This is about the 1998 ice storm, now we have another one in 2008.
A storm beyond compare
Mainers come together as ice rips state apart, leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
By ERIC BLOM
Portland Press Herald
Ice sheathed every blade of grass, tree limb and bush at dawn on Jan. 8. Mainers loaded film into cameras and marveled at this state-turned-ice sculpture.
Thousands of these people had lost their power overnight. Now, with daylight, they watched tree limbs and entire trees crack, snap and fall under the weight of the ice. Utility poles and power lines broke. Debris and live wires tumbled onto roads.
“It sounds like rifle shots going off all around you,” said Mac Gillet, 70, of Bridgton, remembering the trees that fell around and onto his cabin.
Most Homes and businesses fell dark, without electric power, that day. The Ice Storm of ‘98 had begun its vicious, grinding attack.
From Alfred to Machias, Waterville to Bridgton, ice tore through Maine’s electrical and telephone networks, savaged woodlands and blocked major roads. Central Maine, in particular, looked as though a malevolent giant had snapped every treetop between forefinger and thumb.
Then, 17 days later, a second ice storm struck the southern coast - an area largely unaffected during the first outage. More homes went dark.
Ultimately, four out of five Mainers would lose their electricity - and often their heat, water, phones and flush toilets as well - for at least a few hours. Thousands of people could not turn on the lights for two weeks or more.
Four Mainers died in storm-related accidents. Thousands suffered injuries, illnesses and stress-related mental health problems. Well over $100 million was spent rebuilding the state’s electrical system, operating emergency shelters, replacing spoiled merchandise and repairing homes.
The storm now stands among Maine’s great natural disasters.
Only a few others this century compare: the fires of October 1947, which killed 10 and destroyed 1,000 homes; the great floods of March 1936, which killed five and left 10,000 homeless; the twin hurricanes Carol and Edna in August 1954, which killed eight; and the blizzard of February 1952, which killed four and closed roads for days.
In one respect, the ice storms of 1998 is beyond comparison: It affected a larger swath of Maine, and touched the lives of many more people, than any of other disaster in this century. It did so, largely, by creating the biggest and longest-lasting power outage in state history.
The entire pattern of life here changed.
Mainers learned to live as their forefathers had done, cooking over open fires and huddling under blankets for warmth. Families rediscovered conversation and board games in this world without Nintendo, cable television, the Internet or school. Neighbors helped each other get by.
People loaned generators to friends and strangers alike. They offered shelter and showers to relatives and new friends. They baked cookies and drew children’s pictures for overtaxed utility workers.
Some businesses offered discounted hotel rooms, free coffee and instant oatmeal to anyone without power.
Karen and Tom Doviak, owners of a Bridgton restaurant, typified the Maine reaction to the ice of 1998.
The Doviaks had no power. Their business was closed. But they had a wood stove and gas-heated water, so they invited eight worse-off neighbors into their home.
”I don’t know what I’d do without them,” said Jeni Johns, 57, who is recovering from pelvis surgery and uses a walker to get around. ”I’d probably freeze.”
On Jan. 7 and 8, at the beginning of the first storm, nobody was thinking about life-and-death situations. The storm deceived people with its light rain and drizzle.
The very gentle nature of this rain fueled its destructive power. Moisture clung to trees and utility lines, rather than washing away as it would have done in a downpour. Drizzle froze into dense ice.
Some areas of Maine, like Fryeburg, received nearly three inches of precipitation during a three-day period. The moisture glazed everything it touched. Outdoor objects became entombed in two or three inches of ice; four inches or more built up on radio towers, utility lines and other tall and high objects.
Ice on the ground on Wednesday, Jan. 7 made walking a near-futile adventure. Hospital emergency rooms started seeing a lot of broken wrists and hip injuries.
Early the next morning, trees, utility poles and electric lines started to fall. Initially, highway workers with chain saws fought a losing battle, dodging tree limbs and struggling to keep roads open for emergency vehicles. Portions of at least 50 state highways closed. In some cases, it took days to reopen side roads to traffic.
Some people refused to wait because they felt their homes, without heat and with trees falling everywhere, were dangerous. They assaulted the clogged roads with chain saws and headed for the relative safety of Portland.
“Most of the roads in my area just don’t exist any more because of the debris and rubble and what not,” Rick Noblet, of Vassalboro, said at the time.
He had to cut through 18 downed trees and a telephone pole with his chain saw to reach a main road. In all, Noblet spent 12 hours traveling the 77 miles from his home to the warmth of a Portland hotel.
Conditions became so dangerous the second morning of the storm that even some emergency workers were told to stay indoors before dawn. Trees continued to fall for days after the rain stopped, as wind knocked heavy limbs down.
Statewide, this storm destroyed nearly 3,000 utility poles and 3 million feet of power lines. Bangor Hyrdro-Electric Co. lost eight miles of its 115,000-volt transmission line into Washington County.
Final tallies suggest that 67 percent of the state - more than 800,000 people, in all - lost their power during the peak of the first power outage. Then, as workers were reconnecting the last of these homes on Jan. 24, 165,000 more Mainers lost their power in another ice storm.
Suddenly, these Mainers had no heat, e-mail, cable television, automated teller machines, video games or - in thousands of cases - working telephones, running water and flush toilets. Even cellular calling became difficult as lines jammed.
On Jan. 8, Gov. Angus King proclaimed a state of emergency and asked for federal disaster assistance. He also bought the entire stock of a Brunswick doughnut shop to distribute at newly opened shelters.
A week later, on Jan. 15, Vice President Al Gore surveyed central Maine by helicopter and told people “you need to know you are not alone.” NBC’s Today Show broadcast live reports from Gray.
Most Mainers lacked the electricity to see these or any other televised news reports. Maine media outlets were having trouble delivering the news.
Maine Public Television remained unavailable to most viewers for eight days, and Public Radio fell silent for a long stretch as well. Numerous other radio stations in south-central Maine dropped off the air after they lost transmitters or power. Even the emergency broadcast system failed.
Competing media outlets worked together to bring Mainers storm-related information. Newspapers shared printing facilities with competitors. Television and radio programs held simulcasts.
All four Portland-area television stations collaborated on a telethon to raise money for the American Red Cross. Almost all stations and publications tried to connect people in need with those offering goods and services.
And there was plenty of need to go around.
Hundreds of thousands of Mainers suddenly had to focus on the basic necessities of life, which had been withdrawn from them. No power, no furnace. No electricity, no refrigeration. No well pump, no water, no toilet.
More than 3,000 Mainers decided they could not stay at home. They moved into the more than 130 shelters that opened statewide. Tens of thousands of other Mainers moved in with friends and family. Police forced people who were sleeping in their cars to sleep in shelters instead.
But, in the main, people toughed it out at home. It’s part of the Maine spirit, they said.
Lucretia Douglas, 82, of Sebago remembers waking up with frost in the house when she was a child. So, she didn’t get depressed spending more than a week without power in 1998, despite arthritis and angina.
“Any other person would, but I’m one of those hard-headed Maine fools,” she said.
People learned to melt snow so that they could flush. They placed milk outside and shopped daily so perishable groceries would not spoil. They grew familiar with cranky generators and woke up frequently to throw another log on the fire.
A lot of people even found joy in the situation.
They played piano by flashlight and read books by candle. They sang songs and danced in the kitchen to stay warm. They bought strings for guitars that had lain unused for years.
They found beauty in the simplicity of this life.
“Every night, candles lit the house,” said Kate Downey, a fourth-grader from Baldwin. “Every little candle looked like a little fairy. It wasn’t so bad having fairies light up our house.”
Of course, not everyone saw the situation with this sense of wonder. Most people found the outage annoying at best. They fantasized about life with hot showers and sitcoms.
Take Martha and Alan Connolly, for example.
Their generator blew up, spewing oil everywhere. The explosion caused Martha, who was cooking a chicken on the gas grill, to drop a lantern - with a crash of splintering glass - onto the kitchen table. ”I sat down at the table and said, ‘The kitchen is closed until the power comes back on,’ ” Martha said.
TALES OF TRAGEDY
Maine faced much more serious problems as well.
Two men - one from Waterville and another from Newport - died from carbon monoxide poisoning produced by their generators. Hundreds of other Mainers also ended up in hospital emergency rooms with headaches, nausea and flu-like symptoms from exposure to the gas.
An elderly Vassalboro man died when he fell down some steps in the dark. A tree struck and killed a man from Oakland who was helping a neighbor clear debris from his yard.
Overturned candles and overworked wood stoves caused numerous fires and several injuries. Often, homeowners could not immediately call for help because phone lines were severed.
Louise Potter spent nine days trying to run the Suburban Pines motel in Windham without power. She also was housing eight relatives, including three grandchildren, who had lost their heat at home.
A guest, staying at the motel after losing power, tipped over a candle she had been using for light. It started a fire that destroyed three rooms. The sprinkler system, of course, did not work without power.
Finally, Potter hung a white flag on the pole outside her motel.
“I surrendered,” Potter recalled. “By the end of the week, it was getting a bit much.”
Many thousands of others, desperate for power, wrote witty verses on cardboard to attract utility workers. Others lashed out.
A Westbrook man threatened to hold Central Maine Power employees hostage until they turned on his power. Police blamed several domestic assaults and fistfights on storm-related stress. Thieves stole dozens of generators.
CMP hired off-duty police officers to staff all 11 of its district offices and, in some cases, asked police to escort crews into areas where threats had been made.
A WAR ZONE
Time and again, people described the Maine landscape after these ice storms as a “war zone” with its brutalized trees, downed lines and closed roads.
For Maine utilities, the outage was indeed a kind of grinding battle, fought day after exhaustingly long day. Many linespeople were in the field for 16- and 18-hour days, with no break, for three weeks.
“We are really in hand-to-hand combat, going road to road restoring power,” said Bill Cohen, spokesman for Bangor Hydro, during the height of the outage.
Maine’s utility companies needed help, and they called on sister companies for assistance. Bucket trucks - sometimes with the slogan “Maine or bust” written on the sides - began arriving from as far away as Maryland.
At the peak of the repair effort, CMP had close to 3,000 workers in the field. Telephone and cable companies had thousands more. Logistics became astoundingly difficult.
So many utility workers and displaced residents filled hotel rooms in central Maine that utility crews sometimes had to stay an hour away from the next day’s work site. CMP had spent nearly $2 million on food and lodging for utility workers, by Jan. 20.
An even bigger power outage in Quebec, where 3 million people lost their lights, reduced the number of utility workers and material available for repairs in Maine. A storm heading for the Mid-Atlantic states caused some companies there to call crews back home.
Utilities had to look further for help.
The Pentagon, at Gov. King’s request, used transport planes to fly utility crews and their bucket trucks up from North Carolina. CMP set up a huge clothing outlet to distribute cold-weather clothes to southern workers unprepared for Maine’s bitter weather.
Still, in a surreal sort of way, much of Maine life remained unchanged by the storms of January. Most stores remained open, even if owners had to work by flashlight for a few days. People could shop. Roads quickly became passable. Most businesses stayed open.
Those Mainers who never lost their power, or who got it back quickly, felt somehow left out of the crisis. They saw co-workers with greasy hair and heard their complaints about cold meals, cranky kids and closed day care centers.
Many people with power developed a kind of “survivor’s guilt” and cast about for ways to help those who were suffering. Some opened their homes to strangers or housed the pets of people who were staying in shelters. Others donated time or money to relief efforts.
Then, many of these people unexpectedly discovered for themselves what disaster was all about. A second ice storm knocked the power out in coastal towns, which had been spared the worst of the initial storm.
Shelters reopened. A new crop of Mainers had the chance to display the good humor and resilience that characterized the Ice Storm of ‘98 and its sequel.
“This one just kind of had our name on it, and I’m kind of glad,” Gary Varney of Chebeague Island said of the second storm. “I’d feel real bad if it was Bridgton, because it’s their turn to keep their houses warm. Those people have had enough.”
The last of Maine’s ice victims got their power back on Jan 27, 1998 - 20 days after the first homes lost their lights.
During those three weeks, many Mainers learned important lessons about community and the value of family time uninterrupted by electronic devices. Mainers felt a kinship to an earlier era, when people lived closer to nature.
A few families vowed to maintain that connection by turning off the power once a week. Others promised to carry the spirit of the ice storms with them always, even after the lights came back on.
But most people doubted that the spirit of the ice storms could survive the restoration of power. Many Mainers, in their inner hearts, were a little disappointed when January 1998 came to an end.
”Personally, I’ll be sad” to see the crisis end and the Litchfield town shelter close, said Linda Labbe, a shelter volunteer, during the disaster. “It’s brought me closer to people.”