Maine on ice

: The northeastern states endured a devastating winter this year. As ice storms wrecked havoc with power lines, leaving many without light and heat, Maine rose to the challenge.

Article December 28, 2000
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Natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, hailstorms, are common fodder for folklore. But modern society is devoted to science, to the exploration of these disasters in attempts to predict them and thus lessen their destruction. So many of the natural disasters which hit the world have no hope of reaching such lofty recorded status as the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

While society shows little interest in the lore of these events, legends and stories often spring up in regions that were hit by natural disasters. For instance, in Chicago, natives still relate stories of where they were stranded and how they dug out from the surprise blizzard of 1967.

And then there are the stories of the blizzard which ended a mayor’s career. Since that blizzard which struck in the winter of 1978-79, subsequent mayors and streets and sanitation workers, worry that their snow removal efforts may not please the voters of Chicago.

But this past winter, during January, devastating ice storms hit the northeastern states, and the eastern Canadian provinces. Many people in those regions were left without electricity as ice-coated power lines snapped under the added weight.

At the height of the storms nearly 3 million people in Quebec, about 40% of the population of Canada, were left without electricity. The ice storms left half of Montreal without power. In eastern Ontario, 100,000 homes and businesses lost power.

The northeastern states did not fair much better. About 220,000 customers lost electricity in Maine, 100,000 in upstate New York, 43,000 in New Hampshire and 10,000 in Vermont. The storm left people without power for days.
The devastation was described to the Associated Press as “major hurricane-type damage,” by Mark Ishkanian, spokesman for Central Maine Power, the company which supplies power to central and southern Maine.

This was a storm of which legends are made and while it probably will not enter the collective folklore of human kind, the inhabitants who survived the storm will have stories to tell their grandchildren.

There were many legend-making deeds throughout the devastated region, however this article concentrates on the efforts of the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) in fighting the storm and assisting the utility companies in restoring power.

The Great Ice-In

Maine newspapers would eventually call it The Great Ice-In of Ô98, and the worst storm since 1929. The storm began with a light rain and drizzle on Jan. 7 and 8. The droplets clung to trees and power lines eventually freeze coating all it touched in ice. Movement along the ice-covered ground proved difficult.

By the second day of the storm, trees, utility poles and electrical lines began to fall. Wes Davis, supervisor of vegetation management operations, Central Maine Power, described damage from the ice storm, “We lost just about our entire infrastructure.”

Highway workers struggled to keep the roads clear of ice and fallen tree limbs. As state highways began to close it appeared that they may be losing the battle.

“We used a full winter’s allotment of sand and salt in about a week-and-a-half. It was around-the-clock work for about 15 days and the effort of the crews was outstanding,” said Jerry Casey, director of the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations, MDOT.

“You would put down sand and then two hours or less it was buried under another layer of ice,” added Clifton Curtis, landscape architect, MDOT.

“We had the assistance of the National Guard helping us truck sand into our sheds. There was a tight period immediately after the storm, when we were concerned about having enough sand a salt on hand. But fortunately we had a period of good weather, which allowed us to catch up on our stockpiles,” said Casey.

MDOT’s vegetation management programs, which call for extra-wide clear zones helped in keeping the interstates open. Clyde Walton, manager of landscape and environmental mitigation, MDOT, explained, “Our interstates have extra-wide clear zones. Trees were bent out over the zones like bridges. The branches fell into safety clear zones, which meant that the snow plows could open the roads up because they were not all blocked with fallen branches.

“Keeping the trees back helped keep the roads open. It helped the power utility crews get out to restore power” (see Dedicated Crews Seize Top Honors for Veggie Management Programs, February 1998, p 72).

Falling tree branches and utility poles wrecked havoc with power lines. It was estimated that almost 3,000 utility poles and 3 million ft of power lines were destroyed. About 67% of the state lost power during the peak of the first ice storm.

But this did not happen in one big blow. Trees and power lines continued to fall for days after the freezing rain ended.

“The number of people without power was around 700,000 at the height of the storm. This is a state of about 1.2 million people,” said Casey.

A second storm hit on Jan. 24 knocking out power to an additional 165,000 people in the Pine Tree State.
“I went 10 days without power. Basically it was just a lot of ice. Trees were breaking continuously. The snapping limbs sounded like shot guns going off,” described Curtis.

“The bulk of the people were without power for three weeks,” added Wes Davis.

The loss of power denied Mainers more than just light. Electricity is a popular form of heating in Maine, so as the power lines snapped, many went without heat. In addition, running water was lost, as well as pumps, dependent on electricity, ceased work. Many Mainers also lost their phones. Communication was further limited by the loss of TVs and radios powered by electricity.

With communications limited or completely cut, many were ignorant of Gov. Angus King’s proclaimed state of emergency and request for federal disaster aid.

With the loss of many basic necessities of life, Mainers hunkered down to tough it out.

Curtis described his experiences, “I do a lot of camping. I was just camping in my house. There were a lot of people who don’t have the resources I do, especially in the urban areas. I live in a rural area. I have a lake and streams near by so I could get water to flush the toilets and I could boil the water for drinking.

“It was winter time, so all I had to do was to take my food from the freezer and take it outside, put it in a snow bank and it would keep.

“There was a big demand on generators. Once you take away one of the comfort levels, like electricity, it is surprising how much we depend on it. Without that element, people were getting really tense. But it also showed the fortitude of the people. We had neighbors helping neighbors. That is something that we are fundamentally basing our state on. We want to be a tourist state. We want to show that we are friendly people. Why not help each other out, as well as the people who visit our state.”

Team work

As Mainers learned to rough it, MDOT continued to clear roads and aid the utility companies in the restoration of power. Jerry Casey described what needed to be done. “During the storm, the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations had a specific priority of keeping the highways open and accessible to power crews. We had power out over three-quarters of the state. The only portion not hit by the storm was our northern most county. They were pretty much untouched by the storm. All they got was snow, which we are used to handling.

“But in the southern two-thirds of the state, we had inches of ice. That brought down nearly every power line in the state. We focused our efforts on getting the utility crews access to where they needed to go and also keeping the roads passable for everyone else.”

Utility crews also had a monstrous task before them. Locally based crews were soon swamped and crews were called in from other states.

Wes Davis explained, “During the storm we brought in 650 line crews and 450 tree crews. We received permission to airlift 20 line crews and 30 tree crews from North Carolina. We had crews in from New England, New York, quite a few from the Maryland area and West Virginia.
“This was a regional storm. It affected New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Quebec and Maine. All these areas were competing for resources, so we had to go far away to find crews. Normally a storm would affect only one area and we could go into the region for help. Now we had to compete within the region. Some of our crews came from as far away as Michigan and the Carolinas.”

“They brought in hundreds of crews from out of state, some from as far away as Georgia,” added Casey.

Road and utility crews had to work closely together to restore power to Maine. MDOT crews cleared roads so utility crews could get in to repair power lines.

“We worked closely with MDOT. We had a MDOT liaison person working at our corporate office at our storm center. We worked hand-in-hand repairing broken poles, clearing trees that were down, getting our crews out to the lines while MDOT cleared the roads. We were working for the same goals, to get the power back on.”

“The two crews worked very well together. During the storm we made our repair services available to them,” said Casey.

Some of the utility crews from warmer-weather states were not use to working with ice in freezing temperatures, but MDOT helped them out.

Casey explained, “They were not prepared for the weather conditions up here, the temperature and the ice. Our motor transport service, which handles the repair and supply of our equipment, made its services available to these out-of-state crews. We did quite a bit of repair work for the utilities.”

In addition to helping maintain equipment, MDOT continued to open roads for the utility crews.

“We responded to any calls from the utilities to sand a road or do what needed to be done to open up a road, to get them to where they could repair the utility lines,” said Casey.

Mainers pitch in

While MDOT crews and utility crews repaired the ravages of the storm, individual Mainers did what they could to clear fallen trees and branches near their homes.

“During the storm on many road systems people, were going out with their trucks and chain saws, cutting up some of the trees that had fallen; throwing it in their trucks and bringing it home for firewood. That must of cut about 5% - 10% off the total volume of wood that we had to deal with. It was a community effort. It took everybody to pitch in, step forward and do their part,” explained Curtis.

In addition to the work of civilians, fire and police departments joined the fight. They worked longer hours and expanded their work responsibilities. They helped transport people to shelters and attached themselves to highway crews to help clear roads.

Clean-up continues

As winter turned to spring and the weather warmed, there still remained work to be done. In the aftermath of the storm, debris littered the sides of roads. Someone had to clean up the fallen trees, which during the storm were only pushed off the roads in order to open them as quickly as possible.

Leaving the wood along the roads was not an option, because, as the summer months approached the potential for forest fires increased. The concern was well founded for as Clyde Walton recalled, many people still remember the damages caused by a large forest fire in 1947.

The wood debris also hindered regular road maintenance and posed a possible highway safety hazard.

Casey described the conditions and what needed to be done. “After the power issue was settled, the biggest impact of the storm was the debris. Every tree that you could see from horizon to horizon was broken off at the top and they had a lot of branch damage. Every road had a tremendous amount of debris on it.

“We have been working since April. We had to wait for the snow to melt to start picking up the debris. During the storm, we pushed the debris off to the side of the road and subsequent snow storms buried it. So we really didn’t get started on that part of the clean-up until April.

Since the first of April we have been working full-out on getting the debris cleaned up.”

Much of the work on the clean-up is completed with the remaining expected to be finished by mid summer.

“Six of our seven divisions were impacted by the ice storm. Three of these divisions will be finished by the end of May, the other divisions will be working until July,” said Casey.

Curtis agreed, “We are doing pretty good. Must of the areas that had been affected are in the last legs of clean-up. We should be done by the first of July.”

Once again the people of Maine are joining in to help.
Curtis explained, “That’s the beauty of living in a state that has a very large commercial logging industry. We have a lot of people who are very familiar with chain saws and that type of equipment; people who know log removal operation inside and out. Not to mention that we have quite a number of people who do lawn care work as well. There is plenty of work to go around and that is what we are trying to do, spread the wealth.”

Hiring private crews to help with the clean-up is just one way MDOT is handling the task and getting back on track with regular road maintenance operations.

Casey explained the challenge, “We have a need to get on to our regular maintenance activities. We have exerted so much of an effort on this clean-up that it has caused somewhat of a delay in doing our normal work, which would be installing culverts and cleaning ditches in advance of our paving program.

“Things are tight. We have hired as many private crews as we can to allow us to do the regular work, but there is a limited number of those crews available.”

Curtis added, “We do not have the bucket trucks to do selective tree trimming in urban areas. We do not have the army of personnel to hand cut and pull the material to the roadside and then haul it in a log truck to a central location.

“So we have been employing many diverse groups who have a variety of backgrounds on different pieces of equipment. We have used everything from a conventional shearing operation along some of the roads to a very selective urban setting where we’re going through with a three man ground crew doing some trimming with a bucket truck to keep the aesthetic qualities intact.”

The cooperation between MDOT and the utilities, which began during the ice storm is continuing throughout the clean-up. Utility crews and equipment are helping to trim trees and clear debris. Utility crews also have additional repairs to perform on power lines.

“We are still working on the problems today. We are repairing wire poles that were only temporarily fixed during the storm and we’re moving broken trees away from the lines and the roads,” explained Wes Davis.

He goes on to talk about the cooperation between his crews and MDOT.

“Due to the magnitude of the storm Jerry Casey, and his crews are handling all the debris removal and our crews are doing the aerial work along the lines.”

Casey explained, “We have had about 100 of our crews dedicated to the clean-up since April and we have had over 100 crews contracted through the major utilities to help. We arranged with Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydroelectric to use their aerial crews and bucket trucks.

“They worked with us doing aerial trimming and removing hanging hazards. We followed that up with our own crews and hired crews to clean up the ground debris.”

Curtis added, “It is a joint venture with the utility crews. It is definitely a marriage between the two. We are working pretty tight with Central Maine Power utilizing their regular maintenance crews, basically renting them from Central Maine.”

The continued cooperation was important to the clean-up as Casey attested, “During the clean-up, by working with the utility companies we had access to over 100 crews with aerial trucks that are OSHA certified to work near power lines. We would not have had access to these crews otherwise.

“Being able to marshal that many crews together to get the aerial work done, which was needed to proceed the ground clean-up, was critical to our effort. That aspect of cooperation between us has been very important.”

The debris problem

With nearly every tree in the state suffering some damage there was a lot of timber debris to clean up, but after its removal from the roads there was a new problem, what to do with all that wood.

“There has been some burning of the wood debris, but a great deal of it has been chipped up and hauled to electrical generation plants. In Maine, we have vendors who produce landscape mulch and they have taken quite a bit of it. We are recycling as much as we can and about 30% we chipped up and put back along side the road,” explained Casey.

Clyde Walton added, “We’ve tried to minimize burning and we recycle as much as we can. We are sorting out the saw logs and trying to do all the right things to avoid creating unnecessary waste.”

But disposing of the wood debris is not as easy as it sounds. Some of the timber markets are swamped with product and are having difficulty handling more. Clifton Curtis explained, “Some of the divisions need assistance in how to address certain markets that have collapsed. They are having difficulties moving some of the traditional products and are trying to find other options.

“We’re doing a lot of background searching. Talking with the various markets whether it is mulch, traditional paper, log mills, even firewood. I don’t think there will be too many people looking for firewood this coming winter. Everyone will have their own fair share.”
Quite a bit of it was going into co-generation plants where we chip the materials and send it to the boilers to produce electricity.

“A few weeks ago, plants were not taking it because they were saturated and the demand for electricity wasn’t such that it was needed.

“So there was a scramble to figure out what to do with all the wood. Essentially we have piles all over the place. I’m hiring chippers, all the ones I could possibly find and I’m sending the material to different markets, possibly even Canada.

“Burning is an option but we would like to use it in some other valuable form, then just open pit burning.”

The legend is written

With the ice storm behind them and the clean-up nearly complete, Mainers reflect with pride on their trial by ice. Tales of the hardships endured are now passing into memory. Local newspapers have issued special editions recording the events and heroics displayed during the storm. Many are comparing it to the ice storm of 1929, which also had devastating effects on the state.

When swapping stories or making legends, it is important to remember the efforts made by the public servants, who stepped up to the challenges thrust upon the state. And there are those who do remember and appreciate the work. While talking with Jerry Casey he mentioned he would like to express his gratitude and admiration for the work his crews did. He said, “It was a tremendous demonstration of what our bureau is capable of when called on to respond to an emergency such as this.”

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