Arrow-right Camera


Bitter Ice Storm Chills Even Hardiest In Northeast Utility Crews Struggle To Restore Power And Heat As Storm-Battered Residents Abandon Their Homes

Sat., Jan. 10, 1998

Hundreds of thousands of residents in four states layered themselves in sweaters, stocked up on essential supplies and prepared for a lengthy wait in the dark and cold as a bitter ice storm descended over the Northeast on Friday.

More than 125,000 northern New York residents in five ice-choked counties remained without power for a second day as utility crews struggled to keep pace with the ongoing damage.

“We can’t get ahead of the game,” said Greg Hudson, a deputy administrator in St. Lawrence County. “As the crews are clearing up one spot, they’re watching another tree or pole fall over.”

At New York Gov. George Pataki’s direction, the National Guard sent 1,500 soldiers into northern portions of the state to help clear debris, evacuate stranded residents and set up and run portable generators.

“There’s no water. There’s no heat. There’s no lights. There’s no gas. There’s nothing. It’s real bad. I can’t imagine how people are going to cope the longer it goes on,” said Diane Brayton, a coordinator of a Red Cross shelter in Gouverneur, N.Y.

In Maine, Gov. Angus King told the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “get out the checkbook” as his state began to clean up and reconnect more than 500,000 people without power. Shelters were expected to be packed for a second day as residents abandoned their homes.

Harsh conditions forced many to forego pleasures usually taken for granted, like a hot shower or a cooked meal, and tested the mettle of even lifelong Mainers.

“As soon as I retire, I’m out of here. I’m moving to Florida,” said Jim Chase, a banker in Augusta who has lived in Maine for 30 years. “If it wasn’t for this, it’d be 20 inches of snow or 20 degrees below zero.”

The lights were out at Gray True Value Hardware in Augusta, but owner Keith Harriman conducted business by flashlight for a steady stream of customers seeking storm-related items.

“They want kerosene, batteries, anything to do with heat or light or generating power,” said Harriman.

In New Hampshire, 11 communities declared states of emergency as the ice storm dropped power lines, limbs trees and utility poles. The rush to restore power proved dangerous to four utility workers who were injured by falling trees. The town of New London, N.H., was virtually sealed off in a curtain of ice.

In Vermont, the winter quiet was shattered over and over by the sound of ice-coated tree limbs crashing to the ground. Some 500 National Guardsmen were called in to help 20,000 residents without power in Chittenden County.

To the north, Canada’s worst ice storm on record wreaked havoc in five eastern provinces, halting air travel, shutting down the nation’s busiest rail corridor and forcing some 3 million people to endure another frigid day in the dark and without power.

The death toll from the five-day onslaught rose to 10 after police in Montreal discovered an elderly couple killed in one of many house fires and a 90-year-old woman who died of hypothermia after refusing to leave her unheated home.

Like hundreds of New Englanders, Montrealers abandoned their homes to take shelter at community centers and schools.

In the South, the problem wasn’t ice, but rain.

Parts of the Southeast got as much as a foot of rain on Wednesday and Thursday. In particularly hard-hit northeastern Tennessee, floods left seven people dead, including a rescue worker.

In Roan Mountain, Lisa Boone pointed to a concrete step more than 20 feet from the front door of her mother’s home, which was in the driveway. The step used to lead to the front door of the house.

“We’re afraid it’s about to fall,” she said of the house.

The National Guard needed Humvees to navigate the North Carolina mountains and help the 400 residents of Plumtree, where Roaring Creek - normally 3 feet wide - swelled to 120 feet across after at least a foot of rain fell.

National Guardsmen trucked in fresh water and water purification equipment as utility crews worked to restore power and reopen roads. Rescue crews also located the body of a 25-year-old man who fell from a boat into the rain-swollen French Broad River. A companion was rescued.

It was the second death in North Carolina from the floods.

Click here to comment on this story »