Maine Stories Volume III: The Ice Storm


Image Source: PTLDME

The Ice Storm.

String those three words together around anybody who lived through it and watch the cringes and shudders. It was catastrophic, deadly, destruction on a scale previously unimaginable. It came on suddenly on a balmy day in January 1998, and it threw our world into primitive chaos for weeks afterwards. You had to live through it to believe it.

I was in Boston, trying to get home to Maine for a few days. January 5th was warm, with a light rain. There were rumblings that it would get colder, especially up north, and ice might be a factor. Little did we know.

I talked to my dad before getting on the bus, and he suggested I get to Portland, get a room and he would pick me up when he could: things were getting bad up north as the temperature started to drop. The entire trip was a cacophony of rain and ice, increasing in intensity against the metal roof of the bus as we inched northward. This was the sound of impending disaster.

I got a cab and headed for the Swiss Chalet in Westbrook, two miles away from the bus station. I checked in, and would remain trapped in my room for the next three days. And I was one of the luckiest ones in town.

Power was lost immediately. The weight of the ice on the trees and power lines caused a swath of crystalline destruction from New England far into Quebec. Power transformers were crushed and crumbled, wooden electrical poles were snapped like toothpicks, and entire forests were sagging and begging for mercy. And roads were completely impassable.

The Swiss Chalet had power, so I hunkered down, escaping only to eat at the adjacent Denny’s or to skate across Brighton Avenue to the Shop ‘n Save for beer and smokes. Literally, skating in the middle a major thoroughfare in my hiking boots.

Finally, after three days, the roads were cleared barely enough for my dad to get me. My parents had lost power at the beginning of the storm, and now I was joining them. It would be another eight days before I would know electric light and power and bathing water again.

For eight days the power company worked 24/7 to get electricity restored, and crews worked 24/7 to get the roads cleared of fallen power lines, trees and other detritus. Still the cold held on, and the omnipresent ice glared in the sun, and even in the dark.

We could occasionally get into the nearest town, Gardiner, for provisions, but with no electricity, it was mostly non-perishable, easily disposable fare. I choked down cups of Nescafe Crystals brewed on the woodstove and dreamed of three squares and a hot bath.

My friend Dana, a Korean vet who lived in a cabin in the woods, had given me an Army-issue winter coat that he had worn during the Battle of Inchon. It is still the warmest garment I’ve ever had, and I wrapped myself in it while hovering beside the woodstove over those eight days. I also warmed myself with nips of Jim Beam, and wished I had a hound dog to sit at my feet and complete my Jack London fantasies.

For eight days the power company worked 24/7 to get electricity restored, and crews worked 24/7 to get the roads cleared of fallen power lines, trees and other detritus.

And then it was over. Power was restored, life went on and suddenly it was summer, then it was a year later, then five years later, then ten. But nobody who lived it will ever be the same, and we will never take a day of normalcy for granted. If you survived The Ice Storm, you know. You had to live through it to believe it.

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35 comments
  1. metan said:

    Another ‘remember when’! I like :)

  2. ryeder said:

    I remember this storm vividly. I was working in a group home for teenagers in Casco when the storm hit. Everyone, except the two primary staff in the two homes left before it actually arrived. I remember standing in the doorway, with four teenagers, listening to the constant sound of tree snapping…and then the power went out. We had to ride this out, without power for three days before we were “rescued.” This experience taught the kids more about themselves and their resiliency to overcome challenges than anything we tried to teach them. It also confirmed I still had patience…..

    • Right, the SOUND! The crunch and snap and twinkle of ice! It was a day or two after power came back, then I heard the crunch again, followed by the buzz of a transformer blowing up and darkness returning.

  3. Yeah, this is one of those cases where I’m glad to say I lived through it, and I’ll never see it’s like again…

  4. Janet said:

    Wow. This brings back a lot of memories for me. I was living in Montreal at the time and there are certain sounds and sensations I will never forget. And I agree with your last statement “you had to live through it to believe it.”

    • Solidarity!

  5. clownonfire said:

    Montreal was also complete paralysed.
    I remember having just purchased Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus the day before, and being upset as I couldn’t listen to the album. In the grand scheme of things, it sounds so benign, but it is such a vivid memory.
    Le Clown

    • Fortunately that album is worth the wait!

  6. writerwendyreid said:

    I was living on the South Shore of Montreal then, alone with 3 young children. My daughter, who was 14 months old, had a miserable ear infection. We were without power for a week, while others were out as long as 3 weeks. It’s funny, but amid all of the disaster, the casualties, fatalities and price gouging, I was still able to look deep enough to see beauty.

    Brian, this was an amazing idea for a post. Would you mind terribly if I did a similar one, based on my own experiences during that week? I’ll link back to you for the original idea. :-)

  7. Your story brings back a lot of memories! We had something similar in Washington state many years ago. It’s strange how they come on so quickly. It was drizzling rain when I went to take a quick nap with my young son (at the time it was 1996, now he’s almost 20!). When we woke up, it was like we were living in a frozen world. Sirens everywhere and the power lines had collapsed in front of our house. I can’t remember how long people were without power but it was several days.

    The odd thing about the storm is how beautiful everything looked but at the same time it was devastating.

    • Gluten, thanks so much for sharing. Sounds intense! I think you should write your tale as well… *grin*

      • Hmmm…I would have to figure out a way to fit it in with some kind of recipe though. ;)

  8. Wendy, thanks so much for sharing, and I can’t wait to read your take!

    • writerwendyreid said:

      Thanks Brian. It will be my next new post. :-)

  9. David Patterson said:

    I remember it well. The sounds of trees cracking and falling was eerie, as was the sound of power boxes exploding. The wood stove was a blessing, and the entire experience was humbling.

    • Eerie and humbling. ExACTly.

  10. Gluten, of course! A recipe is implied. I suggest something with icing!

  11. That is intense.

    • Twas indeed, Hobbs. Don’t try this at home.

      • We had a similar situation a few years ago. Kept the kids downstairs and away from windows because there are some big trees stretching over the house. My husband helped pull cars out with his truck, and the power was out for a day or so, but we didn’t get hit as bad as a lot of people.

  12. It’s humbling, no matter how short or minimal your experience. Glad you all made out okay.

  13. whiteladyinthehood said:

    That sounded like an awful storm. (but, I think the photo is BEAUTIFUL)…

    • The carnage was truly incredible: beautiful and humbling at once. And all that ice made for the best tobogganing of my life. Still, don’t try this at home. ;O

  14. If someone ever mentions the Ice Storm I have flashbacks.

    I remember huddling in my apartment in 20 degrees for 2 days until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I drove down the ice-covered highway (most of the roads in Durham and Lisbon were closed except for route 196) I was the only car on the road. Just CMP and lots of downed power lines. I was crazy for doing it, but my mother still had heat (she lived in Freeport just down the road from Bean’s)

    So after the road trip from hell, I managed to get to my mom’s house. Only she lived atop a big hill. I couldn’t reach her house on the slippery ice. I actually tried for over an hour, grabbing onto tiny tree limbs and pulling myself up, only to slide back down again. Finally, I had to get down on my stomach and slide up her hill inch by inch. I remember her power went out that night and stayed out for another 7 days. I never took a shower or a hot meal for granted since that storm.

    • Lisbon Class of ’91, BTW. There’s no way we could script any of those experiences, right? In. Credible. And never again…

  15. Reblogged this on brian westbye and commented:

    Fifteen years ago today…

  16. Tales of these types of storms makes me wonder if I could ever survive the east coast.

    • We’re hardcore, but this was definitely once-in-a-lifetime. Thankfully.

      • I hope so.

  17. Wow that sounded intense. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would have been like. In southern California, if it starts to get a little misty or start sprinkling, accidents happen within minutes and people drive like crazy because they get so freaked out.

    • Hah! Unfortunately, that happens here all too often as well…

      • Oh dear.

  18. NJ too doesn’t seem to come out of the bout of chill and snow this winter. This winter has certainly been more harsh than last year’s.

    • Wheeeeee!

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