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20 years later, memories of Maine’s Ice Storm of ’98 still fresh

Twenty years ago, a massive winter storm system tormented Maine for days, turning much of the state into a thick, gigantic icicle. As power lines snapped under the weight of the ice, a half million Mainers were plunged into darkness. Many found themselves without light and heat for as long as three weeks. The entire state was a disaster area. And President Bill Clinton eventually declared it one.

Freezing rain began on Jan. 5, a Monday, and continued for three days. By Jan. 6, the icing was already severe.

If you were in Maine for the Ice Storm of ‘98, you remember.

Kids were out of school for two weeks after their Christmas break was supposed to have ended. Thousands of people were forced to take refuge in emergency shelters. Hospitals were crowded with people needing treatment for hypothermia, falls and carbon monoxide poisoning.

At least five Mainers died because of the storm, including two men who succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, one who was struck in the head by a falling tree, one who died of hypothermia after falling down the stairs of his dark, cold house and one who was killed when the roof of a gas station island collapsed under the weight of ice. The Maine Emergency Management Agency indicates that six people were killed in Maine because of the storm, but did not specify how the sixth person died.

To get through the dangerously cold, icy days and dark, endless nights, Mainers had to rely on neighborliness, Yankee ingenuity and sheer, stubborn cussedness. All over the state, people extended helping hands to one another.

Sen. Angus King was then Maine’s governor. He activated the Maine National Guard for storm duty. Some 3,000 out-of-state utility workers arrived to help restore electrical power. Locals bought them coffee and brought them so many homemade goodies that linesmen joked that that they were gaining weight even while working 17 hours a day in freezing rain, subzero temperatures and whiteout snowstorms.

The Ice Storm of ‘98 truly was a test of Maine’s strength, endurance and fellowship, and by all accounts, we passed with flying colors. Mainers everywhere showed their mettle. Here are some of their stories.

Howie Klewin, then a Central Maine Power lineman

“I don’t think anybody really knew it was going to be as bad as it was.”

The Ice Storm of ‘98 started out quietly with the tinkling, ominous sound of freezing rain, but it didn’t stay quiet for long. Howie Klewin, a linesman for Central Maine Power Co., remembers waking up to the popping, snapping, cracking sound of trees crashing in the woods. He immediately knew he needed to race to work.

Klewin had no way of knowing, though, that it would be weeks before he could return to his home in Liberty.

“I don’t think anybody really knew it was going to be as bad as it was,” he said. “It was just devastating how much was out, how much damage there was. It was a long time ago, but it’s still very clear in my mind.”

By Thursday, Jan. 8, hundreds of thousands of homes were without power. CMP estimated that 2 million to 3 million feet of power lines fell and 2,000 utility poles needed to be replaced, along with 5,250 transformers. Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. likewise was hit hard.

“The ice really did a job,” Klewin said. “It was incredible to witness. To see everything so covered in ice. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The more than 1,200 National Guard troops activated on the Thursday of the storm distributed water and generators, cleared limbs from roadways and pulled up broken utility poles.

Klewin and the other Maine linemen were joined by nearly 3,000 from away. Many came from warmer climes, like North Carolina, and were not prepared for the arctic conditions that greeted them in Maine.

“It was pretty miserable conditions,” Klewin said. “The one thing I remember the most was taking a piece of steel and beating the ice off the wire. It was just nonstop for weeks.”

Repairing the crippled power grid was a slow process.

“I think the hardest part for everybody was thinking about the elderly people,” Klewin said. “We’d go places and see people huddled around a kerosene heater.”

He continued, “The older generation in Maine, those people were tough. And they didn’t complain about anything. They did what they had to do,” he said. “People were incredible. It’s different in Maine than it is probably anywhere else. People are resilient. They pull together.”

Nevertheless, Mainers were ecstatic when line crews finally reached their link in the grid.

Angus King, then governor of Maine

“There was no manual for this.”

What started as an annoying winter storm quickly turned into an emergency for Gov. Angus King, then in his first term.

“I remember it started to fall as rain and then turned to ice and then started to build up on wires, trees and poles,” said King, now a U.S. senator. “And then we started to lose power rapidly.”

Things got worse as the week wore on and temperatures began to drop, he said.

“That Thursday we got reports that it would get down into the single digits,” King said. “We realized it takes electricity to fire a furnace so it wasn’t just people couldn’t watch TV, they were going to get cold. That is when it became a true emergency.”

With no ice-storm response manual available, King said he relied on his instincts.

“I knew a couple of things at once,” he said. “There were not enough public safety people in Maine to get the job done. I needed to be seen out there by the public as a reassuring presence.”

King declared a state of emergency and called on Mainers to do what he says they do best.

“It was the idea of neighbors helping neighbors,” he said. “We needed to check in on each other, especially the elderly and those who were isolated.”

King began checking on his own elderly neighbor in Brunswick.

“After three days of my checking on him, he finally said, ‘Look, I’m fine. Leave me alone,’” King recalled with a laugh.

At one point then-Vice President Al Gore visited the state to assess the damage.

“On his way out of Maine, he told me if we needed anything to just give him a call,” King said. “About that time we realized the coin of the realm in Maine were the bucket trucks. The next day I got a call from the head of Central Maine Power saying they had located a bunch of bucket trucks in North Carolina and was there a way we could get them to Maine ASAP.”

King called Gore, and the next day a massive cargo plane landed in Brunswick filled with those North Carolina trucks.

“It was like the cavalry had arrived,” King said. “But those poor workers from North Carolina came with these skimpy little jackets, so LL Bean donated parkas to all of them.

“Those [North Carolina] guys kept saying over and over they could not believe how nice Maine people are,” King said. “Over and over they would tell me where they come from when the power goes out and people see them they yell at them, but in Maine they were bringing them coffee and doughnuts.”

King wanted to do his own part, he said, to provide treats, so he and his son stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts to buy pastries for people in shelters.

“I looked at the doughnuts and told the person behind the counter I wanted to buy all of them,” he said. “This poor woman behind me in line tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Could I please just have one chocolate cruller?”

Daniel Placzek, the scallop diver who helped keep WVOM on the air

“He liked to be recognized for the good he did.”

Along with heat and lights, the ice storm knocked out most forms of electronic communication. Mainers accustomed to keeping up with the news on television were out of luck, but old transistor radios and battery-powered boomboxes provided an important lifeline via 103.9 FM. WVOM, “The Voice of Maine,” a Bangor-based talk radio station, wasn’t well known until the storm. That changed when the hosts worked nonstop to take calls on the air from stranded Mainers who needed help, information or just an ear.

People called it “a real lifeline” and a “lone beacon in an icy storm,” and it was. Police monitored the broadcast and sent help to those who needed it. But the lifeline became frayed in the middle of the storm when the station’s transmitter on Passadumkeag Mountain lost power.

Enter Daniel Placzek, an anti-establishment scallop diver from Orono. Placzek, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2004, was a colorful, complicated person. He’d do anything to help his neighbors and friends, but was embroiled for years in a code-enforcement dispute with the town of Orono, a dispute so severe that he was arrested in connection with it. He’d also done time in federal prison for conspiring to commit tax fraud.

During the ice storm, Placzek was one of the snowmobilers who hauled propane tanks to the mountain to keep the station on the air. Placzek climbed the icy tower in biting winds to chip ice from the structure. Another snowmobiler, a retired Bangor Hydro worker, was then able to identify and repair an electrical problem at the tower, getting the station was back on the air.

David Cox of Orono, who became Placzek’s domestic partner, met him a few months after the storm. They went to see the tower together.

“I saw how tall the tower was and all the work that had gone into keeping the station on the air,” Cox said.

Placzek was proud of what he had done to help Mainers stay connected during the ice storm, Cox said.

“He liked to be recognized for the good he did,” Cox said, ‘not just for being in jail or for being a pain in the neck to the town. And, of course, the good balanced out the nonsense.”

Emerald Forcier, then a teenager who loved the storm

“It looked like mayhem, but it was … so pretty.”

When you’re a teenager, a history-making winter storm is a welcome adventure. At least it was for Emerald Forcier.

“The night before it hit, my dad says, ‘We are going to have an ice storm,’” said Forcier, who was living in Winterport. “I woke up, and it looked awesome. Of course, when you are 13, you don’t care about things like homeowners’ [insurance] or anything that matters financially.”

Outside, trees had bent or completely broken. “It looked like mayhem,” she said. “But it was all crystallized and so pretty.”

When her family lost post, Forcier said, they all went to stay with friends.

“Moving a family of three kids had to be a pain in the butt, but for the first couple of nights I really think my parents and the other adults had fun,” Forcier said. “A lot of us had gotten games for Christmas.”

The party atmosphere lasted for a time, then began to fizzle out.

“We were lucky to have such good friends,” Forcier said. “But you do start to feel like you’re wearing out your welcome.”

Her family moved to another friend’s house, which was also without power but was heated with wood.

“Things got serious,” Forcier said. “My sister has a condition in which she can’t regulate her body temperature, so it became a real medical issue.”

The family drove at a snail’s pace over the ice-covered roads to yet another friend’s home — this one in Calais — where the power, and more importantly, reliable heat, had been restored.

Forcier recalls the thrill of finally returning to classes and comparing storm notes with classmates.

“We were kids and loved it,” she said. “We had nowhere we had to be, no job expectations and did not have to cough up a cent to pay to fix anything.”

Stephen Bergey, then manager of Hampden Hardware

“It was like looking at diamonds everywhere.”

With icy conditions making driving treacherous, nearby grocery stores and hardware stores became vital resources.

Stephen Bergey, manager of Hampden Hardware at the time, remembers that certain items were in high demand, including generators, rock salt, propane, lamp oil, batteries, kerosene heaters and propane heaters. Back then, Hampden Hardware was owned by his father-in-law, who also owned the Home Supply Center in Belfast. Luckily, the two stores had different delivery schedules. One received supplies on Tuesdays, the other Fridays, Bergey recalled, so they doubled up on orders after the storm, and Bergey drove his Chevy truck between the stores, splitting their shipments.

“I had four-wheel drive and good tires,” Bergey said. “I’m used to driving in snow and plowing and stuff like that.”

The drive between the two stores on Route 1 wasn’t too bad, he said. There were a few times when he had to take detours around accidents and downed power lines, but what scared him the most was driving into Bangor, where traffic was thick, in search for more supplies, which he purchased from big box stores.

“We just bought whatever we could get, wherever we could get it,” he said. “The average person didn’t want to be driving back and forth.”

Hampden Hardware lost power for less than a day, but the Belfast store was without power for at least three days. Still, both stores remained open, piling up the most sought-after supplies by the front counter because some sunlight reached it.

“A customer would come through the door, and we’d have to take them by the hand with a flashlight, and they’d tell us what they wanted,” Bergery said.

Each purchase was written down by hand so the company’s computerized records could be updated later.

“It was good for people working on their math skills,” Bergery said. “And it was good the tax was 5 percent at the time, not 5.5.”

On one of his drives, Bergley lost control of his truck on an icy hill in Monroe, bounced off a snowbank and ended up sideways in the middle of the road. He kept on transporting supplies.

“It was beautiful driving,” he said. “You can’t imagine the size of the trees that were bent over, and they were all encrusted with ice. It was like looking at diamonds everywhere.”

Douglas N. Johnson and Nancy Caudle-Johnson, arborists who rescued trees

“It looked like a war zone.”

As the freezing rain continued, Mainers were warned to stay off the roads. But Camden-based arborists Douglas N. Johnson and Nancy Caudle-Johnson of TREEKEEPERS LLC had a different plan.

“We went out in our four-wheel-drive truck and drove around Waldo County,” Caudle-Johnson said. “It looked like a war zone, in a way. Trees were just broken.I would slide out of the passenger’s seat and try to keep my balance out on the ice and get photos, so that we could get an assessment of damage. The only other vehicles we saw were military-like vehicles.”

Ice built up until there was an inch and a half on countless branches. It was too much for the trees, and they started to break.

“You could hear limbs and trees falling in the woods for several days after it started,” Johnson said. “People called us up. ‘You’ve got to look at our trees. They’re all being destroyed.’”

Hardwoods such as oaks, maples, ash and birch were among the hardest hit, and the couple remembers how heartbreaking it was to see stately old trees ruined. At Grove Cemetery in Belfast, where dozens of sugar maples had been planted to mark the end of the Civil War, the damage was extensive.

“Remarkably, when we were able to work on the trees and make the permanent cuts, they’ve all come back,” Johnson said.

That’s true for many of the trees in Maine that were damaged in the ice storm. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, with birch saplings bent over double and downed trees and limbs littering the state, it was hard to imagine that the trees could ever survive. But trees are resilient, Johnson said, and the damage happened during the winter, when it is easier for them to recover. In the spring, the tree’s energy and new growth went to the point in the trees where repair cuts were made.

“The timing was everything,” Johnson said.

Still, it was the work of years to help the state’s trees return to health. Many municipalities received grants to have arborists work on pruning and replanting.

“It was really sad for a long time,” Caudle-Johnson said. “I think it affects people psychologically. If you’re looking at broken trees, it’s a terrible thing. I think in a way what happened is that it helped to raise awareness of the importance of trees.”

Susan Huff, who took in neighbors

“We had people in every room there was.”

Susan Huff of Burnham had never met the neighbors who lived around the corner from her until she saw them walking down the road during the ice storm with their baby in tow.

“Where are you guys going?” she asked.

They told her they didn’t know and that they didn’t have any power at home. It didn’t take Huff, who was nine months pregnant, long to respond.

“You get your ass to my house,” she told them, laughing now at the memory.

The family, Rita and Mark Sturtevant and their baby, Mary, stayed almost a week in Huff’s big house next to S&S Variety, owned and operated by Susan and her husband, Stuart. The variety store, with its electric grill and oven, had lost power during the storm, but the Huffs were undeterred, selling staples such as batteries, bread, propane and milk with the help of flashlights and a calculator. But that’s not all they did. Their home was warmed by a big, old-fashioned cookstove and lit by kerosene lanterns, so they took in a total of eight people.

“We had people in every room there was,” Susan Huff said. “We had a crib set up in our dining room with a baby I didn’t even know.”

The adults played cards around the kitchen table, melted ice and snow for water and cooked feasts of chowders, soups, turkeys and hams to share with the community. Burnham was the kind of place where neighbors help neighbors.

“It’s still like that,” Huff said.

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