Echoes of ice: 25 years later, reflections from the storm that froze the north country

Jan. 7—In February 1998, Jeffrey H. Hinman drove to Canton from his home in New Hampshire to St. Lawrence University to watch his son, Jacob, perform in a play.

But he drove into his own dramatic scene.

"En route, the scenery was normal until I drove north from Tupper Lake," Mr. Hinman recalled of the roughly 230-mile trip from Enfield, near the New Hampshire border with Vermont. "The north country looked like the artillery shelled forests and landscapes of World War I and World War II. The scenes were also comparable to some of the combat zones that I saw in Vietnam."

It was a month after the Great Ice Storm of 1998, which struck Jan. 5 to 9 and knocked out power for weeks in Northern New York. The storm created widespread anguish and property damage. The storm also brought flooding, which created its own issues, including the evacuation of a section of Water Street in the city. By Jan. 12, six deaths had been attributed to the storm in the region.

The 25th anniversary of the ice storm arrives a few weeks after a blizzard hit the north country, which also knocked out power for many, but nothing like the scale in 1998. On Saturday, Jan. 10, 1998, Niagara Mohawk announced the number of customers without power had risen to 130,000 and ominously added, "Restoration of power is now a matter of weeks."

David J. Seymour of Colton held various jobs for Niagara Mohawk, the company that became National Grid in 2002. He retired 14 years ago this month, and for his last nine years with NiMo, he was a line supervisor based in Potsdam. When the ice storm hit, he worked in the company's meter and testing department.

"They were bringing generators in from everywhere," Mr. Seymour said. "Part of my work was to switch these places onto generators until we could get power back on."

One of his destinations was St. Regis Falls, where a center was created for the hundreds of people without power. Such centers were dotted around the north country.

"I'm driving up there, on the state highway, driving around trees and downed power lines, and I'm thinking, 'They're never going to get power back on,'" he said. "I was amazed how they pieced it all together. It was wild."

But as utility workers began piecing it back together, more layers of the dayslong storm hit, compounding relief issues.

An evolving monstrosity

"The ice storm was sort of an evolving event," said Richard L. Burns, National Grid customer and community engagement manager for St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. "It wasn't bad the first two or three days. Then, another storm system came through and dropped a lot more precipitation and made it much worse than just a bad ice storm. I won't say we were making progress, but we were keeping up with it."

But the weather situation deteriorated to where crews were putting lines up, only to have them fall again — repair crews were playing Whac-A-Mole.

Mr. Burns recalled one line had fallen on Leroy Street in the village of Potsdam that ran to some critical customers.

"We went to put it back up," he said. "Within 24 hours, it had come down again because of something else, not in the same spot but nearby. We were fixing things multiple times."

The first 48 hours of the storm, Mr. Burns said, appeared to be "a distribution storm with some impacts to our sub-transmission system" such as the 34 1/2 -kilovolt system that loops around and feeds substations across the northern part of Northern New York.

"The next 48 hours involved outages to our transmission system, because the transmission cross arms, and what have you, were building up ice," he said. "At one point, we had 3 or 4 inches of radial ice that had built on some of our transmission lines that started causing structures, including steel towers, to fall."

Industry experts say a half an inch of ice can add as much as 500 pounds to a power line.

Bad to worse

The storm, when it originally hit, also caught many by surprise. The ice either smashed or slowly crept into the lives of north country residents. In 1998, the weather forecast, for Sunday, Jan. 4, called for an 80% chance of mixed precipitation followed on Monday and Tuesday by rain with highs of up to 50 degrees. But on Jan. 7, 1998, icy precipitation came down relentlessly, for hours.

By the end of the day, the north country had gone dark. The crisis was compounded when the following days would also turn colder. The sound of ice-encased falling limbs, mixed with the echo of generators, became the soundtrack of the days.

"It was pouring up here, just rain," Mr. Seymour said, recalling the first day of the ice storm. "I thought, 'This doesn't seem like that big a deal.' We had some ice down in the valley, but I drove to work and it was a whole different picture. That night, the ice came here (Colton), and started knocking down trees and power."

Mr. Seymour, as did many other utility workers, would end up working 16- to 17-hour days for almost three weeks.

The pole factor

There is no official industry meter relating to downed power poles when it comes to storm ratings. But if there was, the ice storm of 1998 would put those numbers off the charts.

For example, the December blizzard, according to National Grid, broke 148 poles in the Buffalo area.

"A storm that involves 100 broken poles is a major storm," Mr. Burns said.

During recovery of The Great Ice Storm of 1998, National Grid replaced approximately 8,000 poles.

When the poles fell, it was a dramatic scene, but created dangerous situations, as Robert C. DeLong, recalled. He now lives outside Black River and in 1998 he was working at Champion International paper mill, and lived outside the village of Brownville. He retired from Fort Drum in 2021.

"I was in line at the old Agway gas station that was on White Road, outside of Glen Park," Mr. DeLong said. "I, like the dozens of others, was waiting in a huge vehicle line to get to the fuel pumps for generator gas. As I was sitting in my truck, you could hear the telephone poles directly to my left start to break. Once the first one snapped, it was a chain reaction as the whole row just broke and came down still attached to the power lines. All the ice just flew everywhere."

In another incident, Mr. DeLong found himself stuck on a road outside Brownville.

"I came across a power pole down across the road," he said. "I had a four-wheel-drive Dakota and considered going out into the field around the pole, but was apprehensive that if I got stuck I was probably not getting out. Soon, another four-wheel drive showed up and I told him my plan and would he be able to get me out?"

The driver of that vehicle had another plan.

"With a chain saw, he started cutting the power pole," Mr. DeLong said. "We were lucky to be on the right side of the pole, because as he got almost through, the pole broke! It was still under tension and it shot across the road like a bolt out of crossbow. Without saying much, we now had a clear road for us and anyone behind us."

Mr. Burns said a major issue that caused poles to fall involved a twist, literally.

"The ice was building up on wires at different rates on one set of wires versus another," he said.

Those wires, on opposite ends of cross arms, caused a twisting motion that snapped many poles at the bottom.

Replacement poles came from as far away as states in the south and the west.

Gerald J. Haenlin, National Grid customer and community engagement manager for Jefferson and Lewis counties, recalled welcoming a load of poles one evening around 10 p.m.

"A flatbed trailer pulled into one of our operations centers with a load of 15 or 20 poles," he said. "The guy had driven from Florida. He had sneakers, shorts, no jacket. He wasn't prepared for the elements."

"Marshaling yards" were set up in areas close to areas that needed major restoration.

"The Indian River school campus was one," Mr. Haenlin said. "We created a pole yard in their parking lot, along with the other paraphernalia that was needed, whether equipment or material."

System improvements

Since the storm, National Grid has improved forestry practices and has made system improvements to further enhance safety, reliability and storm resiliency.

In a 2018 letter to the Watertown Daily Times, Mr. Burns wrote, "In the last five years alone, National Grid has invested more than $3 billion in our upstate New York energy delivery system."

"Tree damage is the number one cause of outages during a storm, still, as it was in 1998," said National Grid spokesman Jared Paventi. "We have a tree trimming program that has been continually upgraded since then. Our program, which is pretty well respected in the industry, inspects the entire upstate electric system on a five-year cycle. Managing those trees is a large part of delivering our reliable service."

Mr. Paventi estimates National Grid has about 36,000 miles of distribution lines across upstate New York — more than two dozen counties — and those lines are exposed to about 12 million trees.

In Northern New York (parts or all of Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Herkimer, Lewis, Oswego and St. Lawrence counties), the company operates 7,000 miles of overhead and underground electric lines, 85 substations and maintains 450,000 poles.

"Pole replacement is part of our maintenance as well, but as we invest in our infrastructure, replacing poles that could be a few decades old allows us to get those rooted further into the ground, as the ground shifts over time, to make sure they are stable near homes and businesses," Mr. Paventi said. "It improves safety and also helps with reliability to make sure we have a resilient system, so that when we do have factors like ice, snow or wind, we have equipment out there that can stand up to the test of the elements."

Mr. Burns said that because of the 1998 ice storm, Niagara Mohawk, later National Grid, "upped the ice rating for equipment that's out there."

"Newer poles seem to be a little bigger, and that's part of the reasoning," he said.

"One of the things that came from the ice storm of 1998 is we went for a higher level of ice rating for poles," Mr. Paventi said. "Very likely, we could have an ice storm of some magnitude, hopefully never this (the 1998) magnitude, but of some magnitude in the future."

"I think one thing you're seeing more of is steel, where existing lines may have been built on wood," Mr. Burns said. "You're seeing steel structures instead that can be set in concrete and not susceptible to rot or woodpecker damage. Woodpeckers are one of those things that can cause trouble sometime depending on the area where the transmission lines goes through. Woodpeckers are not known to cause trouble for steel structures."

"After-action reviews" are also key to help prevent such devastation that the 1998 ice storm brought, Mr. Paventi said. "We take a look at what worked, what didn't work, what equipment that was out there that failed and ask are there things we can do to make sure they're more resilient in the future?" he said.

North country residents, at least the ones who recall the ice storm of 1998, are also more prepared for the next power outage.

"You see a lot more backup generators at commercial facilities and residential houses," Mr. Haenlin said. "I think that was a significant outcome of the 1998 storm. People said, 'If I get faced with this again, I'm not going to be without power.'"

Mr. Haenlin added that, "Thankfully, I think 99.9%" of those standby generators were installed properly.

"They're not going to back-feed out of the system and cause problems for people who are out working and trying to restore service," he said.

'It's steadily increased'

Daniel M. Shaver was partially inspired to create his company, DM Shaver Inc., Clayton, because of the ice storm. The company specializes in residential and commercial generator system sales, installation, repair and maintenance for customers from Watertown to Syracuse.

Mr. Shaver said that in 2002, when he began his company, he was installing "maybe three or four" standby residential generators per year.

"It's steadily increased to the point where we're installing over 100 now a year," he said. "We've definitely seen an uptick in the amount of people wanting to be prepared and not wanting to be left in the dark when the power goes out and wanting to continue their lives everyday as they would."

The generators are powered by either natural gas or propane.

"We tie them right into the natural gas line, or the propane of the house," Mr. Shaver said.

There are two typical residential systems, he explained: a backup system for "the essentials" and one for whole-house power. The essentials package averages in cost between $8,500 to $9,500 fully installed and the whole house package ranges between $10,500 to $13,500, "depending on what's required" and also fully installed.

"We typically sell Kohler generators as our main line, but we're an authorized dealer for several manufacturers," Mr. Shaver said.

"There were very few options for residential standby systems prior to the year 2000," he added. "They were very limited. Now, there are several manufacturers."

Editor's note: The Watertown Daily Times continues to seek memories of the ice storm for a future report. To share, contact staff writer Chris Brock at