John Dority, chief engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation, likes to remember a defining moment that happened one night soon after the now historic ice storm struck Maine beginning on Jan. 6, 1998.
“We had already been out for six to eight hours before the storm came,” he said. “Later on, we were in the Maine Emergency Management Agency room in Augusta with Gov. Angus King, and he looked at us and said, ‘The people in Maine are freezing to death.’
“He had already declared a state of emergency,” Dority said. “That was all he had to say, and we knew what we had to do.”
Tales of how emergency management personnel, utility company workers, radio announcers and ordinary neighbors responded after three days of freezing precipitation sent trees, power lines and poles crashing to the ground in glassy explosions are now the stuff of legend. More than 300,000 households, about half the state’s population, were left in the dark and cold, many for days on end. Six deaths were attributed to the storm, according to state figures.
Ten years later, those experiences have been seared into the state’s collective memory, and many lessons have been learned if there is ever a similar weather event, say officials.
Dority and others interviewed for this story clearly recall the details of the disaster. Dority said DOT crews went into areas ravaged by fallen trees ahead of the Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Central Maine Power Co. teams to clear the debris.
“We replaced utility poles that had snapped,” he said. “Our job was to give them support once we got a road open. We lent CMP a truck – everybody worked together,” he said.
Utilities at forefront
Gail Rice, spokesman for Central Maine Power, said her company had seen the storm coming a few days earlier and had known they had to prepare.
“There was news of an ice storm up in Quebec,” she said. “That had everybody on alert.” CMP is always watching the weather, she added.
“Since the storm, we have hired a weather consultant to warn us of [potentially dangerous storms].
“If we find something problematic,” she said, “then we send it out to groups in charge of coordinating outage restoration.
“Now when we know there’s a storm coming, we’re on the alert for days,” she added.
A total of 1,048 trucks with two crew members in each vehicle responded in CMP’s coverage area, including those who arrived from out of state to provide mutual aid.
“We had crews from 46 utility and line companies, and another 27 tree companies provided crews,” Rice said. “We had crews from North Carolina and the Canadian Maritimes as well.”
Altogether, 8,300 people were involved in the restoration of power in CMP’s coverage area, a process that lasted for 23 days until power was restored to the last customer.
“We had just finished before Super Bowl Sunday, when a second ice storm hit Cumberland County,” Rice said, adding that it took a few more days to restore power in that area.
CMP has had emergency response teams in place for many years, Rice said, “but when something like this happens, all kinds of things come up.”
Two-thirds of Bangor Hydro’s 119,000 customers were without power, said Susan Faloon, communications officer for the utility.
“We had 40 line crews of our own, and all production departments were in the field, for a total of 600 employees. All hands were on deck,” she said.
The company contracted with a 30-person line crew to work in Hancock and Washington counties and got help from 40 more line crews from southern New England. Forty timber crews from tree companies were cutting trees and clearing fallen debris.
An 8-mile line that fed Washington County collapsed, including about 140 poles under two inches of ice, she said.
The National Guard came in and cleared the line, and Bangor Hydro set poles and rebuilt the Washington County line.
“From the first outage to everyone being back on line took 14 days,” she said. “We then sent crews to help Central Maine Power.”
Faloon said that without the help of crews from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the restoration would have taken a lot longer than two weeks.
“The Department of Transportation helped us by clearing debris ahead of our trucks, and the National Guard helped, too,” she added.
“Our employees were put into roles they didn’t do on a daily basis,” she said. “Our employees worked 16 hours on and took eight hours off for safety. We still observe that procedure during storms.”
Priorities were set up for restoring power: hospitals, critical care facilities, water companies, phone companies and large groups of customers.
John Melrose, who was transportation commissioner from 1995 to 2003, said one of the lessons – and it was a lesson shared with utility companies – was the importance of maintaining tree and brush clearance on the sides of roads. Such pruning is done routinely today.
A second lesson was recognizing critical services, such as realizing that “gasoline gets into your car with an electric pump,” he added. “If you have no electricity, then you have no gasoline.”
“Fortunately, the department had just barely enough generating capacity to keep things going, but it was a scramble,” Melrose said.
“The other thing was just sort of an understanding of the priority of things,” Melrose said. “The utility company had the same thing the DOT had – you had to clear out that main artery first. You had to get to that generating facility first, and then you had to work your way out from it.
“I thought one of the refreshing things about it was the way everybody rallied,” he said. “I’m really proud of what the department did at that time.
“Maybe we didn’t have as much of a plan in place as we should have, but that was overcome by a lot of very resourceful people, who, frankly, were challenged and knew how to respond to the situation,” he said.
Lynette Miller, spokesman for the MEMA office in Augusta, said she began the ice storm by working a 36-hour shift.
“General Bill Libby of the Maine National Guard was the MEMA director at the time, and in the spirit of things, the ice storm put his skills as a leader to the test,” she said. “It was a neighbor-to-neighbor leadership; people determined they were going to get through this helping each other.
“That message came through from the top down to the homes,” she said.
MEMA’s role was to coordinate whatever issue came up. “We could share information and make sure we used it in a coordinated way,” she said.
The ice storm stands out as the most challenging event in her 17 years with the agency.
“It lasted two weeks, and we were all working 12-hour days,” she said. “We were also victims, and we learned how to take care of each other, and ourselves.
“On a very proactive level, we learned about resources we didn’t have, such as emergency power, and we realized how much we relied on electricity,” she said.
Today MEMA uses Homeland Security grant funding to buy generators for public safety buildings. Every town has to have an emergency response plan.
Dority of DOT agrees his agency has learned from the disaster. “Today we have a strong radio system and can talk to the Augusta office. All our camps, emergency maintenance facilities, maintain computer systems,” he said.
A new system sets operations in motion when an event occurs. There is an operator available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Augusta, Dority said.
“That was not the case 10 years ago,” he added.
If for some reason Augusta is out of communication, highway crews know to head for their assigned headquarters, of which there are more than 100 in the state, Dority said.
The state is broken into five DOT operational regions and each is set up to operate autonomously if Augusta is out of contact, Dority said.
Whenever there is action to be taken, operations experts go from one to two people at each center up to 12 people within two to three hours after a disaster is identified.
There is also a code, CARS-511, to call in an emergency. That number is posted on the Maine Turnpike and can be called on a cellular phone.
Those in charge of handling emergencies like the Ice Storm of ’98 believe the lessons have been learned.
What has changed since ’98:
. MEMA, using federal funds, has put backup generators in public safety buildings.
. Every town in Maine is required to have an emergency plan.
. DOT has improved radio coverage and maintains an operator 24 hours a day.
. State now is divided by DOT into five regions, each capable of autonomous response.
. Emergency phone No. CARS-511 established.
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Look for our special supplement with more photos, stories and anecdotes coming Jan. 11.