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25 years ago, the Ice Storm of '98 brought Maine to a standstill

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press File
A group of neighbors walk near a large tree limb which fell onto power lines on Rt. 202 near New Gloucester, Maine, Thursday, Jan. 8, 1998.

It was 25 years ago this weekend that much of Maine was gripped by an icy disaster. Freezing rain pulled down power lines and toppled trees, leaving roads impassable, pipes frozen and most Mainers in the dark for nights on end.

Schools turned into shelters. Power crews worked feverishly around the clock. And Mainers pulled together, offering hot showers and cups of coffee, and swapping stories about surviving the Ice Storm of '98.

The ice storm crept in overnight in early January and caught almost everyone off guard. And residents like Deb Conway of Poland were in the dark as the woods around her house exploded with falling tree limbs.

“And for the first two days all we heard was — it sounded like huge gunshots really close. We would hear ‘bang’ and then ‘crack, crack, crack’ as the ice would fall off the trees when the tops of the trees would come down,” she says.

Conway, her husband and three kids were without power for 13 days. In parts of Maine this was not unusual — more than half a million people were plunged into darkness. Families like the Conways found ways to cope in frigid temperatures without electricity, running water and little to no heat, in some cases.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press File
Associated Press File
Doris Belanger, 73, tunes her battery-operated radio while dining by lantern light with her husband William, 80, at their home, Saturday, Jan. 10, 1998, in Auburn, Maine. The couple has been roughing it without electricity since the ice storm started on Thursday. The Belangers are using a kerosene heater to stay warm and a camp stove to cook their meals.

Then-Gov. Angus King declared a state of emergency. He and his young son visited emergency shelters, where King says he learned the importance of showing up and having something to offer to people in need.

“So we stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts here in town and walked in and I looked at the rack and said, ‘I’d like all of them please.’ And a lady behind me said, ‘Could I just have one chocolate cruller before you take ‘em all?’ So we bought all the doughnuts that they had and distributed them to shelters. And that was a psychological gesture of kind of reassurance. And that’s what I learned, was how important it was to be physically present and visible during that period,” he says.

Not since Hurricane Gloria in 1986 had Maine’s largest electric utility seen so many outages. Hundreds of crews from other states were called to Maine to help out.

Central Maine Power Co. spokesman Mark Ishkanian was on the hot seat for two weeks straight. He marveled at the stories he heard in CMP’s cafeteria during those dark days that he says also marked some of Maine’s finest hours.

“Things like a stranger coming in and picking up a check to pay for a crew’s meal at a restaurant, or an elderly couple inviting a crew into a house to have a venison roast that had just been thawing out in their freezer. And just the sheer goodness of people in very trying conditions,” he says.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press File
Associated Press File
A sign hangs a on a tree outside a house in North Yarmouth, Maine, Jan. 1998.

Ishkanian recalls one utility crew from Rhode Island saying that if they were facing their customers on day seven of a midwinter outage, they’d likely require police protection. Yet in Maine, they were encountering residents who were bringing them food and baking them cookies.

One of the highlights of the ice storm was a visit by Vice President Al Gore who, after a tour of the damage, committed a faux pas when he picked up a downed power line and posed for cameras. That prompted some headline writers to invoke CMP’s famous mantra: “No line is safe to touch, ever.”

Even back then, Gore was hinting at how the ice storm was a sign of global warming and the havoc it could cause.

“In the days and years to come, let’s all tune into this debate about what the scientists are saying is more common disasters and see what we can do to prevent them,” he said.

During the first week of the ice storm, Maine Things Considered hosts Charlotte Albright and Keith Shortall compiled an unusual list of statistics to shed light on how Mainers daily lives were upended.

Credit Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press File
Associated Press File
Hannah Wilbur, 15, works on history homework by candlelight on Sunday, Jan. 11, 1998, in Freeport, Maine. Wilbur, who was one of 700,000 Mainers without electricity, was staying with neighbors who were heating their home with a woodstove.

“Three out of four calls to the HQ store in Bangor have been requests for generators. At the height of the storm the waiting list for those generators was 500. In Portland, more than 1,000 people had to be turned away for lack of supplies,” Albright said.

“Number of lightbulbs sold this week at Blake’s Family Hardware in Waterville: none. Number of kerosene heaters left at Blake’s Family Hardware: none. Increase in sales at Charlie’s Pizza in Augusta: 20%,” Shortall said.

“And the waiting list of people wanting to be put up in the Fairfield Inn in Bangor Friday and Saturday: 100,” Albright said.

And that’s how life unfolded during the first few weeks of Jan. 1998. Deb Conway of Poland says after cooking on a grill in the dark and changing baby diapers without water for 10 days, she finally took up a friend’s offer to go stay with her in Massachusetts.

Conway and many others say they did learn one thing from the ice storm: that they take a lot for granted and that next time they’ll try to be more prepared.

This story originally aired on Jan. 4, 2018.