Bangor In Focus

The Ice Storm of '98



View from U.S. Route 2 in Orono, overlooking the Penobscot Valley Country Club, Jan. 10, 1998. (Photo courtesy of Steve Martell.)
As silent and cunning as any storm Maine has ever seen, the ice storm of 1998 arrived quietly in January. Mild temperatures and rain during the day combined with freezing temperatures at night to create a devastating yet beautiful cocktail of ice. Nobody realized what was coming until all of Bangor and central Maine descended into darkness on Jan. 8. The water from the rain froze in layers over several days, coating parking lots and sidewalks in a smooth glaze and encasing cars and trucks in thin sheets of glass. After awhile, it became almost impossible to scrape the ice from vehicles. And even when drivers were able to dig their vehicles out from under snow and ice, they often spun their tires. Pushing from behind was often impossible because there was no traction anywhere.

And yet the Greater Bangor area continued to work through the storm until the power lines could take no more. On the night of Jan. 9, transformers throughout the Queen City and Brewer popped and exploded in brilliant flashes of blue, green, and yellow, lighting up the sky almost as bright as a fireworks display. Little by little, the constant and familiar, taken-for-granted hum of electricity gave way to an eerie silence and the moaning, groaning, and snapping of tree limbs in the darkness.

Ever the expert drivers in winter weather, Mainers stayed off the roads. Transportation officials and public works crews were helpless -- neither salt or sand would keep the roads clear. Crews worked around the clock and through fatigue, barricading streets where power lines had fallen, clearing fallen brush, and plowing. Bangor Hydro-Electric workers scampered around the area as they tried to patch the city's power supply together. People crowded supermarkets for food and hardware stores for generators.

The University of Maine, which rarely cancels a full day of classes, closed for more than a week and delayed the beginning of the spring semester. Hundreds of students from outside the state who did not know of the ice storm's devastation arrived in Orono and found themselves unable to move back into their dorm rooms.

Throughout it all, residents of the Greater Bangor area huddled in blankets and near lanterns beside their battery-powered radios. Talk station WVOM cut most of its syndicated programming in favor of extensive coverage of the storm. Listeners called in and offered suggestions for making it through without power. Others called in just to talk. People in mobile home parks offered to check on their neighbors, and still others offered to donate excess firewood or downed tree limbs for heat.

When the Bangor Daily News lost power on Jan. 8, its editors all but decided to stop production of the next day's issue. But when the power came back on, reporters and editors rushed to finish before another power outage could prove fatal to production. The press in Hampden printed only 12,000 issues, forgoing color to save time. Distribution of the Jan. 9 issue was limited to Bangor stores, with the remaining copies available for free at the Bangor Daily's headquarters on Main Street.



Halfway across town, Bangor International Airport remained open despite cancellations from scheduled arrivals that could not take off at other airports and scheduled departures that had no place to land.

Miraculously, only three people died as a result of the storm -- two from carbon monoxide poisoning because of inadequate ventilation for generators and another from a falling tree. Hundreds more, though, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning.

The silent storm also destroyed cars that were victims of falling ice and tree limbs, and electrical equipment that experienced power surges and brown-outs. The storm cost Central Maine Power, the state's largest power company, $55 million in repairs. Bangor Hydro-Electric suffered $5 million in repairs. At one point, 275,000 CMP customers were without power with another 50,000 Bangor Hydro customers without power.

"The storm brought us back to our roots," Bangor Daily publisher Richard J. Warren wrote in a letter to the paper's readers. "History says we are resourceful and can 'get by' on our way. Our independence tends to isolate us, but last week we set our independence and isolation aside, looked around for what needed doing, and helped, without question and without asking anything in return."

The following is one person's account of the storm as it happened...

Tuesday, January 13th, at 5:54 in the afternoon.

Poplar Street, Old Town, Jan. 10, 1998. (Photo courtesy of Steve Martell.)
The campus remains empty for the most part. Every few minutes a sheet of ice can be heard sliding down a roof and crashing onto the sidewalk below. Earlier today a large sheet of ice fell off the roof above my apartment onto the roof of the second story. At the first rumblings I slid out of bed and hit the floor, preparing for the ceiling and wall to collapse.
Three people have died as an indirect result of the storm. Two people died of carbon monoxide poisoning when they set up diesel generators in their basements without adequate ventilation. Dozens of other people have been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at hospitals around the state. A third person died when a tree he cut fell the wrong way and hit him on the head. There have been no traffic fatalities.
Bangor Hydro reports that it has restored power to most of Penobscot County. The company has asked that people still without power call company headquarters. In all, about 9,000 customers remain in the dark.
At the start of today a little more than 100,000 Central Maine Power customers remained in the dark.
Repairs to the damaged or destroyed power lines and transformers won't come cheap. CMP estimates repairs will cost $25 million. Bangor Hydro estimates its repairs will cost about $5 million. Both power companies may petition the state's Public Utilities Commission for a temporary rate increase. Mainers already pay some of the highest rates for electricity in the country.

The Silent Vise
A week of rain, snow, freezing temperatures,
and high winds add up to cripple Bangor

Jan. 5
Max. temperature: 28.4 F
Min. temperature: 21.2 F
Precipitation: 0.0 in.
Snow depth: 3.9 in.
Wind speed: 4.95 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Rain, snow
Jan. 6
Max. temperature: 30.9 F
Min. temperature: 24.1 F
Precipitation: 0.2 in.
Snow depth: 3.9 in.
Wind speed: 8.52 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Rain, fog
Jan. 7
Max. temperature: 24.8 F
Min. temperature: 21.2 F
Precipitation: 0.4 in.
Snow depth: 5.1 in.
Wind speed: 7.14 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Rain, snow
Jan. 8
Max. temperature: 32.0 F
Min. temperature: 24.8 F
Precipitation: 1.1 in.
Snow depth: 5.9 in.
Wind speed: 9.44 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Rain, snow
Jan. 9
Max. temperature: 30.9 F
Min. temperature: 26.1 F
Precipitation: 0.2 in.
Snow depth: 9.8 in.
Wind speed: 9.09 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Rain, snow
Jan. 10
Max. temperature: 33.8 F
Min. temperature: 24.8 F
Precipitation: 0.0 in.
Snow depth: 9.8 in.
Wind speed: 3.45 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Rain, snow
Jan. 11
Max. temperature: 33.8 F
Min. temperature: 21.2 F
Precipitation: 0.0 in.
Snow depth: 9.8 in.
Wind speed: 3.22 mph
Wind gust: N/A
Events: Snow, fog
Jan. 12
Max. temperature: 26.6 F
Min. temperature: 12.2 F
Precipitation: 0.0 in.
Snow depth: 9.8 in.
Wind speed: 9.44 mph
Wind gust: 21.87 mph
Events: Snow
Jan. 13
Max. temperature: 39.2 F
Min. temperature: 10.4 F
Precipitation: 0.2 in.
Snow depth: 9.8 in.
Wind speed: 6.21 mph
Wind gust: 31.07 mph
Events: Rain, snow
Jan. 14
Max. temperature: 35.6 F
Min. temperature: 8.6 F
Precipitation: 0.0 in.
Snow depth: 9.8 in.
Wind speed: 18.41 mph
Wind gust: 41.31 mph
Events: Snow
The storm has cost the Maine Department of Transportation up to $300,000 a day in overtime. The Red Cross has spent about $300,000 to operate shelters. Portland's three largest television stations, WCSH, WMTW, and WGME, are going to hold a one-hour telethon tonight beginning at 7. WLBZ, WCSH's sister station in Bangor, will also participate.
On the radio, Bangor stations WVOM, WABI, and WWBX have been broadcasting power updates and tips for surviving the storm from listeners almost around the clock, although some tips are dubious at best or downright dangerous. (One caller recommended using combustibles in the wood stove if you don't have wood. Another called suggested putting kerosene in a dish and lighting it.)
The more sane callers are those like the man who called WVOM early this morning to say he had cut up tree limbs that had fallen and that they were free for the taking. This afternoon a woman called WABI-WWBX and asked if anybody could loan her husband a chain saw so he could cut firewood. The owner of a trailer park outside of Brewer called WVOM Sunday night to tell the 20 or so people who remained in the park that he would be driving around every hour to check on empty trailers and to check on people who had opted to stay. One of the park's residents called the next night to thank him and to let him know he could help himself to anything he needed from her trailer.
When the storm's wrath first became realized last Thursday, newspapers in southern and central Maine helped each other out. Waterville's Central Maine Morning Sentinel and Augusta's Kennebec Journal publish on the same press in Augusta. When the power went out Thursday in Augusta the Lewiston Sun-Journal allowed both papers to use its presses.
However, the power went out before the Sun-Journal could do its press run. Friday was the first day the Sun-Journal had ever missed an edition. The paper ended up using the Portland Newspapers' press and packaged its Friday edition with its weekend edition. The Portland Newspapers are owned by Guy Gannett, which also owns the Sentinel and Kennebec Journal.
Gov. Angus King toured Washington County Sunday, mostly by helicopter. Yesterday he had interviews with NBC's "Today" show, CNN, the New York Times, and even the BBC.
Vice President Al Gore will tour the state Thursday, at the request of southern Maine U.S. Rep. Tom Andrews.

The increasingly silent weight of the ice eventually snapped fully grown trees as though they were mere twigs.
Today the temperature rose to 39 degrees at Bangor International Airport. It has rained for most of the day. Temperatures are expected to fall into the single digits, with wind-chills around the state reaching as low as -30 degrees.
On campus, the university is housing about 450 on-campus students in temporary housing at the field house. Fire and safety code inspectors spent the day touring dorms to ensure backup power is in place before the dorms open tomorrow at 3 p.m.
On a lighter note, students at a fraternity whose power went out took their fish aquarium to Public Safety. Public Safety was operating on generator power at the time, but officers there agreed to hook the tank up. The tank is back at the fraternity house. There is no word on whether any of the fish died.
My drive to campus today was eerie. Traffic was sparse on the interstate and in the Hogan Road area. Trees on the roadside were snapped like twigs. Trees behind The Acadia Hospital were especially hard hit. Beyond the Hogan Road overpass the strong odor of pine tree pitch from severed limbs permeated the air.



1995-2012, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.

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