Jan. 7—FARMINGTON — On the morning of Jan. 8, 1998, Lori Houghton was getting ready at the Carthage home she shared with her husband, Kip, and their 3 1/2 -year-old son, Cody, for one of her final prenatal appointments at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington.
She called the hospital to see if she should still come in. The roads were slick with ice from the storm that began the afternoon before.
Yes, you should come in, the hospital told her. "But bring a bag. You may get stuck here."
The hospital's warning proved prescient. About 5 p.m. that evening, a Thursday, Mackenzie Houghton was born, and the ice storm continued to pelt Maine with freezing rain, leaving layers of ice in its wake.
Mackenzie said her ice storm birth has become somewhat of a family lore.
"It's crazy for me to, you know, think of what my parents had to do during that storm, bringing a newborn baby home," she said recently.
When Lori and newborn Mackenzie were released from the hospital a few days later, the Houghtons returned to a powerless home. For the next two weeks, they stayed at Lori's parents' home in Rumford while Kip commuted between the Carthage area for work and to check on their home.
"I remember seeing photos of my, you know, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins, all coming to see me at the hospital," said Mackenzie, who still lives in the Carthage area and works as a hair stylist in Auburn.
"And those photos are always special to me because not only that, you know, them meeting me when I was born but ... it means a lot that they were willing to travel ... through the storm to come see me."
It all began earlier that week, some 1,000 miles to the west when a large, low-pressure air mass over the Ohio Valley began sending warm, moist air to the East Coast, where it collided with cooler air that was moving southward, John Jensenius Jr., a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray, told the Portland Press Herald on Jan. 8.
The two air masses collided to form a front, which moved to the northeast and stalled over the Gulf of Maine, sending a few weak storms across the Northeast during the first half of the week.
What started as "intermittent light freezing rain and freezing drizzle" during the early morning hours Monday, Jan. 5, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's storm events database, turned to "steadier and heavier freezing rain" on the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 7.
On that Wednesday, the central part of the front moved into northern New England and parts of Canada. Moisture-filled and too warm to produce snow, the front offered up rain that instantly froze when it touched anything at ground level, where temperatures were below freezing.
A near-constant deluge of freezing rain in southern and central Maine continued through Friday, Jan. 9, leaving between 1 and 3 inches of ice, according to NOAA. Parts of northern and north central Maine saw more than 2 feet of snow and up to 10 inches of sleet in some areas.
Freezing rain, or ice storms, are not uncommon here, Jensenius noted at the time. But what made this storm so severe and peculiar was how the front hovered over New England for several days.
"It's highly unusual to have four days of freezing rain. Even three days is highly unusual," he told the Sun Journal.
Below-freezing temperatures and persistent cloud cover for the next week ensured that the ice stayed frozen well after the rain stopped.
"Cars crashed, pedestrians fell and weather officials warned the conditions would be mirrored in the glass-like parking lots and sidewalks again Thursday," staff writer Mark LaFlamme wrote in a weather story in the Thursday, Jan. 8, 1998, edition of the Sun Journal.
Lewiston City Administrator Robert Mulready told the Sun Journal on Friday, Jan. 9, 1998, that about 90% of Lewiston-Auburn was without power by 10 a.m. Thursday, a day after the steady rain started.
Oxford resident Lorraine Nadeau told then-Oxford County bureau chief Judy Meyer that just after 10 a.m. Thursday, a branch from a large pine tree snapped, crashing through the roof of her trailer about 3 feet away from where she stood.
Outside, "it looked like a war zone," she said.
Norway Fire Department officials said they received more than 100 calls in 12 hours on that Thursday reporting downed power lines and tree-blocked roads.
By noon, Central Maine Power spokesperson Mark Ishkanian told the Sun Journal that 12,000 Farmington-area customers were without power. Gov. Angus King declared a state of emergency and put the National Guard on alert to aid with evaluations and emergencies. Lewiston and Auburn and other cities statewide followed suit in declaring an emergency.
"About one-third of our customers (statewide) are out of power — 165,000 homes. We have crews out working, but they're not making much progress. As soon as they get one area back on, another goes out," Ishkanian said.
An estimated 80% of Maine customers lost power during the ice storm at some point, according to the National Weather Service.
When thick ice weighed down trees, leaning them up against utility poles and sometimes snapping them, it caused an "enormous problem" for utility workers working to restore power, Ishkanian said.
"There are live wires across roads — it's a real danger, absolutely," he told a reporter.
Many readers who recently shared their memories of the ice storm recounted what sounded like "gunshots."
Marilyn Strout said she remembered waking up the morning of Jan. 8 to her dogs barking at sounds coming from the woods around her Otisfield home.
Were it hunting season, the sounds may not have fazed her. But it was January "and not hunting season by any stretch," she said.
As she tried to pinpoint the source, she noticed that "everything had a heavy coating of ice on it," she told the Sun Journal and realized the "gunshots" she heard were the sounds of tree limbs snapping off trunks.
Joseph Philippon, a Lewiston resident, recalled warming up next to his gas fireplace during the 13 days his neighborhood was without power.
"I recall going for walks at night with my father and realizing how bright the sky was at night without there being any lights," he said.
After a few days of no running water and eager for a shower, Justin Easter, then a junior at Jay High School, put on his cross-country skis and skied across town to his girlfriend's house, where they had a generator and hot water.
"That was one of my most memorable skis, with the sound of the trees cracking and being able to ski down the middle of the roads."
While some made do — huddled with family and pets next to the fireplace, playing never-ending ice hockey and board games, and neighbors coming together to take care of one another — not everyone was so lucky.
By 4 p.m. Friday, the third day of the storm, 255,000 CMP customers in central and southern Maine were without power.
"It's likely to get worse before it gets better," CMP spokesperson Ishkanian said.
People poured into hastily established shelters across the region in search of a warm bed and a hot meal.
Both of Lewiston's two hospitals, Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, were relying on generator power by then.
Sun Journal readers went without their Friday morning paper when an outage midday Thursday at the paper's press at 104 Park St. cut printing short. Even once power was restored, treacherous roads made delivery of the paper nearly impossible until the following day.
CMMC and St. Mary's were flooded with patients with hypothermia, food poisoning, carbon monoxide poisoning and injuries from slipping on ice.
"The number of people treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at both hospitals has risen to 40, officials said. At CMMC alone, more people have been treated in five days than would normally be treated in five years," read the Jan. 13 edition of the Sun Journal.
Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when carbon monoxide gas builds up in the bloodstream, replacing oxygen in red blood cells. It can lead to serious tissue damage, or even death.
People using generators, portables stoves and heaters indoors was likely the cause, with four people in Maine believed to have died from storm-related poisoning.
On the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 15, a week after the worst of the ice storm hit, Sun Journal staff photographer Russ Dillingham snapped a photo of U.S. Vice President Al Gore gripping a downed power line in Auburn.
While assessing the damage with Auburn Assistant City Manager Mark Adams, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. John Baldacci, Gore told reporters that the federal government had extended its disaster declaration to individuals in all 16 Maine counties, opening the door for millions of dollars in emergency assistance funds, as reported by Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse.
"We're going to do everything we can," Gore said over the roar of chainsaws and wood chippers.
On Thursday, Jan. 22, 1998, 15 days after the storm first touched down in Maine, CMP declared that just over 3,200 customers were still without power and that 99% of customers had their lights back on.
For the first time in two weeks, the ice storm and its aftermath didn't dominate Maine newspapers' front pages. But as news of President Bill Clinton's affair, Pope John Paul II's trip to Cuba and "unabomber" Ted Kaczynski's sentencing took over the headlines, Mainers were still left to deal with the storm's aftermath.
It took 23 days for CMP to restore power for 340,000 customers, according to data provided by the company, which does not account for other utility providers in Maine. It took nearly 4,000 workers handling calls, coordinating efforts and replacing cables and lines to get the job done.
Storm-related damage cost the state $320 million, which is more than $584 million in today's dollars, and those 3 inches of ice that coated Maine in the early days of 1998 ended up being one of the state's deadliest natural disasters, with eight storm-related deaths.