There may have been more significant weather events in history. The 2000 Farmers’ Almanac chronicled the100 Worst Weather Events of the past 100 years. But if you lived in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Canada January 8, 1998 is the date that will live in weather infamy. It was the date of our Great Ice Storm which cut power to over 700,000 of the people who lived in the state. For some people it was an inconvenience and for others (who were powerless for up to 16 days) it was life or death.
The Farmers’ Almanac called for rain in early January. To say it would be ice would be a stretch. One or two degrees in either direction, or depending upon where you lived, could mean rain, snow, or ice. On that date, managing editor Sandi Duncan and I were scheduled to fly to NYC early morning to start planning the 1999 edition. Sandi lived “in the woods a bit” and called me at 4 am to say she lost power. Twenty minutes later I lost electricity and, within the hour, the Portland Jetport was closed for the same reason.
It was work as usual at Geiger Bros. (our parent company) but by 11 am I was doing a phone/ TV interview on CNN. Before the day was over I was fielding calls from as far away as Alaska. Maine had become the weather story for national media and with good reason. It was January and no power usually means frozen pipes. But, Maine is the most treed state in the US (89% of our surface has trees). So, when 5 inches of ice clung to trees, limbs snapped and thousands of miles of electric wire came with it. When one connection was made, another tree took it down again The power workers worked around the clock for a month to restore power.
While it was warm on January 8th (30 degrees F.) the temp started dropping as the calendar pages turned. The ice storm lasted January 8 – 10th but the clean-up took weeks. Utility crews from states as far away as Hawaii helped with the endless task. What I remember best was the genuine warmth and compassion neighbors showed neighbors. People who owned generators would go house to house to warm one before moving on to the next. If you owned a chainsaw, you helped clear trees off roofs. There are so many trees in Maine that you could have a modest property with a dozen downed trees. But, this was an opportunity for people to help people and I will always remember the courtesies extended to people in need and that was just about everyone.
The sound of branches snapping sounded like gunshots or being in a war zone. The “shots” went on through the night and through the week. Today, we have lost many trees that were damaged that day. But, Mother Nature replaces what she takes away.
Today, our power company has an aggressive tree trimming program. When there is the next ice storm, some lines will come down but not as many.
Photo: Ice coated trees on the University of Vermont campus. Courtesy of Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation