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Devastating ice storm of '98 remembered

Email|Print| Text size + By David Sharp
Associated Press / January 7, 2008

For Fire Chief Ken Richardson, memories of Maine's 1998 ice storm include responding to 110 emergency calls in 10 days. Seeing streets covered with power lines and tree limbs. Going without electricity for two weeks at his home.

But especially unnerving, Richardson said, were the snaps and pops of breaking tree limbs that shattered the eerie quiet in the town of Denmark.

"It sounds like gunshots. You come unraveled after a while. You don't know whether one's coming down on your head," said Richardson, whose windshield was smashed by a giant chunk of ice that fell as he drove his truck around town.

"I've never heard anything like it, and I hope I never hear it again."

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the time a light rain falling across the state formed a thick coat of ice that sent large tree limbs and trees crashing onto power lines.

It wasn't until the second or third day with thousands of homes in the dark that state officials realized the gravity of the situation.

Before it was over, roughly 700,000 of Maine's 1.2 million residents were without electricity, the Maine National Guard was mobilized, and hundreds of utility crews from as far away as North Carolina arrived to help.

Estimates of the number of deaths linked to the ice storm vary. The Maine Emergency Management Agency puts the death toll at six.

It cost more than $80 million to restore the state's electric utility infrastructure. Central Maine Power alone lost nearly 3,000 utility poles and had more than 1,000 line and tree crews working at the peak.

"It was an unusual natural disaster in that it crept up on us. A hurricane, you know it's coming. A major snowstorm, you know it's coming. This was an unusual event in that you didn't know it was coming," said Angus King, the governor at the time.

King lost power at his Brunswick home for three days. But many were in the dark for two weeks, or longer.

Across the state, dozens of emergency shelters were opened, but most people hunkered down at home.

In Cherryfield, Clark and May Hatto ignored a request for them to leave their trailer. They quickly got into a routine of using the propane-fired oven to keep warm and to cook, while using buckets to answer nature's call.

"I hung on as long as I could," said Hatto, now 81. "Us Mainers, we know how to get by pretty good. It got to be monotonous but we got through it."

Mainers took it all in stride for the most part, even those who went for several weeks without electricity, King said. Oddly enough, the state seemed to emerge from the natural disaster feeling good about itself.

"We felt like we met a serious natural challenge and came out on the other side in a positive way," King said. "I think that's a good thing."

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