EDITORIAL: Ice storm of '98 showed Mainers how life should be

Jan. 6—The ice storm of '98 showed Maine how powerful and unforgiving nature can be.

But that was nothing compared to what Mainers proved they could do when others are in trouble.

Thick ice covered everything this month 25 years ago, snapping trees and power lines, leaving much of the state without electricity or heat for days if not weeks, darkening homes and shutting down businesses.

Life, for a lot of people, became very isolated — and dangerous. Until Mainers realized how bad things were getting and began to reach out in every way imaginable.

For those few weeks, Maine was the "small town with long roads" that residents always joke about. The state was one big community that refused to leave anyone hanging.

In short, Maine was the best version of itself.

The stories collected by our reporters provide a fascinating look into how Mainers dealt with the ice storm, which hit so unexpectedly starting on the morning of Jan. 8, 1998.

That morning, the natural beauty of a landscape blanketed in inches of ice belied an emergency in the making. Soon, the weight of the ice had brought down utility poles and trees, snapping them like twigs underfoot.

About two-thirds of the state would lose power before it was over, some for weeks.

Power crews, from Maine and away, worked at all hours to restore power, emergency personnel of all kinds answered call after call — and media worked to get information to residents at a time before widespread internet.

What's more, many private citizens who found themselves with the ability to help others did so in remarkable ways.

Those who still had power, either from power lines still miraculously in place or their own generator, hosted others who didn't. Churches, libraries, open businesses and other spots turned into shelters and meeting spots — anything to give people a respite from the cold, and some warm connection with others who were trying to get through just as they were.

In some places, generators were passed from home to home, giving each household time to wash up and cook something hot before going on to the next neighbor. People with chainsaws and other equipment went from house to house, too, helping clear off roofs.

For all those working around the clock to restore power, Mainers delivered food and coffee and picked up tabs.

When the lights and furnaces finally clicked on, Mainers not only appreciated electricity like never before, but also were happy to know that their neighbors were around if they needed them.

The peril of the ice storm broke down barriers. With everything up in the air, Mainers, by and large, thought of other people first.

Some people manage to live this way all the time.

But it's hard to keep up when the emergency is over, even if we find ourselves invigorated by being helpful. Even if it makes our communities better places to live, for all of us, the helper and the helped alike.

Even if there are still people caught in their own storm.

Three-inch layer of ice or no, there are still Mainers who aren't sure where they'll sleep tonight, or if they'll be able to stay in their home much longer. There are Mainers who are cold in their homes, or worried their roof won't last. There are Mainers who see no one but the postman all day.

When that was the case during the ice storm of '98, Mainers had no trouble coming to their aid, whether through their own effort or by supporting all the public professionals who had their work cut out for them.

It was that way in January 1998. It can be that way every day.