A Maine Family Diary of an Ice Storm

The storm that devastated the Northeast has also produced tales of shared generators and almost forgotten goldfish.

The arboreal "gunfire" has stopped. Maine utilities say they're looking at $25 million in repairs. Our yard looks like the disaster area Gov. Angus King says the federal government should declare. Still, we're fortunate. Unlike some 120,000 other Mainers yesterday, our power is back, and so is a modicum of normalcy.

But last Thursday morning (Jan. 8), when my husband and two children awoke to a dark house and icebox temperatures, we had no idea that we were just embarking on 96 hours with out power in the dead of winter. In fact, more than half-a-million northern New Englanders were beginning a journey into frontier hardship that would test our famed independence and prompt thousands of instances of deep-woods neighborliness.

At first, we thought it was another central Maine power outage. Four hours without heat and electricity. Maybe 12, at most. But this storm was different.

By mid-afternoon on Thursday the rain became more steady and had built up a half-inch of ice on tree limbs and walkways. Pellets of frozen rain rattled the roof tops and windows, and tree limbs sagged under thickening coats of ice. Outside air temperatures hovered in the low 30s. Stores closed early. As our living room thermometer sank to 50 degrees, we figured that at any minute the power would go on. How could we desert our home?

By early evening my husband's parents called us from their nearby farm and offered us a bed and meal for the evening. They had just installed a gas-powered generator in their basement. At least they'd have a few lights, a microwave, and a working furnace.

We closed off the rooms of our house, turned off the water, and loaded our stove with wood so the pipes wouldn't freeze. For just one night, we thought. We walked down our street with a flashlight and entered their kitchen.

By Friday morning, the trees overhead were wearing another coat of ice. Utility poles leaned out over the road where long stretches of power line lay broken and swirled in heaps.

Ice-laden boughs had ripped the service box and shingles off one side of our farmhouse. The meter box sat idle in the snow, still connected to wires and ice. Our driveway, just a quarter-mile away, was impassable without a chain saw.

We slid down bankings and crawled up hillsides to our front door. We cleaned out the refrigerator and loaded the wood stove for another six hours. Back at the farm we buried milk and butter in the snow. We played bridge and hearts and read old magazines. We shared a lamplight in the livingroom, straining for print, and when the generator started coughing, we hurried to bed.

By the time the weather cleared Saturday, the devastation became visible ... and audible. That's when we heard limbs crack and trees crash to the ground for miles around. "It sounds just like gunfire to me," said my neighbor Jim.

He had been out on his lawn picking up branches. His wife's refrigerator door was swung open when I walked inside their home. "I've never seen anything like it. It's like a war zone out there," Judy said.

Then came the wail of sirens and bright blue flashes of light filling the gray sky as power lines continued to snap under the pressure of limbs. Utility crews, from as far away as Hawaii, have come to help.

My husband and I watched from our neighbor's porch as the weight of the ice snapped sagging trees in half, making poplars and maples totem poles and fence posts all around us.

Around the state, people were being driven by the cold to sleep in emergency shelters. About 3,000 are still there. News reports say that 9,000 are in shelters in New York. Canada has it worse. Hundreds of thousands are still without power.

We heard about a fellow in Richmond, Maine, who sold his shotgun for two cords of wood and is still hanging on.

Jim's neighbor Polly, wheelchair bound, credits her neighbors for helping her weather the storm safely. "There's a lot of pulling together when something like this happens," she says. "Jim installed my generator and he comes over and checks it every few hours."

And Jim was last seen wielding a chain saw, cleaning up Gladys Small's yard across the street.

A few miles away, resident Bruce Turmenne has been keeping his five neighbors warm by providing power to their furnaces through his generator - a few houses at a time. He can do two houses at a time, switching extension cords every two hours. At night, Bruce sets his alarm clock for every few hours, going outside to his generator to make the switch. Neighbors helping out neighbors.

On Saturday afternoon, we climbed into two pickup trucks and with cousins and nephews and aunts and uncles we began a mobile clearing crew, pulling down branches and hauling them to piles in open fields.

The ice tinkled as we worked, shattering on the ground with every crash of timber. We worked until dusk and then lined up for showers.

Weary, my son and I made our way up our icy driveway late Saturday night for the sixth time to load the stove and check on pipes. I lit two candles and offered one to Matt.

We moved poor Ollie, our goldfish, to the heated room. We had no way of knowing that only twelve hours later we would be among the more fortunate. For us, the worst of the Ice Storm of 1998 is over.

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