*Ice Storm of ’98-Survival of a State*
By: Eli
3 January 2003

My Experiences

As I’m typing this, the Carolinas are recovering from an ice storm which struck a few days ago.

In January 1998 an ice storm struck Maine with full force. It knocked out power, phones, roads were blocked with fallen trees and everything came to a standstill. Over 2 days the ice accumulated to approximately 5-8 inches thick. It brought Maine towns and communities together in ways previously unforeseen.

I was 16 and a junior in high school. I’ll never forget that experience. I can’t remember exact dates & times, but I do remember that it all started on January 4th, just a couple of days after I took and passed my EMT exams.

Mom woke me up for breakfast and she said that it had snowed ice over the course of the night. Upon looking out the window…yes she was right, ice was everywhere. I sat down at the kitchen table and chowed down on breakfast…Cheerios with sugar…I think :o) The power was out, but we were warm. Primary wood heat, propane stove and back-up heater. Good to go. As I was eating, mom looked out the window and said… "The ambulance is at the bottom of the driveway with the lights on." I took a look and saw Debbie trying to walk up the driveway…it wasn’t happening. She wound up trying to crawl and that wasn’t working either. I abandoned breakfast, grabbed my ambulance pager and threw my coat on. Out the door I went…. "holy crap!!!!….it’s icy out here" I thought. Everything…I mean everything was covered in ice. I slid down the driveway and met up with Debbie. She told me that power was out everywhere and that Kevin and her were going to use to ambulance to check on the elderly in town. They stopped by to pick me up. Kevin and Debbie were like a 2nd set of parents.

So, off into the wild icy yonder we went. Trees were sagging into the roads, banging off the top of the ambulance. There were few vehicles. Wow, it was worse than I thought. Very pretty, but devastating.

We spent most of the day together checking in on elderly citizens. As the day went on everyone in town and the county for that matter, came to the realization that this was not going to end soon. 10 miles of Line 66, which feeds power to most of Washington County had collapsed. Line 66 runs through woods and across blueberry barrens. In the wintertime, it’s impossible to cross blueberry barrens without 4WD. Sometimes (usually) it’s totally impossible. Line 66 is mostly located in remote areas and the part that collapsed was not easily accessible. New poles would have to be set...which meant it would be a long time before power was restored.

There is a "low income" apartment complex in town called "Narraguagus Estates". Most of the residents consist of the elderly. The complex had no generator and the residents had no heat and water. Others were O2 dependent and needed electricity to run oxygen generators. The community center in the complex had a generator. It however only powered the one building. This building was not big enough to house approx 200 people. It could comfortably handle 10-15.

Plans were made to set up a shelter at the elementary school after a generator was hooked up, but that would be at least a day away. An "emergency only" shelter was set up in the community center at Narraguagus Estates. Another shelter was temporarily set up at the fire station. The fire station didn’t have a generator either. A few of the firefighters worked for one of the local blueberry companies. They arrived with a Miller Arc Welder/generator and wired it into the breaker panel and bingo…lots of power.

I stayed at the Narraguagus Estates the first night. People who stayed there were the O2 dependent/poor medical condition residents, being an EMT it only made sense for me to stay there….just incase. For communication, Ham Radio…WOOOOHOOO was primary. (gonna brag up Ham Radio a lot in this article!!!!) I had a mobile radio, battery and J-pole set up. My cousin was at the fire station with his ham gear, thus the 2 shelters had reliable communication w/o having to depend on a repeater. The only working phone line in the entire town just happened to be the one at the fire station….talk about a lucky break.

The first night was long and tiring. I didn’t sleep much. Kept worrying that a resident was going to have a heart attack or something. The generator seized up early the next morning because the people who were responsible for it ran it out of oil.

(Here’s where I can’t remember dates…. just events)

Daybreak came…. The National Guard delivered a generator that had just returned from Bosnia to the school. They wired it up and it didn’t run. Huh…imagine that. A second generator was delivered. It ran off and on, something was wrong with it. A couple of the firefighters are also diesel mechanics. They commenced to tear it apart. They ultimately found silicone in the fuel line. Some idiot at some point, had patched a fuel leak with silicone!!!! DUH! Needless to say, when the sergeant saw that…he got a little ticked.

Finally the genset was running. However it didn’t deliver enough power to run a commercial grade electric stove, furnace, lights, water pump etc. Only a few things could be run at a time. They had to get by with it until a bigger one could arrive. A local heating oil company donated and delivered a 275 gallon tank and infinite amounts of heating oil to run the generator. My uncle is a master electrician. He volunteered his time and rewired circuits so that only what was needed would be energized.

Dad was and still is the custodian there. He kept us well informed of the progress and set backs.

The shelter at the Narraguagus Estates was closed down. I moved my ham gear to the fire station and hooked it up with my cousin’s. We didn’t have HF capability at the time, but other area hams did. They communicated around the state on HF and relayed to us on 2 meters. Our antennas were inside…didn’t have enuff coax to make a run on to the roof…BUMMER! Our simplex range was about 15 miles. There were 2 repeaters we could use. One covers most of Washington County and parts of Hancock (neighboring county) the other covers most of Hancock and parts of Washington. All in all we had great commo.

The 2 local blueberry companies donated hand held radios. The fire station was designated as the command post. Here the strategies of survival were planned. David (my cousin) and I were designated as the radio operators. That was cool. He was 17, I was 16 and we were running the entire commo/coordination show…the town manager, fire chief and ambulance chief knew our capabilities and knew we could handle any situation that may arise. Red Cross food deliveries, National Guard deliveries, people looking to lend a hand, basically everything went through us.

We issued radios to people who "needed" them. Didn’t need a bunch of people running around with radios. The fewer that were out, the better. Here’s how we issued:

The school: (I’ll get Stallion to do an article on what it was like working at the shelter)

Classrooms were berthing for the elderly. The gym was for everyone else. It was also used for meals and activities. National Guard and Red Cross delivered military cots. Bathrooms and showers were available and open to the public.

Some of the town’s women volunteered countless time as cooks and caretakers of the elderly. The guys volunteered countless time as mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and handymen. Few people actually went to work. Everyone was busy helping everyone else.

Anyone was welcome to stay at the school. Some people showed up just for meals and to socialize. Kids spent a lot of time playing games and doing activities with each other and with the elderly.


The fire station:

Shelter, bathrooms and showers were available to emergency service personnel and their families. Being a fire station we didn’t want a lot of people hanging around getting in the way.

Local stores donated countless amounts of food. The cooks at the shelter made up some wicked meals and they even delivered to fire station. I distinctly remember a baked chicken in a shepherd’s pie…aawwwhh, that was Gooooodd!

By the end of the 2nd day everything was more or less coordinated. Command post and shelter was up and running and there were ample amounts of food.

Now we were waiting. Waiting for power and phones to be restored and the roads to be cleared.

Over the next 5 or 6 days David and I maintained the command post. Neither of us slept much. Drank a lot of caffeine and ate even more food. I installed a 2 meter radio in the ambulance. I had ambulance duty on like the 3rd day. We had a run to Ellsworth (30 miles away). The hospital was discharging an elderly patient who would be going to the shelter. While we were still in Ellsworth I made radio contact with "Mr. Mobile" KA1ZRA /sk (Julian died this fall after a long illness). I informed him that we were bringing a patient to the shelter and needed a bed. He drove to the shelter and informed them.

Upon arrival at the shelter a bed was ready and people were at the door to assist us. I remember my aunt commenting on how cool it was that I was in an ambulance 30 miles away talking to Julian who’s in his car…she (and others) were quite impressed.

With all the ham’s around we had plenty of commo. Cherryfield, Columbia, Deblois and Milbridge were linked via radio. The ham in Milbridge was on 3940Khz most of the time passing traffic in and out of the area. He had solid contact with Augusta (capital city).

A couple of days later the governor arrived to assess the situation and check in on the town folk. He was traveling around to different towns ensuring that everybody was getting the assistance that was needed.

Other than that, nothing too exciting happened. It was a long week, but a great learning experience.

While at the fire station someone mentioned cell phones. Since only 1 telephone in town worked, they’d just use their cell phone. HAHAHA..HELLO!!?? Let’s think about this…if electricity and phone lines are down, what makes you think a cell phone is going to work? When they tried to make a call, they only proved me right. It didn’t work. That’s a common misconception people have. People believe that in TSHTF scenarios they can rely on their cell phone because it’s wireless. They don’t understand that the tower needs electricity and telephone lines to work. The main cellular phone networking station on Lead Mountain went off-line…further hindering cellular communication.

Now I’m going to hit hard and heavy on Amateur (Ham) Radio. Amateur radio I believe is the most reliable form of communication there is. During the ice storm it was the primary communication in and out of the county. Hams volunteered where needed. When TS hit TF amateur radio prevailed. Cell-phones failed and other forms of communication failed, ham radio did not. Our repeaters remained online and communication was just like normal. If repeaters go off line it’s not a big deal, just more of a pain in the butt. Simplex communication is used. Might have to relay the message a couple of times, but the message is delivered. We have HF bands. The Maine Seagull Net was activated on 3940Khz. Whammo, Blammo….state wide communication just like that.

Some forms of communication hams have:

And the list goes on………

All of this for a couple of tests and no monthly fees…looks like a better deal than a cell phone. All of this is dependable. If a repeater goes down, use simplex or HF. If a cell tower goes down….yer screwed. You also don’t get the message "We’re sorry, all carrier circuits are currently busy, please try your call again later"….which is not a nice thing to hear when you’re trying to call 911.

With ham radio there are no surcharges, no monthly bills, no airtime fees, no long distance calling plans etc. Only cost is like $6.00 for the test and whatever you get for equipment. You can have a reliable 2-meter ham station with backup power for under $200 bux.

I’ll be generous and say that you spend $30.00 a month on a cell phone bill. After 6 ½ months…that equals $200 smackers. $200.00…gee, that looks like another ham setup to me. A simple Technician Class license, basic 2 meter setup is gonna carry you a lot further in a TSHTF situation than a cell phone will. Proven fact….. I just proved it to you. In the long run, it’s a lot cheaper too.

In other disaster areas cell circuits are going to be down and/or jam up with other users. Ham Radio will prevail. We have so many forms of communication and so many frequencies to use it’d take a lot more than a few disasters to jam up our band space.

That’s the summed up version of my experiences during the ice storm. I was very impressed on how quickly communities pulled together to survive. Over the course of a few hours everyone in Cherryfield was taken care of.

Thanks for the read.

Be safe and stuff

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