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Flashback: The Worst Ice Storm In American History (People Were Without Power For WEEKS)

Flashback: The 1998 Ice Storm That Left People Without Power For WEEKS

When you think of natural disasters that could interrupt the power grid, you probably think of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. However, it was a massive ice storm that left millions of Canadians and some Americans without electricity and heat for a period of days to weeks in 1998.

Known as the Great Ice Storm of 1998 or the North American Ice Storm of 1998, the huge January weather event was really a combination of five smaller ice storms that struck a narrow geographic band that stretched from eastern Ontario to southern Quebec and Nova Scotia and included a section of northern New York and central Maine. Upwards of three inches of ice fell in some places.

The storm’s wrath killed 35, injured 945 and displaced about 600,000 people. Additionally, the resulting widespread power outage affected 1.4 million people in Québec and nearly 240,000 people in eastern Ontario. The total financial cost of the storm is estimated in excess of $5 billion.

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People were without power for anywhere from several days to several weeks, and, in a few instances, several months, as Canadian workers scrambled to reconstruct the power grid in the wake of the damaging ice. More than 1,000 transmission towers collapsed.

The Weather Channel recently named it the worst ice storm in U.S. history – nearly 80 percent of Maine was without power — although its impact was felt mostly in Canada.

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To handle the crisis, which included the closing of several main roads, more than 16,000 members of the Canadian military were deployed, the largest peacetime deployment in Canadian history.

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Ice storms are not unusual during the winter in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence region, a location where warm low-pressure currents from the Gulf of Mexico encounter cold high-pressure currents from the Arctic. When the two currents collide, warm air tends to rise above the cold air. Then, the resulting precipitation often begins as rain but freezes as it reaches lower altitudes or hits the ground.

Between Jan. 4 and Jan. 10, 1998, however, parts of the St. Lawrence Valley in Quebec received more than twice the amount of icy precipitation they average in an entire year.

Although Kingston and Ottawa received the brunt of the storm, about 2.6 million people — nearly one fifth of all Canadian workers—were either impeded or prevented from getting to their place of employment. Businesses of all sizes in Quebec were severely impacted, and many small communities were completely shut down by the storm.

The storm hit a large location for the Canadian dairy industry. Many dairy cows became ill as the mechanical operations to feed and milk them shut down. To make matters worse, with power out at local milk processing plants, more than 10 million liters (2.6 gallons) of milk had to be thrown away.

Canada’s maple syrup industry also was devastated by the storm, as millions of tree branches were damaged. More than 20 percent of Canada’s syrup-producing tree taps also were disabled or destroyed in the storm, and Québec syrup makers lost most or all of their entire sugar bush. The damage was so severe that it took years for the industry to recover.

As one of the worst natural disasters in Canadian history, the Great Ice Storm of 1998 was the cause of $5 to $7 billion in economic losses, with insured losses from the event reaching $1.6 billion.

Have you ever experienced an ice storm? Share your memories in the section below:

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  1. I lived through the Ice Storm of 1998 in central Maine. We were without power for 8 days. We were not prepared! Fortunately there were resources around us – gas stations, sandwich shops etc. What really got us started on the road to prepping was watching a National Geographic Network show about the effects of an explosion of the Yellowstone caldera. I learn a lot from this and other blogs. It’s not apocalyptic craziness, it’s being responsible and providing for yourself and family when dire circumstances occur.

  2. I also lived through the 1998 ice storm in northern VT. My in-laws were visiting and we watched trees filled with ice explode and come crashing down all around us. We couldn’t drive out of our neighborhood for 5 days because the roads were covered with down trees. Our power was out for ~ 10 days. Fortunately I was prepared with a wood stove, plenty of wood, water, food etc. We put our food out in the snow, used a propane stove & gas BBQ grill to cook, pulled out all our camping gear and made the best of it. The kids loved it because the schools closed and if anyone has ever lived up north, schools never close for snow, no matter how much it snowed. This event made us rethink our preps and adjust accordingly. (more long term food storage, fire wood, propane etc) When I look back, what saved us was the wood stove. It heated the 1600 sq ft house and kept us warm and comfortable. My in-laws who are in their late 60’s appreciated that. I will never own a house without one. I looked back at some of the pictures of the sun shining off the ice covered trees and they are beautiful even though the ice did a lot of damage. Be safe and prepared.

    • This is a very good article. I was about to sell my propane BBQ grill since I prefer charcoal, but you made me re-think that. I have a wood burning stove, but no wood stock pile. Thanks for helping me re-think some things.

  3. I like to watch storm but this was very painful.

  4. I lived through the Quebec ice storm. (And, I’ve also been through six or eight hurricanes in South Florida — losing power for over a week almost every time — no, I’m not lucky. ) During the Quebec icestorm, we didn’t have power for three weeks. No heat. Here are a few things I learned from the ice storm (which may not surprise preppers but they certainly surprised me):
    1. Our wood fireplace in our 1969 house is not suited for heating. It blows tons of smoke back into the house. Because the house is open plan, and had no doors on the living room, no room ever really got warm. The smoke made it intolerable and likely dangerous. But my mom was worried about the pipes freezing. (I’ve heard since that the pipes won’t freeze if it isn’t cold enough to snow — freezing rain isn’t cold enough for your pipes to freeze AFAIK.)

    Another thing… somebody told me recently that fireplaces smoke because the bricks in the chimney are cold. To prevent them from smoking, you are supposed to light a fire in the Autumn (before it gets too cold) and keep it going all day and night even if it is only embers. This is what the old timers did. Also fireplaces should not be built on the side of houses with one side of the chimney on the outdoors. This will make them smoke and inefficient. They are supposed to be in the center of the house with all sides indoors — this is so you get radiant heat from the bricks, don’t lose heat, don’t have problems with smoke, etc.

    But back to the oce storm…

    2. Everyday you keep hoping the power will come back on. It makes everyone very anxious. It’s hard to relax and believe it will come on eventually. We really didn’t believe the outage would last longer than a week. But then the first week passed and the second week…

    3. Anytime an emergency is forecast or seems imminent, flashlights, batteries, etc. disappear from stores IN MINUTES. (I think people must leave work to stock up.)

    4. Nobody had generators. The stores do not stock nearly enough of them to supply your block even. They vanish in minutes — and you know who needs and deserves those last-minute generators? People with family members on oxygen. Dairy farmers who need water for their cows. Nursing homes. Gas stations. Elderly people who can’t survive the low temperatures in their houses. The elderly will get hypothermia if their houses are in the 50s. (I think anything under 68F for a sustained period can put them at risk.)

    5. You need boots with very good treads. Ice storms are slippery.

    6. You get really desperate for a hot meal when your house doesn’t have heat. We didn’t have any way to heat water or cook food on the fireplace even. No hook to support a pot to boil water. No rack or tools to hold food (other than a hot dog fork). Even if we did, the fireplace was too smokey. We had a well stocked pantry. But after five or six days crackers and canned fish and cheese get old. The only restaurant that had a generator was McDonalds. But after a 20 minute wait in a massive drive-thru line, the food was lukewarm. It must have been cold in the building. Ironically, while you are freezing, yoir hoise isn’t quite cold enough to keep your food safe in the fridge. Hard to know what temperature that food is hovering around without a fridge thermometer.

    6.b) Initially no groceries stores were open, etc. They didn’t have generators either. This means even once they get generators, they need to be restocked. None of this can happen until the roads are not icy death traps.

    7. If you have short haired pets or toy dogs — basically unless you have huskies and other double-coated breeds — your pets will be cold. They can’t hack your 50F house. Toy breeds are like babies and particularly vulnerable due to low body fat.

    8. Hot water bottles were a godsend. A friend a few miles away had hot water but no power (her end of town had centrally heated water supply). We used to go over there to fill up hot water bottles and thermuses before bed sometimes.

    9. Even sane, intelligent rational people get a little nutty innatural diasters. It’s something primal. I was anxious until the power came on. My mother hunkered down and sat rocking in front of the fireplace, paranoid it would go out, rocking back and forth. People start to lose it. In SFL, when NOBODY had generators and you couldn’t really go anywhere, people stood in line for five hours to get gas. I’m convinced they were doing it out of instinct — not because they had generators. Then the fist fights would start to break out…

    10. IMO, if you see more than say, roughly, 1.5″ of ice starting to accumulate on top of branches, you will lose power. The ice accumulation is starting to get too heavy for the power lines or the metal power towers and they will snap or bend.

  5. I appreciate the stories and advice from the people who have actually been through those times when things change for the worst. Everyone should take heed now when the supplies are available and not have that stupid thought run through your mind “I should have…” when the power is out or the roads and stores are closed. Put a little away and maybe a little more next month for when the unexpected happens.

  6. Thanks, Ottawan, your comments were more helpful than the article!!

  7. Why does anybody “ deserve” the last minute generators. Plan ahead and be ready 24/7 just like other areas of your life. If somebody needs power for life support then they need to have it ready, tested and installed WELL before an event. That means they also need a huge fuel supply at the ready. Panic from poor planning is an emotional issue that never needs to happen.
    I have a fireplace with Woodstove st the end of my house and after raising the chimney a few feet it draws great. The real issue is the distance and height from the nearest obstruction in allowing a draft.

  8. Amen, Dave! the people who “deserve” those generators are the folks who got them beforehand.
    Of course, Ottawan is from Canuckistan, where they have weird, Marxist ideas about the words “deserve” and “rights”.

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