Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In January 1998, the North Country’s worst-ever ice storm caused massive damage and left thousands without power for weeks. Adirondack Life associate editor Galen Crane covered the aftermath of the disaster and the outpouring of help from near and far.
A January thaw is nothing out of the ordinary here. The very term bespeaks of a well-earned punctuality: a couple months of hard, cold weather, then January shows up, and for a few days the mercury sails to equatorial heights. It’s as if winter has exhaled and is sucking in another huge breath to last until April. No big deal.
And so it was, on January 2, when temperatures in many parts of the North Country completed a nearly sixty-degree upswing in a little over twenty-four hours. With the warmth came rain and fog. And more rain. In Long Lake, town supervisor Thomas Bissell reported that the lake rose four feet in twenty-four hours, something he had never heard of happening before. In Essex County, man-made Minerva Lake was in danger of breaching its dam. Instruments in Newcomb would eventually catch more than four inches of liquid precipitation.
But to the north, the rain was starting to freeze on contact. According to meteorologist Cindy Fitzgibbon, of News Channel 5, in Plattsburgh, what made this winter rain unique was a massive Arctic high-pressure system to our north and east that funneled cold air into the region. At the same time, the jet stream was positioned further north than usual—on a southwest-to-northeast tack-which funneled moisture-laden warm air from the Gulf of Mexico along a stationary front.
The arctic air—denser than warm air—sank into low-lying areas, while higher elevations stayed warmer. Several impulses of low pressure moved along this immobile boundary from January 5-8, each dumping rain into the frigid air at ground level, which had chilled exposed surfaces-most notably tree limbs and power lines. “On the afternoon of the eighth, the largest and strongest wave of low pressure surged in our direction,” Fitzgibbon explained. “Within hours, it had dumped locally one to two more inches of additional moisture in parts of the area that had already seen that much and more throughout the week.” (As if to add insult to injury, on January 9 the front finally moved north, allowing warmer air in-until colder air aloft created instability, and with it thunderstorms and lightning.)
The event, once it was over, earned the name Ice Storm ’98, and it was labeled one of New York State’s worst-ever natural disasters. If limbs, entire trees, power poles and lines were not heaped on the ground, they were sagging ominously. Some wires that had fallen were still live. The destruction reached from western New York to Maine and was most acute in Quebec, where at the height of power outages an estimated three million people were in the dark.
On Saturday, January 10, President Clinton declared Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Franklin, Essex and Clinton counties federal disaster areas, making available federal money for storm-related clean-up and relief costs. (Lewis County would eventually join the disaster list.) Governor George Pataki toured affected areas by car and called the sight “incredible.” Though the promise of financial relief was welcome news, residents were too overwhelmed to garner much comfort. There were more immediate needs than money: a warm place to sleep, a hot meal. Shelters were quickly opened in fire halls, schools, churches and community centers. In towns like Keene and Keene Valley, restaurants and bars stayed open around the clock, dispensing and delivering food to the stranded, often for free. Folks in remote areas realized that there were neighbors they hadn’t heard from in days. Radio and print media passed the message along for people to mark their yards with huge H’s, either in the snow or with anything that would be visible from above, to indicate to aircraft that they needed assistance.
Power and department of transportation crews from across New York and points south were mobilized and began descending on what looked to many like a war zone. Convoys of cherry-picker trucks streamed up the Northway.
North Country Public Radio (WSLU-FM ), in hard-hit Canton, was able to run off and on at first, using two modest-size portable generators. (Almost two weeks later, the station’s transmitter and studio would still be relying on generator-produced power.) “We’ve had to suspend normal programming because we lost the satellite for awhile. There’s been no business as usual,” reported news director Martha Foley. With radio the only battery-operated communications receivers in people’s homes, Foley said, “we’ve become a real clearinghouse for information,” getting displaced people in touch with shelters, volunteers and donations. WSLU itself became a haven: reporter Mitch Teich found his home without heat or lights, and with a large power line draped across the driveway. For eight nights he slept at the studio.
Ed Milner, a Minerva resident and president of the North Creek Rotary Club, was unaware of the extent of the damage to the north and telephoned North Country Public Radio in Canton to report that the station’s translator on Gore Mountain was down. When announcer Barb Heller Burns was finished describing the emergency, Milner offered, “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.”
“She called the next day and told me, ‘We need everything,”‘ Milner said. The call triggered an impressive relief effort from Johnsburg, Minerva and surrounding towns. On Saturday, January 10, two vehicles were loaded with emergency supplies. Then, said Milner, “We highballed for Hermon,” a town just outside the Adirondack Park’s northwest border. By Monday morning, he reported, bedding, generators, kerosene heaters, blankets, food (oranges, cereal, peanut butter, bread, macaroni and cheese, rice ) and “lots and lots of disposable diapers ” had been crammed into eight truck and van loads and rushed to the tiny hamlet; one load had been taken to Wilmington.
“The effort wasn’t very scientific or very formal—it’s very simply organized. Folks are in trouble, they need help, we’ve got the stuff, let’s get it to them. We have so much identification with our particular crossroads, but the response was not bounded by town or hamlet lines,” said Milner. “We’ve got a problem, let’s get together and do something about it. There was no shortage of volunteers and donations. It wasn’t, ‘Will you please? … ‘ It was, ‘What can I do?”‘
But progress was slow. On January 13, as countless utility and national-guard crews labored against an interminable list of tasks, there were still fifty-odd shelters housing thousands of people, some of whom were approaching a week without a home.
To those without power but still hunkered down in their own houses, police began distributing carbon monoxide detectors in an attempt to stem the already grim statistics: of nine storm-related deaths in the North Country, four had succumbed to CO poisoning by running generators and heaters in poorly ventilated spaces. A victim in Keeseville reportedly moved his generator indoors when he was told thieves were stealing them.
The casualties were not only human. Northern-tier dairy farms without enough generator power could not keep up with milking, and many farmers were forced to dump what milk they could extract. Cows died during the ordeal, and still others had to be put down. With only wood stoves to ward off the oncoming cold, chimney fires posed a threat.
Damage to sugar maples in the northern Adirondacks was extensive. Earl Parker saw 250 acres of trees on his West Chazy property destroyed, including the sugarbush his family has tapped for a century. Parker, president of Northeastern Maple Producers for Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, predicted that it would take a decade to recover from a few hours of freak weather.
The most unique and welcome sight on area roads were the fleets of National Guard humvees, bucket rigs and medical crews from around New York and beyond. A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said volunteers had come from as far away as Alabama and Georgia. Utility companies from New York City, New Jersey and Virginia sent help. Tree crews from Dayton, Ohio, rolled in on January 11. And there is nothing more surreal than to drive at night through a blacked-out Adirondack village and be passed by a police Suburban, lights ablaze, with the letters NYPD on the side.
American Red Cross spokeswoman Devera Lynn, who traveled here from Long Island, described how her organization had transformed the old J. J. Newberry building and the second floor of Bell Atlantic’s office, both in Saranac Lake, into a staging area for the 784 Red Cross volunteers and employees who were managing shelters in the North Country. “We’re doing our best to alleviate suffering,” said Lynn, after a hectic first seven days in the Adirondacks. She explained that in addition to medical personnel, each Red Cross shelter had at least one mental-health professional on hand. “People are tired, dirty, bored, and cabin fever starts to set in,” she reported.
Robert Billings, a pastor in St. Regis Falls, reported that the mood at that hamlet’s shelter, the St. Regis Falls Adult Center, was good. “One group of seventeen came in, all related. They ended up in one house, but a couple little ones got sick, so they all came down at once. They brought a lot of life into the place.” Nightly bingo games and talent shows also helped to buoy spirits there.
On the morning ofJanuary 16 Mother Nature reasserted herself yet again, when a foot of fresh snow fell across the region. “We’re encouraging people to come to the shelters in the evening when the temperature drops. We’re feeding a tremendous amount of people, 105,829 meals in this first week, which is about fourteen thousand daily,” said Lynn. She rattled off a list of states from which relief workers had come: Ohio, Michigan, Texas, California. One woman had come from St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She had never seen snow before her Adirondack trip. “We’ll stay as long as we’re needed, as long as there are people in need of assistance,” Lynn promised.
Specialist Thomas Breski, of the National Guard’s Buffalo-based 105th military-police unit, arrived in Keeseville on January 11 and set up camp at the elementary school. The 105th had just been given cots—after sleeping on the floor for several nights. As to how long it would take to restore some sense of normalcy to the region, Breski said with a laugh, “They’re giving us rumors.” He said his unit was expecting to remain stationed in Keeseville anywhere from ten days to three weeks. Breski’s tour of duty had taken him through Lewis and Upper Jay before landing him next to the Adirondack Life offices, at the village green in Jay. He was directing traffic at a major detour around a Niagara Mohawk work site. “Being in Buffalo,” he said, “I’ve seen storm damage before, but nothing on such a large scale.”
This sentiment was echoed by Department of Environmental Conservation officials, who turned their attention to the battered woods once power and telephone systems had been restored. “The high priority right now is service to the towns and counties,” said DEC senior forester Jim Papero, who described how approximately seventy-five conservation personnel had been out on community projects, clearing roads and parking areas.
“When conditions improve, we’re going to get a plane up to look at things from the air,” Papero explained. His travels took him along Route 73 from Lake Placid to the Northway, and also through the towns of Onchiota, Franklin and Silver Lake. “I see a great potential for fire hazard with all the tops on the ground,” he cautioned. “The hardest-hit areas of the forest preserve seem to be Taylor Pond, Silver Lake, the lower elevations around Giant Mountain, the eastern part of the Dix Mountain wilderness, McKenzie wilderness—including the north side of Whiteface Mountain—the Sentinel Range, and Schuyler and Valcour islands in Lake Champlain. Right now, a lot of parking lots and trails are plugged.”
A story filed by the Ottaway News Service reported that early estimates pointed to more extensive forest damage from this storm than from the blowdown of two summers ago, but Papero was cautious. He didn’t see the giant piles of heaped-up slash that were common after the July 1995 microburst, but warned that woods travel will be dangerous for some time to come, with winds knocking loose the hung-up tree tops and branches.
Ice Storm ’98 affected, in one way or another, nearly ten thousand square miles of northern New York, more than one fifth of the state. Residents in the most disrupted areas, who are at the mercy of quirks in the utility grid, were hearing that they might not see electricity before February. Initial projections as to the total cost to utility companies were reported to be about fifty million dollars. But wounds to the bottom line can heal more quickly than those suffered by ordinary people during these extraordinary days.