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25 years later: Remembering the 1998 ice storm

Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz
Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz

On January 5, 1998, freezing rain started to fall across the North Country. It kept falling for the next five days, coating much of the North Country and southeastern Canada in inches of ice for weeks.

Millions of people lost electricity; some for just few days, others for over a month.

29 days in Theresa

Sean Regan was in Syracuse when the storm began. He remembers driving north, stopping in Pulaski to stock up on propane and supplies at a small store. "I asked them about it, and they hadn't heard anything about it," said Regan. But then he got to Adams, and "I started seeing trees down. I just got past the exit when the troopers were closing the roads."

Regan, then in his early thirties, was headed for Theresa. He lived in a small cabin at the end of a mile-long dirt road. By the time he got there, trees were breaking under the weight of the ice.

Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz
Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz

Luckily, Regan had a chainsaw, "and I cut my way back in as far as I could." He abandoned his truck for the night and went the rest of the way on foot. He vividly remembers listening, "to all the trees crashing down, just hour after hour."

Supple trees, like birches, bent all the way over to the ground. More brittle ones, like pines, snapped into pieces.

That sound of trees snapping and cracking and crashing to the ground is the iconic memory of the 1998 Ice Storm for many North Country people. Regan said it was painful to listen to: "I'm a bit of a tree hugger, you know?"

When Regan got to his cabin, the power was out. But he was already living mostly off the grid; he had a small generator and gas powered hot water. He said he spent the storm with his brother and their respective girlfriends.

"At night, we watched the news and got our showers and everything all at one time, and then shut [the generator] off. Most of the time, we were without power, using Coleman lanterns."

Crucially, they had a wood stove. For many North Country residents, this is what decided whether you could stay at home or not, and whether or not your pipes froze and burst. Regan was without power for 29 days.

Photo Courtesy of Ruth Baltus
Photo Courtesy of Ruth Baltus

Cozy at home

For those with wood stoves and a generator, the ice storm wasn't too rough a ride.

Just outside Potsdam, Diane Romlein and her husband had both. All five of their kids were at home during the storm, from their seven-month-old baby to their twenty-year-old son, back from college.

"We were pretty comfortable," remembers Romlein. "We had lots of food in the freezer, and we pulled it out. And we just enjoy the excitement and the adventure of it for a few days."

They went skating in their backyard, which was a flat sheet of glassy ice. They woke up with the sun, and played games at night while listening to their battery-powered radio.

"I'll always remember that," said Romlein. "Chinese checkers was our game. We’d sit down and do it by lamplight. And it was at a level that everybody could play. And everybody was kind of kind of cozy together. It was special."

They checked in on their neighbors, and neighbors checked in on them.

Romlein remembers their plow guys stopping at each house on the road, to make sure people were alright. They were without power for six days.

A world encased in ice

But the world outside stayed encased in ice for much longer, because the ice storm was followed by artic cold, and temperatures stayed below freezing for weeks.

"Everything was like it was in pastels because it had ice on it. Something that was red looked pink. After a few days, it didn't even seem real," remembered David Seymour. In 1998, he was working for the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation.

"I think they lost 10,000 poles. You can imagine putting that up." He said one of the worst areas was DeKalb. "That area was unbelievable. I mean, you drive along you see two miles of wire down. Every pole broken."

For the power crews, he said it felt like an impossible mountain of work. He remembers an early day in Potsdam, where "the line crews were trying to get a circuit backup from Madrid to get into Potsdam to get some lights on. And they had about everybody they could spare working on it. They worked for hours and hours and hours. And then a bunch of it just fell down. It was discouraging."

Power crews and linemen from all over the country, even from Hawaii, came to help repair the lines. New poles came in from as far away as Oregon. In some places, people went weeks without electricity.

Scrambling for generators

With millions without power, gas-powered generators quickly became a hot commodity—both small ones for individual homes and larger ones to power whole buildings. Edwin Roulston, an insurance adjuster from Syracuse, remembers "people were set up in gas station parking lots, selling generators they'd bought somewhere else, for five times the normal price."

Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz
Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz

Lots of bigger institutions, like hospitals and schools, already had huge backup generators.

But the school in Hermon-DeKalb didn’t. Ann Adams was superintendent when the school lost power on January 8. "It was one of those nightmares where you start looking all over," she said. "I had friends in the North Creek area where I lived before. They brought up an old World War Two phase three generator that we attempted to hook up."

But it didn’t work, and the school was getting colder and colder, the pipes closer to bursting. They finally found one in Syracuse, the size of a large dumpster. Adams was constantly checking up on the school, but she said he was difficult getting inside, because "the parking lot was still a skating rink, so you parked as close as you could to the door. And if you had to you got down [on your hands and knees] and crawled into the school!"

Shelters from nothing, and thousands displaced

Large buildings that did have generators became makeshift shelters for thousands of displaced people. SUNY Potsdam set up a big shelter in their fieldhouse.

"There was a massive, massive generator that the army had brought in, outside that just ran continuously," said Linda Reese, who went to SUNY Postdam with her husband and four children after they lost power.

Access to electricity was crucial for their fourteen year old daughter, who had a disability. "Our daughter required pureed food. And without electricity, we couldn't prepare that," said Reese. They brought their own bender, but a lot of the food available couldn’t be pureed. Their daughter ended up catching a respiratory illness that, coupled with dehydration and the lack of food, landed her in the hospital.

Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz
Photo courtesy of Saranac Lake-based photographer Mark Kurtz

Reese said that although it was a stressful and trying time, they were surrounded by community and people who wanted to help. For instance, the shelter had separate bathrooms for men and women, but to bathe their daughter, both Reese and her husband needed to be there. "And they ended up actually allowing us a block of time when we could go in together and posted one of the National Guard outside the door so that we could take care of her needs. So you know, people were trying very hard."

Fire halls also became shelters and hubs of emergency response.

Firefighters went out in rotating shifts, checking in on people and transporting those who needed shelter. Tanya Roy, who was 19 and attending SUNY Plattsburgh at the time, remembers the firefighters, most of them volunteers, coming back "covered head to toe in ice."

A sense of community, and a different way of life

After the power went out in her apartment, Roy walked the mile to the Morrisonville Fire Hall, where she lived for the next 10 days. Her fiancé was a firefighter, and she was part of the department auxiliary, so she immediately got to work, "cooking for hundreds of people a day, and watching people's children so that they could nap, and taking other people's dogs out to go to the bathroom... trying to be helpful."

About 100 people stayed at the fire hall, which Roy rarely left for those ten days. She cooked, she cleaned, and then she did it again. "You kind of lost track of what time of day it was—you just did the same things over and over. The idea that there was something outside of being in survival mode and helping other people mode didn't really exist."

It was a formative time, Roy said. It was the moment she grew up. She looked around and realized she was an adult. "That was the first time I think in my life, I felt kind of mature grown up responsibility for other people," said Roy.

Returning to normal life, but changed

Roy returned home after 10 days, and said her bed never felt softer. But it was also difficult, she said, to switch from survival mode to taking notes in her college classes.

Many people expressed that the transition back from 'ice storm life' to 'regular life' was a strange one, even a sad one.

Sean Regan, who was staying in the cabin in Theresa, said he preferred not having electricty and television. But he also had a lot longer to wait before things went ‘back to normal.’ He and the three others he stayed with were without power for 29 days.

Regan said it was bizarre, transitioning back to regular life, after a month of isolation. For many, the experience changed the way they lived, long after the ice storm ended. People bought generators, and wood stoves, made stashes of canned food, and back-up fuel.

When Regan built his current home, he planned for another ice storm. "The whole house is plumbed for gas. I've got gas hot water gas stove, besides a wood furnace and two wood fireplaces masonry fire," he said.

Regan, and many others, said disasters like the ice storm, braving winter weather, is central to the shared identity of the North Country.

Special thanks to photographer Mark Kurtz for sharing many of the photos he took during the 1998 ice storm.