Remembering Ice Storm '98

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the ice storm that hit a large swath of the northeastern US and southeastern Canada. Our local public radio station is running stories daily about events 10 years ago, and my memories are being stimulated of a time when life seems to have been strikingly different for me.

Ice Storm '98 is the closest thing to a natural disaster I've ever lived through. I'm not going to compare the event to a hurricane or tornado, because buildings and roads were not severely damaged. Powerlines were the main infrastructure that was affected, and miles of them had to be rebuilt, including the line to our house.

I kept a journal throughout the period, from the day the power went out through the day our power was restored. I have 100 handwritten pages in a file cabinet. Someday I will type them. I will pull them out and read them again soon.

Events started on Monday and Tuesday, with freezing rain. I can remember driving home on Tuesday from a 4-H meeting with Ana, thinking that we were probably going to lose power for a while that night. I put up some fresh water that night before going to bed. The icing increased as the night went on, and we lost power and phone service about 2 AM or so. It would be 19 days before we had power again.

During that night the trees started to give up under the burden of ice. Branches started falling off of trees all around us. We would hear the snap of the breaking limb, then a swish, then a thud and tinkle of falling ice. These sounds went on endlessly, day and night, for days.

This happened during a time when life did not seem easy. We were having financial problems, as Robert's election as Town Supervisor a couple of years earlier had cost him all of his state-funded housing inspection contracts. I was underemployed as an account clerk at the county highway department. Our daughter Ana was 9 years old, and still a child. She was being homeschooled and already was an independent person. The fourth member of the household was Sam, Robert's 84 year old stepfather. Sam was living with us after Robert's mom died in the fall. He was in poor health, with bad eyesight, poor hearing, skin cancer, and in a wheelchair due to weakness in his legs from years of taking steroids.

After a couple of days of trees falling apart all around us, there was no way we could get out of our driveway. A neighbor who had a log skidder came by to see how were were, figuring that we were trapped. He used his skidder to clear our driveway. Unfortunately, a broken electric line wrapped around the axle of his skidder without his knowledge, and he pulled down our entire powerline in the process. I will never forget standing on my front deck, watching the poles go down. I knew then that we were going to be without power for weeks. We only had phone service because the phone company ran a temporary phone line for us on top of the snow banks.

After a few relatively warm days, the weather turned cold. That made it difficult to keep the house warm, but it did help us save the food in our freezer - we just moved it outside. We had a woodstove on one side of the house, but no heat on the side with the bedrooms, so we moved Sam's bed to the living room while Ana slept on a mat in the dining room. Robert and I slept on the other side of the house. We had enough blankets on the bed to stay warm, but I had to wear a hat at night to feel warm enough to fall asleep.

Poor Sam. Every day he spent hours looking out of the living room window, wondering why no power crews had come yet to rescue us.

After the first few days, Robert was gone most of the time. He was mobilizing the town's response to the disaster. He did a terrific job, too. Our town had one of the best assistance programs around. The fire department set up a shelter in the fire hall with three hot meals a day, and there was a generator powering the town hall, and emergency showers. Robert organized a safety patrol that visited all of the far-flung homes to see if anyone needed help. His most brilliant program was the fuel assistance program. All town residents could come to the highway department and pick up a ration of fuel oil or fiirewood if they were out of fuel at home. FEMA reimbursed the town for the cost of all the fuel it gave out.

I was home, keeping the fire burning and the tummies fed. We had put up a lot of fresh water before the power went out, and that lasted us for days. Ana and I made regular trips to the brook below our house and carried back pails of water for washing and flushing. Everything had to be cooked on top of the stove, so I made a lot of soups, stews, and fricasees. I made English muffins on a griddle to give us some fresh bread. I learned how to keep the wicks properly trimmed on oil and kerosene lamps. And I swept the floors. It was amazing how much dirt we kept tracking into the house. Keeping the house as clean as possible was one way for me to try to feel somewhat in control of the situation.

After a week, we had a generator shipped to us. Life with a generator has its challenges. Ours was noisy enought to be annoying. It was finicky about the cleanliness of its fuel, and took a lot of babying. You can't run everything, either. I went around the house, checking the power requirements, and realized that doing laundry was out of the questions. We were able to run the basics - lights and refrigerator. Our waterline had frozen during the cold weather, so we had no running water for many days. In fact, the saga of our water supply dragged on for weeks after the power was restored. It was so badly damaged, we ended up drilling a new well nearer to the house.

Once the public radio station was back online, the friendly voices there were regular companions, especially in the evening. The station had nightly call-ins where all of the people in the region called in to talk to someone, share experiences, offer to help with plumbing problems, and trade haiku and limericks.

After several days, I was called back to work part-time. My first trip into town was surreal. Trees, buildings, and the road were still coated with a thick coat of ice. After work, I went to the grocery store to buy milk, bread, and fresh fruit and vegetables. The store was running on generators, and the lighting was slightly dim and eerie. Being surrounded by all that fresh food was eerie as well. It was a little piece of paradise.

I had to go back to work full-time before our electricity was restored. Every night as I drove home, I tracked the progress of the restoration of power. Every night a few more homes were lit, and I watched the lights make their way towards my home. Nineteen days after the lights went out, I came home to find the lights on, and the generator turned off. Even though we still had to solve problems with our water supply, that was when it felt like the ice storm was over for my family.


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