This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Ice Storm of 1998. It was the largest natural disaster to hit the North Country. It brought down millions of trees across northern New York and southern Canada. Power lines and transmission towers collapsed as layers of ice accumulated on the landscape during the multi-day storm. Two emergency services officials who were in the command post talk about the storm.
Freezing rain began to fall in northern New York, northern New England and southeast Canada on January 5th, 1998 and continued for four days. Three inches or more of ice glazed the region. Branches snapped off trees. Power poles toppled and power lines sagged onto roads. Farmers struggled to milk hundreds of cows daily and portable generators were trucked in to the area. Some homes and businesses did not have power restored for weeks.
Throughout the crisis Clinton County Office of Emergency Services Assistant Director Kelly Donoghue was at the Plattsburgh command center. He recalls the first time he went outside during the storm. “Watching the trees just bend because of the weight of the ice and in the distance I could see the flash of green with transformers zapping in the city. And when I went back to the office in the daylight, because I had left at night, I was just amazed at seeing the ice build up that had occurred.”
Donoghue eventually took three National Guard helicopter flights to survey the damage. “You could see where the ice build up was gradually building up and then all of a sudden there was none on the west side of the mountain because the temperature inversion hadn’t hit that area. But then all of a sudden you start going up north and how it was thickening up. And then you could see the movement down below with the utilities and all working. It was just fascinating to get a view from above and some of the damage that was occurring as well. It was kind of surreal look to see just everything iced over.”
The 1998 Ice Storm occurred before wireless technology, smartphones, broadband and texting. Now retired, then-Clinton County Emergency Services Director Jim King had insisted a 1994 upgrade to the communications system be microwave-based rather than fiber optic. “Our microwave never never failed us. We had five inches of ice on the horns. They couldn't figure out how the signal was getting through but it got through. We never lost any radio communication at all. We were in total radio contact with all of our fire stations throughout the county no problem. And we still communicate on microwave right?”
Donoghue adds that ham operators mobilized through the Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service were also critical communication resources. “They had an individual at each shelter and then at our office because at one point the phone system went down. So I was able to still reach out through the RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) contacts and they they really did stand out job for us during that incident and great memory just to think about all these resources that are part of the process and preparation and planning.”
According to NOAA, storm damage across the region was estimated at over $3 billion. 40 deaths were attributed to the storm in the affected region, including five in northern New York.