BANGOR — It came slow and steady in the form of freezing rain that encrusted trees and power lines with ice. Before it was over, Mainers found themselves facing an unprecedented crisis that left more than half a million people without electricity and prompted the entire state to be declared a federal disaster area.
The stories from Ice Storm ’98 will survive for generations as a testament to the endurance of a people as austere and deliberate as the storm that assaulted them.
Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, many of those for more than two weeks, and damage to public agencies, utilities and individuals was expected to near $100 million.
The storm ripped power lines from homes and utility poles. Ice-encased tree limbs crashed to the ground, blocking roads in both rural and urban parts of the state. There were no lights, no heat and for many, no water, and even when the freezing rain stopped there was little hope in sight.
Power company officials warned early on that it could be days and weeks before power was restored. They were right.
It tested our strength, our endurance, our good will and fellowship.
Thousands of Mainers were forced to leave their homes and take refuge at the hundreds of shelters set up across the state. Christmas breaks for schoolchildren were extended through the middle of January as schools without electricity were shut down or turned into makeshift shelters for their communities.
It was the worst electrical disaster in the history of the state, forcing Maine’s two largest utility companies to virtually rebuild their entire infrastructure, line by line and pole by pole.
Central Maine Power Co. estimated that 2 million to 3 million feet of power lines fell to the ground; 2,000 utility poles needed to be replaced, along with 4,000 cross arms and 5,250 transformers.
Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. needed 170 utility poles and 144,000 feet of 115,000-volt transmission line just to repair the 8-mile line that crashed across frozen blueberry barrens outside Deblois, leaving 10,000 residents in Washington and Hancock counties without power.
Nearly 3,000 out-of-state utility workers, from as far south as North Carolina, converged on the state, working countless hours in freezing rain, subzero temperatures and whiteout conditions.
At some point the ordeal became capitalized, becoming the Ice Storm of ’98.
But it all started early Monday morning, Jan. 5, with a slow, steady rain that provided the first layer of ice on trees and roads throughout the state. Meteorologists warned that several days of forecasted freezing rain could result in some power outages.
Superintendents who canceled school that Tuesday because of icy roads had no way to know that their schools would not reopen for two weeks.
By Thursday those in the power and disaster business knew the trees and power lines could no longer bear the weight of the ice. As a line of freezing rain worked its way north that day, the lines and limbs began to fall. The wail of sirens and the snap of breaking limbs reverberated through the air.
The power went out across the state and the crisis had begun. Gov. Angus King declared a state of emergency and summoned help from the Maine National Guard.
Between 1,200 and 2,000 soldiers were called to active duty, providing water and generators to those without water and heat, clearing limbs and poles from roadways, and pulling snapped utility poles from the frozen ground. It was a war to be fought with chain saws, generators and old-fashioned endurance.
By Saturday, the rain had stopped and sunlight lent a nearly mystical and perverse beauty to the frozen landscape.
One day of melting provided little relief, however, and chunks of falling ice threatened harm to those who struck out on foot to survey the damage. Some mail carriers added hard hats to the standard-issue uniform.
By Sunday, subzero temperatures settled across the state and the 200,000 customers still without power shifted their concern to frozen water pipes.
Hundreds of people lined the parking lots of stores expecting truckloads of generators shipped in from out of state. The charitable who owned generators spent days running from house to house firing up furnaces just long enough to prevent houses from freezing up.
Desperate homeowners put themselves in danger trying to heat their homes, and medical officials warned that the state was facing a carbon monoxide “epidemic” due to improper use of kerosene heaters and generators.
Two men, one from Waterville and the other from Newport, died from asphyxiation early in the emergency. An Oakland man also died when he was struck in the head by a tree while helping a friend clear debris from a camp in Vassalboro.
As temperatures dipped into the single digits Sunday, police in Waterville resorted to taking elderly people into protective custody to get them out of their freezing homes.
A small radio station with a big signal, WVOM in Bangor, became a makeshift communication command post, and overtired disc jockeys became a voice in the dark for the thousands of people able to tune in.
Newspapers across the state struggled to publish and distribute their product. Power outages left The Brunswick Times Record and the Lewiston Sun Journal unable to publish Friday papers, and the Waterville Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta published combined papers.
On Thursday, Jan. 8, the Bangor Daily News suffered major power outages at its Main Street office and Hampden printing plant. It became increasingly questionable whether officials at the paper would have to make the historic decision not to publish.
Power returned late that evening, long enough to print 12,000 papers. Home delivery was impossible. But the papers were distributed to some local stores and the rest were stacked in the lobby and given away for free to those who could get to them.
By Monday, Jan. 12, with 162,000 customers still without power, Gov. King wrote a letter to President Clinton, requesting that he declare the state a disaster area. The president made the declaration Tuesday, beginning the flow of federal dollars into the state.
Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up headquarters in Augusta and began taking applications for assistance from local and state agencies. Much of the cost incurred by those agencies was in overtime for the number of workers it took to battle the effects of the storm.
On Thursday, Jan. 15, Vice President Al Gore visited the state, meeting with King and emergency workers and touring storm-ravaged sites in Lewiston. He announced the approval of federal disaster relief — in the form of low-interest loans and grants, crisis counseling and legal aid — for individual home and business owners.
The day before he arrived in Maine, Gore approved another request by Gov. King to use military cargo planes to fly in additional utility workers from North Carolina. Those crews were added to the nearly 3,000 workers from five states and Canada who were already here.
The North Carolina crews and their trucks arrived at the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the Bangor International airport on Thursday and Friday, Jan. 15 and 16. The Southern crews were met by near-blinding snow as they set off to aid in the power restoration effort.
Earlier in the week, Bangor Hydro bordered on a public relations nightmare when efforts to fire up a wood-burning power plant in Jonesboro, owned by Indeck Energy Services, an out-of-state energy company, fell through when the two companies failed to reach an agreement on the cost of the power. Hydro officials had hoped the plant could quickly restore power to the 10,000 Washington and Hancock county residents who remained without electricity.
Bangor Hydro was able to restore power to 7,000 customers in the region by using portable generators and rerouting the area’s power supply. The company contacted the attorney general and accused Indeck officials of profiteering.
The two companies eventually worked out an agreement, putting Indeck on standby until the transmission line near Deblois was rebuilt.
Despite all the problems associated with the storm, it was a boon for Maine’s motels and restaurants. No-vacancy signs, nearly nonexistent during one of the slowest months of the year, popped up at motels across the state providing rooms for utility and tree crews and thousands of people who left their homes for the comfort of a warm room with a TV.
The storm wreaked havoc on Maine dairy farmers, who were forced to try to run their farms without electricity for up to two weeks. Farmers shared generators and had to limit milking operations.
In Albion, dairy farmers trucked a portable generator from farm to farm in the region. While farmers milked their cows, Albion farmer Peter Door slept in his truck, which was used to transport the generator.
Officials from the Department of Agriculture said it would be months before they knew the full impact the storm had on the industry.
The cost to the utility companies in Maine was estimated at $60 million — $55 million for CMP and $5 million for Bangor Hydro. Both companies were trying to free up federal emergency money to help cover the high costs of repairing electric transmission and distribution systems walloped by the storm.
As of Wednesday, Jan. 21, two weeks after power started to go out in parts of the state, 14,000 CMP customers remained without power — down from 275,000 at the height of the crisis.
Bangor Hydro had returned power to all but 50 customers. Fifty thousand customers, half of the company’s households, had been without power at the peak of the outage.
Twenty-three shelters remained open, serving 217 people.
The storm generated stories of courage, endurance, neighborliness, patience and creativity.
There was the woman in Winthrop who had to be transported across the lake on a toboggan after breaking a bone when she slipped on the ice. Her road was blocked off by trees and power lines, and she was towed by snowmobile across the lake to an open road.
There was a family in Northport, without power or water for seven days and two small children with the flu.
And there was Rufus Merrill, an 88-year-old widower living alone on the remote western shore of Beech Hill Pond in Otis. Nine days without power, Merrill simply reverted to his childhood days in rural New Hampshire when his family lugged water and lived without electricity.
As the days wore on and more power was restored, the landscape became littered with homemade signs made by those still waiting for the lights to come on.
“Without power for 11 days. Please stop.” read one.
And the utility crews marched on, calling their work at the end of the crisis “hand-to-hand combat.”
Before the massive power outage spread across the state, Bangor Public Works Director Arthur Stockus called the persistent freezing rain system “one massive headache.”