pumps. Shoppers at the Canton P & C were simply given flashlights and told to be careful in the dark store. Cashiers worked hand held calculators by lantern light. The shelves were stripped of food staples, matches, candles and batteries, but some delivery trucks were getting through: Listen
On the first Saturday after the storm, Coakley's True Value Hardware in Canton was dark but not quiet. Bill Coakley watched shoppers who were focused on their new priorities of heat and light:
But the weather posed new threats. A major thaw drove river levels dangerously high. Then came bitter cold and snow. The wind chill dropped to 20 and 30 below zero on the night of January 13. At state police headquarters in Ray Brook, Lt. Bob LaFountain feared the consequences of snow squalls and falling temperatures: Listen
Air searches for stranded homes and medical emergencies were suspended due to the bad weather, but main state roads were mostly passable and open. Chief concerns as the below zero cold set in were hypothermia, and the measures people were taking to keep warm. Hospitals were treating increasing numbers of carbon monoxide poisoning, and police had good reason to worry: By the 13th there had been seven deaths linked to toxic fumes.
Fountain's message to those who needed help was simple, and it was repeated again and again by police and emergency workers: Listen
10 Years After, pt 2
As the days passed, new routines were established. People figured out how to cook, or where to go to eat, how to get water or a shower. At this radio station, orange extension cords dangled out a second story window to two small generators. For a week, they powered a couple of computers, the Associated Press wire service, the broadcast equipment, and a couple of lights. Volunteers brought hot food and answered phones. Staff members slept overnight. As the building got colder and colder, we bought a kerosene heater.
Without satellite connection to network programs, it was live, local radio - all the time. The station became a clearinghouse. Barb Heller was our morning host. She took frantic phone calls, including one from the fire chief in Hermon: Listen
And so our building, which also houses doctors offices and other medical services, had lights and heat late on January 14. But some 87,000 customers were still without power from Lake Ontario to Lake Champlain. At the worst point, all the distribution lines into the North Country had been down. Lamar Bliss caught up with NiMo's David Seymour as the new NCPR generator fired up: Listen
Utilities from all over the east sent trucks and men. Fourteen hundred line crews set 10,000 new poles and strung hundreds of miles of wire. Local restaurants and motels -- mostly the ones with parking lots big enough for 20 or 30 trucks -- were jammed early in the morning and again after dark. Ellen Rocco caught up with some veteran out-of-state workers having breakfast at a local Canton diner: Listen
Practically speaking, it was a blessing that the area's colleges were not in session when the ice storm hit. Students hadn't yet returned from their holiday break, and the mostly empty campuses provided life-saving food and shelter. At St. Lawrence University in Canton, local people were housed in the gym, utility crews claimed the field house, the military bunked in the library. Hundreds of people ate and took showers on campus. SUNY Potsdam's Maxcy field house looked like a little village -- rows and rows of mattresses interspersed with colorful mountaineering tents. Visiting the fieldhouse January 10, Gov. George Pataki said the state was mounting its biggest storm response ever, and had asked for federal help: Listen
Farmers faced a constellation of problems. Without power, they were hard pressed to feed and water their cows, clean the barns, milk and then keep the milk cool. Portable generators were once again lifesavers -- often hauled from farm to farm. According to Clarkson University professor Stephen Doheny-Farina's 2001 book, The Grid and the Village, 1400 of the 1800 New York farms in the storm region suffered losses. 1200 cows died. In Canada, 27,000 dairy farms recorded losses totaling $25 million. I talked with Canton farmer Jon Greenwood, who was in the middle of a Farm Bureau effort to organize relief: Listen
There are as many stories as there were people and volunteers in homes and shelters across the North Country. Fire departments led local relief efforts. In the Franklin County hamlet of St. Regis Falls, the fire garage was like a slushy, grimy central command post. Pick-up trucks shared space with Army humvees -- including one from Bosnia -- with bullet holes in one door.
Just across the parking lot, Red Cross trucks delivered food and supplies to the local senior center, which was providing food and housing. I visited on the 10th day of the storm. Cots lined the walls. Families took shelter, so did volunteers who'd come north to help, workers stranded in town by late hours. Fred and Marsha LaComb were among the first to arrive after the center opened as a shelter the first Thursday of the storm: Listen
10 Years After, pt 3
Alexandria Bay was among the last communities to have power restored. But as Mitch Teich found when he visited the shelter set up at the local school, two weeks after the ice hit, people there were working hard to keep their spirits up as the new routine of ice storm survival continued:
As housekeeping routines changed with the ice storm, so did other family habits. No running out for pizza or a movie. No computer games. No school. And no TV. People could listen to the radio though, if there was a transistor radio and extra batteries in the house. WMSA radio, a commercial station in Massena, was off the air for only minutes at a time as the storm hit. It was a vital resource for its local community. Morning host Barb Heller set the tone for our daytime broadcasts. They were chock full with emergency-related news and information: Listen
During nightly call-ins, people shared everything from stress reduction exercises to recipes. We asked for haiku one night, limericks the next. There was humor, and heartwarming anecdotes, as people isolated at home formed an on-air community. Evening hosts varied--station manager Ellen Rocco often paired up with reporter Mitch Teich: Listen
Life gradually returned to normal. The evening call-ins ended as more and more people got their power back, and their televisions. Two weeks after the ice started, schools were open, but 1300 utility crews were still working. More than 35,000 people, mostly in rural areas, were still waiting for power.
Hundreds of people remained in emergency shelters. The federal emergency management agency had opened recovery centers in Watertown, Plattsburgh, Mooers and Canton. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had announced a $12-million aid package for six counties.
It was a full three weeks, before Niagara Mohawk announced that the final 100 customers in Jefferson County were back on the grid.
NCPR News Archives
Some of the stories below are in Real Audio format and require a RealPlayer to listen to them. Get RealPlayer free.