North Country residents on how they weathered the ’98 Ice Storm

0 80
Connect with us

Amy FeiereiselNorth Country residents on how they weathered the ’98 Ice Storm

Photo courtesy of Diane Romlein, in West Potsdam.

Photo courtesy of Diane Romlein, in West Potsdam.


During the entire month of January 2023, we shared memories of the 1998 Ice Storm. You can find all of them here. Here are our final collected stories from listeners, who texted, emailed, and called in.

The 1998 Ice Storm was a huge weather event that impacted hundreds of thousands of people across the North Country and southeastern Canada. Freezing rain fell for days, which built up inches of ice on everything: roads, forests, and homes. 

That led to snapped power lines, lost power, impassable roads, and millions of broken trees. 

The sound and smell of snapped trees; a world covered in ice

Allison Arnold was in her early 40s and living in Harkness, near Peru, in Clinton County. On the eve of the storm in 1998, she was alone in her home, and her first memory is waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of snapping tree branches. She lost power around five o’clock in the morning, and went outside when it got light. 

“Most of my senses were assaulted,” Arnold said. “First of all, I could still hear tree limbs crashing to the ground. Looking around, I could see massive destruction of all the debris surrounding my house. But the smell was what really, really amazed me. It was like stepping into a sawmill. The freshly broken branches. The smell really made a huge impression on me.”

Sheryl Evans lived in Chase Mills during the ice storm, and she remembers “hearing the trees in our woods cracking under the weight of the ice. We had been cursing a beaver for taking down one of our oak trees. However we were very happy we had cut it up and put it in the carriage house, so we had wood for the fireplace. Our 1870s house had a fireplace and we stayed warm by that for six days without electricity … the ice was so thick it was unbelievable.”

Many people who wrote in described the post-Ice Storm world as “otherworldly” or “apocalyptic.” Andrea Ellison was a student at SUNY Potsdam at the time, and she said coming back to campus “was like driving into a war zone where the victims were all trees.”

She remembers that the ice made it really challenging to walk around campus, but that, “…we improvised. There was about five inches of ice on the ground so you could plant your feet and open your coat and get blown across the Bowman quad and then again up the long sidewalk to Crane.”

A culture of helping, and neighbor helping neighbor

George Arnold of Keeseville, a knowledgeable forester, surveys his options and plans his next move as clean-up began 25 years ago following the devastation of the 1998 Ice Storm. Photo courtesy of Allison Arnold.

George Arnold of Keeseville, a knowledgeable forester, surveys his options and plans his next move as clean-up began 25 years ago following the devastation of the 1998 Ice Storm. Photo courtesy of Allison Arnold.


Lots of people volunteered their time to help others, checked in on their neighbors, and even welcomed others into their homes.

“I had the opportunity to work at the shelter at SUNY Canton overnight one night,” Evans said. “I also volunteered with DART (Disaster Assistance Relief Team). We went out in pairs to farms and took them supplies and dilators for the cows, so the milk would run out of them when they couldn’t be milked with electricity.” 

Arnold said her father, who had worked as a wood procurer and ran a firewood business in his retirement, spent days chainsawing fallen trees to free people from their homes. “Elderly people or disabled people, my dad had them on his radar and he was like, ‘I’ve got to go help Gerald. I’m gonna go cut Betsy out [of her house].’ He knew the people who would have been trapped and isolated by downed trees.”

Photo courtesy of Mark Kurtz.

Photo courtesy of Mark Kurtz.


Thousands of linemen from all over the country came to the North Country to restore power. In 1998, Douglas Ort was the Supervisor of Program Services for the Catholic Charities office in Watertown, and he spent lots of time with power company workers. 

Ort wrote, “For a dozen days I delivered coffee, tea, and hot chocolate to linemen. I made beverages at the Rutland Fire Department and the fire department’s auxiliary building. In time the men referred to me as the mayor of this area. Coffee, tea, hot chocolate mix, cups donated by Great American and Stewarts. I asked and they found stuff with flashlights. My landlord’s freezer lost power, so we had a lot of fine food to share. She cooked on the wood heater that warmed her home.”

Many people were left in vulnerable positions, because they were elderly, infirm, or just alone when the storm hit. Caroline Hambley was living “off the grid a half a mile ski from a plowed road in the woods” in Rainbow Lake. Her husband was visiting his family eight hours away, and Hambley “was home alone for two weeks with three children, one of which was six months old! After 10 days of not being able to ski to the road and the car, two of my very good friends cut their way a half a mile to my house! Nice friends!” she remembered. 

Makeshift home and community shelters 

Lots of families took people in, because they had woodstoves, or hot water, or power.  

Marjorie Brown grew up in West Plattsburgh and was living in the city with her daughter, and partner, Patty, when the ice storm hit. Their small house on Sanborn Avenue became a makeshift shelter for about a week, because they never lost power. 

“We could see transformers on fire, like a couple of streets away,” remembered Brown. “And we’re like, ‘Well, we’re next. We’re gonna lose power, we’re gonna lose power.’ And we never did.” So they welcomed people in. 

“Our friends sort of hated us,” laughed Brown. “At the same time they were grateful that they could come, and take a shower, and get something to eat. We had like food on the stove all the time, mostly spaghetti, easy stuff like that. And we only had one bathroom. So that was also kind of a challenge! But you know, we did it because that’s what you do. And I don’t think that was unusual. If you had power and you could help people I think people pretty much did that.”

Boyden Road in Canton. Photo courtesy of Martha Foley.

Boyden Road in Canton. Photo courtesy of Martha Foley.


Some people found themselves thrown together during the storm, or having to take care of larger groups of people. Thomas Broderick was working at the Northwood School, a boarding school in Lake Placid, when the power went out. Their main building, which Broderick says is one of the largest original wood structures in the Adirondacks, lost power. That was a problem, said Broderick, because “Northwood has always heated the building with electric power, so when everything went dark the building, and student rooms, got cold.”

He says because of the circumstances, “we allowed students to sleep in the school’s main living room, next to its large fireplace. We kept that burning for two days until the power came back on. We only had one small generator which powered the kitchen and provided our students with meals. It was quite the experience for the students and staff. Some students who lived close by, and who had an ability to get home, left school. But the majority of our students, who lived on campus, rallied around one another and made the whole experience a uniting event.”

Jonathan Maskin was responsible for a lot of people in 1998, because at the time he was working for the state Department of Health. During the storm, he was assigned to lead “a team of volunteers, mostly RNs [registered nurses] to assist various towns in staffing and guidance throughout the affected North Country.” He remembers driving his “trusty Subaru up to Plattsburgh … where we all rendezvoused at the [hospital]. On Route 3 I have vivid memories of several large ‘Godzilla-like’ power structures collapsing in a line as I left Clinton County, driving into Franklin County.” 

In Franklin County, Maskin helped set up an emergency overflow geriatric unit at the Franklin County Nursing Home in Malone. “With the help of local fire departments, ambulances, police, and volunteers with snowmobiles, we brought 12 to 15 elderly folks [to the temporary residence] who were residing at their homes or with family who could not provide care for their elderly family members.” 

It wasn’t an easy task. Maskin said most of the residents would normally have resided in a skilled nursing facility, and that their temporary unit “was staffed on 10 to 12-hour shifts by myself and one to two other DOH volunteers, and the well-seasoned County Nursing Home staff, who were super helpful. This team worked very hard and were successful in caring for these folks in need until their families could take them back in.” 

Blanket forts and indoor camping

There were also lots of fun memories shared. You can read a whole story about the ice storm from the point of view of children at the time here. 

Many listeners wrote in with cozy memories of listening to their radios by firelight.

During the storm, Rebecca Weld was home, in the village of Potsdam, on college break. She says they only lost power for three days, but in those days she needed to “finish my architectural thesis model of my wooded site. I borrowed our neighbor’s generator to run the power tools, and hand-carved little wood rocks by the light of the window. We listened to NCPR the whole time, I remember fondly the reminders not to do any of a long list of dumb or dangerous things … we had a gas stove to boil water, and that was it for heat, so we all hung out in the kitchen or took baths with boiled and cold water mixed.” 

A listener from Malone wrote in to share a memory of building blanket forts: “In the evening and night I put dining room chairs together and made a ‘tent of blankets’, enjoyed by myself and pets. We were all delighted when electricity was restored and the electric-start furnace kicked back on. It took a while for the hot water radiators to start circulating hot water again. As I dwell on the experience, I am thankful that the then-120-year-old house was well-insulated, and that the water in the radiators did not freeze. Life is good.”

Lake Placid was an area that only lost power for a short period of time, about 24 hours. Mary Sherbert wrote, “I guess it was our altitude (1,975′) that saved us undue hardship. We heat with a wood stove and burn it 24/7. Our two children were teenagers and we all actually got along great. We used headlamps, flashlights, and candles to read and play games together when it was dark. We cooked on the wood stove and actually thought it was a lot like camping.”

Jill, who now lives in Tupper Lake, wrote to say she was in Watertown for the 1998 Ice Storm, where she went without power for 12 days with her family of five. “We had a kerosene heater, so we had to crack the windows a bit, counterintuitive as that seems. We had a gas stove which enabled us to cook on the burners … we played many board games by daylight and candlelight. Listened to our battery-operated radio. Kept the toilets clean by putting snow in the tank.”

Patricia Giavara's home on Route 25 in Canton at the time of the Ice Storm. Photo courtesy of Patricia Giavara.

Patricia Giavara’s home on Route 25 in Canton at the time of the Ice Storm. Photo courtesy of Patricia Giavara.


Survival and disaster

We received lots of stories of sort of pure perseverance and survival, of families huddling in a room with all the doorways blocked off by blankets, or around a propane stove with their coats on. 

Alicia Bodmer, from Paul Smiths, was seven months pregnant and worked through the ice storm as a first responder. Her husband was working out of town that week, and she had a four-year-old to take care of. “My daughter and I slept on a feather bed with four Labradors and four comforters at night to stay warm,” remembered Bodmer. 

“Because we have a well, we don’t have water without power,” explained Vicki Kirchner, from AuSable Forks. “We ended up ‘farming’ icicles to make coffee on our wood stove, melted snow in pans to flush toilets, and remained rather filthy for the six days we were without power.” 

The Pendergraft house on the St. Regis River, showing the river level during winter. Photo courtesy of Laurie and Brad Pendergraft.

The Pendergraft house on the St. Regis River, showing the river level during winter. Photo courtesy of Laurie and Brad Pendergraft.


Laurie and Brad Pendergraft had to deal with the Ice Storm and an ensuing flood. They live in Parishville, on the west branch of the St. Regis River, which started to rise dramatically a few days after the storm. 

“Three days into the storm there was a big thaw,” Brad said. “And that was a huge problem. Down towards town the river makes a big U-turn. And that’s where it jammed, just above that. And [the ice] built and built and built.”

The water level just kept rising. The Pendergrafts got in touch with the fire department and the operators of the dam. “When the water threatened to flood our house we called the fire department and the operators of the dam. The fire department had a load of sand delivered and provided sandbags. Volunteers made sandbags and helped build a dike. We put a circle inside and a sump pump to remove water that came through the door and then sandbagged the door outside … the water continued to rise and overtopped the first barrier of sandbags and made it to the house. The windows on that side of the house are about two feet above the patio. Water reached to the level of the bottom of the windows.”

They remember their two young boys skating back and forth in their footie pajamas at the windows, which were at river level. “The operators of the dam in Parishville came and observed the problem,” said Laurie, and they finally opened the gates just a little, “which lowered the level, slowly, slowly.” 

An alien world, and apocalyptic scenes

Many people wrote and spoke about just how eerie the Ice Storm was, whether it was seeing National Guard trucks driving around, the travel ban and all the empty roads, or not seeing lights at night. 

Laurie Pendergraft summed up the oddness of the time by sharing a story of driving to work. She was a nurse at Hepburn Medical in Ogdensburg in 1998, and she reported for work a few days into the storm. She left early in the morning, and said, “It was really crazy being on the road. Driving through all the towns, Parishville, Potsdam, Canton, and into Ogdensburg. It was the creepiest, weirdest feeling because it was just like … dead. There was no lights, no streetlights, no anything. And the only vehicles that passed me were, you know, bucket trucks and utility trucks.”

She and a few other nurses arrived at the same time, and Laurie vividly remembers walking through the door to see the night shift nurses giving them a standing ovation. “When we walked into the nurse’s station, they were all yipping and hollering and clapping, and so excited to see us – because they had been stuck there for a couple of days!”

A photo of the wreckage in Dexter. Courtesy of John Stano.

A photo of the wreckage in Dexter. Courtesy of John Stano.


Pulling together, and lessons learned 

Susan ‘SueBee’ Klein and her husband, Dan, were living outside of Canton during the ice storm. Susan wrote that “During the Ice Storm of ’98, we learned about what really mattered. Essentials like food, water, heat, family and neighbors.” 

That was a sentiment shared by many, that the storm stripped everyone back to the basics. Susan remembered, “When it first started, we filled everything, including the bathtub with water and took inventory of batteries, candles, food in the fridge in the garage and wood for the wood stove we rarely used. Listening to NCPR when it was on kept us connected since the dog was the only one let out to skate across the ice rink of our yard. My daughter made lists of meals we made on the gas stove from what we had and what games we’d play by candlelight each night. Just as we were running low on a few things, a friend came by with kitty litter and chewing gum! Dan eventually cut his way from Pierrepont and supplied us with wood for the wood stove. (We’d thought about breaking up some old wooden chairs or the wood rack!) And our neighbor had inadvertently connected our phone line to an outbuilding so we could let out-of-town family know we were fine. It was a group effort. People had big dinner parties to use a defrosting turkey or ham they had in the freezer.” 

Klein’s husband, Dan, kept a virtual “day-to-day journal of what it was like in a rural area in St. Lawrence County,” which can be found here: REPORT ON ICE STORM OF 1998 — The Storm Of The Century In St. Lawrence County.

Many people made big changes in how they lived and their disaster preparedness after the storm. Alicia Bodmer, from Paul Smiths, said, “…the only thing in the house that worked was the copper phone line. We made serious adjustments post-Ice Storm by switching to a propane stove, and adding a wood stove.”


Martha Foley delivering bread to neighbors, which she had cooked on her non-electric gas stove. Boyden Road, Canton. Photo courtesy of Martha Foley and Everett Smith.

Martha Foley delivering bread to neighbors, which she had cooked on her non-electric gas stove. Boyden Road, Canton. Photo courtesy of Martha Foley and Everett Smith.



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *