Gov. Angus King remembers checking in on an elderly neighbor in Brunswick so many times that she kindly told him to leave her alone.

He remembers calling Vice President Al Gore for a favor the day after Gore infamously touched a wire in Auburn, trying to help a power line crew. Could Gore get the military to fly up cargo planes from North Carolina filled with bucket trucks and linemen?

He could.

David Flanagan, president of Central Maine Power, remembers it as a time “our company and our government and our whole state showed its best side” in pulling together.

At home, Flanagan and his wife sat in the dark around a wood stove — no way could his lights come back on before his neighbors’ did.

Brig. Gen. Eric Lind, assistant adjutant general for the Maine Air National Guard, remembers hurriedly inspecting full boxes at Good Shepherd Food Bank in Lewiston and hustling them onto trucks.

“Washington County was running out of food,” he said.

The Ice Storm of ’98 started 20 years ago today with a winter weather advisory for two days of freezing rain and drizzle. It turned into a 20-day federally declared disaster, with 800,000 people in central and southern Maine without power, 3,000 telephone poles to replace and more than 2,000 linemen and tree trimmers from away rushed to help crews struggling to restore heat and power.

“To have a persistent pattern where we had a series of low pressure systems that provided really almost a week of off-and-on freezing rain was highly unusual,” said John Jensenius, a coordinator and meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray. “I’m planning to retire a year from now — I don’t expect to see another one in my career.”

For the ice storm’s anniversary, Jensenius pulled together a 43-page report on its meteorological twists and turns, as well as the human toll. For example, because of all of the generators fired up to combat the prolonged cold, an estimated 300 to 400 people were sickened from carbon monoxide poisoning, “possibly the largest outbreak of carbon monoxide poisoning in the nation,” according to the report. At least two people died.

Another man died when he was struck by a falling tree while cleaning up debris.

On day seven of the storm, wind chills dropped to as low as minus 20 to minus 40 in Maine.

Over the 20 days of the storm, three people died of hypothermia: an elderly man who fell down his stairs in the dark and an elderly couple trapped in their car, 100 yards from their garage. They’d driven out to get the mail but couldn’t get back.

One more person died post-ice storm when the roof on a gas station island collapsed under the weight of the snow and ice.

ICE-BOUND: STALLED FRONT BROUGHT RAIN, FREEZING TEMPS

The Ice Storm of ’98 officially started Jan. 5 with that warned-of drizzle. Then more fell. And more. By Jan. 9, 2 inches of ice buildup was seen around central and southern Maine, according to Jensenius.

“Ice storms are not uncommon; they do occur every year,” he said. “It’s a question of how much ice you build up. In that case, the 1998 ice storm, it was unusual to get that much of an ice buildup. It was a stalled front with some weak storms moving along that front.”

Also unusual was the storm’s broad impact area, from eastern Maine through northern New York and up to Canada, which made it additionally challenging to find help.

“Usually, when we have a situation, we’d quickly call on Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Brunswick and Quebec crews to come help us out, but they were all tied up already,” Flanagan said. “We had to go much further afield to find crews. I think we ultimately had something more than 2,000 lineman in Maine — at CMP, we had 300 linemen, so you can see the proportion.”

Enter the crews from as far away as North Carolina, who were a four-day drive away until King called in the favor to the vice president.

“About 24 hours later, these huge C5s landed at Brunswick Naval Air Station,” King said. “The tail opened up and out came the bucket trucks from North Carolina. It was like the cavalry arriving. They had thin North Carolina winter jackets, so I called Leon Gorman and said, ‘How about giving these guys some L.L.Bean parkas?'”

L.L.Bean donated winter wear. Reny’s did, too.

“There was just that kind of attitude of cooperation and volunteerism throughout the state,” Flanagan said.

Days into the storm, King declared a state of emergency, calling up the National Guard.

“I think it was the largest call-up of the National Guard in Maine history, at that time,” he said.

“We had so many bucket trucks coming from all over the region that we had truck drivers who didn’t know the geography. So the National Guard — we called them bird dogs — the National Guard guys would take them where they needed to go,” he said.

King, who is now a U.S. senator, also took to TV and radio appealing for people to look out for their neighbors.

“I checked on one of my elderly neighbors so frequently that finally she said, ‘Angus, I’m all right; leave me alone,'” King said, laughing. “(People) took water to neighbors who didn’t have it, they took their neighbors in. The out-of-state linemen couldn’t believe the response they got from Maine people.”

‘PROFOUND APPRECIATION FOR PEOPLE’S CONCERN FOR US’

In addition to inspecting food bank food, Lind, with the Maine Air National Guard, helped set up an emergency call center in the basement of the State Office Building in Augusta.

He remembers a woman who was new to Maine calling in, desperate for hay for her horses. Within half an hour, she had it.

“We had people stressing very hard and very worried, a lot alone, and we would sit and talk to them,” Lind said. “I was a young captain; it was exciting. It was stressful — I had a branch go through the roof of my own house, so I had to deal with that at the same time that I had to come and work here, but it was probably one of the most meaningful times in my career.”

Master Sgt. Michael Wall of the Maine Army National Guard this week remembered initially being sent around Bangor to knock on doors doing wellness checks. In addition to CMP’s massive outage, Bangor Hydro had 78,000 customers without power.

He later had a “precarious mission” in South Paris, driving something akin to a snow groomer, towing a trailer “filled to the ceiling” with propane cylinders needed to keep communication equipment running.

“I’m driving up the side of a mountain on an access road that’s covered in ice with trees down over it every 50 to 100 yards,” Wall said. “I hop out with my chain saw, cut up the trees, keep on driving, sometimes all I’m seeing is sky through the windshield because the pitch is so steep, and I’m sliding all over the place, and I’ve got a big compartment in the back full of LP bottles. But we were successful.”

Like Lind, Wall, too, loved the chance to serve people in Maine.

“We never wanted for hot coffee or a doughnut — people were coming out of their houses, ‘Hey, soldiers, here’s a cup of joe,'” Wall said. “It was fantastic. Giving back as a citizen soldier and seeing the people be so appreciative, that first and foremost, it was a profound appreciation for people’s concern for us and their appreciation for our efforts to assist them.”

By Jan. 25, according to Jensenius, skies cleared in the south and central Maine, though ice on roofs continued to be a problem.

In CMP’s territory, power was restored to the last year-round customer on Jan. 30, according to “The Light from the River” by Clark T. Irwin Jr., a book on 100 years of CMP history.

“The spirit of Maine really shone during that experience,” King said.

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Vice President Al Gore, second from right, grabs a wire as he tours Auburn during a visit to the area during the Ice Storm of 1998. (Sun Journal file photo)

A utility worker works on downed lines during the 1998 ice storm. (Sun Journal file photo)

A car travels down Turner Street in Auburn flanked by broken trees and utility poles in this photo from the 1998 ice storm. (Sun Journal file photo)

A weathervane on Charles Street in Lewiston is covered in ice during the 1998 ice storm. (Sun Journal file photo)

A downed tree is covered in several inches of ice in Lewiston during the ice storm of 1998. (Sun Journal file photo)

The ice buildup on blades of grass is measurable in this photo by National Weather Service expert John Jensenius.

Trees bend low under the weight of a thick coating of ice in the Ice Storm of ’98. The road is also ice-covered. This photo was taken near the National Weather Service office in Gray. (John Jensenius/NOAA)

Ice Storm ’98 by the numbers

Jan. 5: Date the ice storm starts, with freezing rain and freezing drizzle.

800,000: Number of people without power at the height of the ice storm in Central Maine Power territory (340,000 of its 520,000 customer accounts).

2,000-plus: Utility, line and tree crews brought in from out of state to help.

3,000: Number of telephone poles that had to be replaced.

1,500: Number of transformers that had to be replaced.

$50 million: Amount CMP spent on storm restoration. 

Jan. 30: Date the last year-round customer got power back.

Source: “The Light from the River” by Clark T. Irwin Jr., a book on the first 100 years of CMP


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