visiting crews helping repair the massive destruction. These crews were working nineteen hours a day for the first week. I can't say enough about these dedicated people—they were fantastic!

The Watertown Daily Times put out its first storm special edition. But parents of most carriers in Watertown refused to let their children deliver it because trees and lines were still falling. Over 130,000 homes and businesses in the area were still without power. Basements were flooding everywhere, without power for their sump pumps. A Red Cross official said that all city shelters were full and couldn't handle the influx of residents. NIMO said that the situation was much worse than anyone expected, and that reconnection might take several weeks. The 765 KV line that crosses northern New York had towers collapsed in several places.

Disaster Area

On the third day of the storm, President Clinton declared much of upstate New York a disaster area, making some federal emergency funds available. Emergency generators started arriving, and people waited in line up to five hours for a chance to buy one. Farms with generators were dumping milk because plants couldn't process it without power. Some cows began getting sick because they couldn't all be milked by hand. Hundreds of emergency personnel swarmed into northern New York. There was no heat in the school shelters at first, but at least you could shiver with a few hundred people you didn't know! Over 5,000 state employees arrived to help in the cleanup along with 1,700 National Guard troops.

Shelters Are Open, but Supplies Are Low

Before long, Jefferson county had 34 shelters in operation, St Lawrence county had 44, Franklin county 20, Essex county 13, and Clinton county 12. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) informed the Governor that a caravan would be coming from Georgia carrying needed supplies. They brought 5,000 cots, 6,000 blankets, bottled water, diapers, and batteries, none of which had been available in stores since the first day of the storm. Friday, January 9th, 1998 was the first issue the Watertown Daily Times did not publish in 137 years. In Jefferson and St Lawrence counties, 225,000 utility customers were without power. The latest count was 22,000 poles snapped off. Replacements came from as far away as Oregon and Washington State.

Running Water Is Not Always Good News!

With heavy rains and melting ice, the Black River in Watertown crested at over sixteen feet above flood stage, washing out streets and flooding houses and cars. Some bridges had water several feet over the road bed. The Black River is normally only a quarter mile wide but reached over a mile wide due to the flooding. We went to the fire department to see if we could get Chuck's basement pumped out before he lost the equipment that was too heavy for us to move. At 1 PM we got on the long list of people waiting for pumps. We called at 4:30 PM and were told it would be another hour and a half. At 11:30 PM we got a call from the Jefferson County Emergency Management Center telling us to go in and pick up a water pump.

We arrived at 1:30 AM only to find out that they were only giving pumps out to fire departments. They promised to have the Theresa Fire Department stop and pump Chuck's basement. They arrived at 3 AM, and it was done by 4:30. Then we decided to get some sleep. We had been up for about 24 hours straight and were getting kinda goofy. We slept until 6:30 AM. Being this short on sleep and dealing with the mess around us was no picnic. But we were warm and the house was lit, so I didn't dare complain.

All night we got to listen to the sound of huge pines snapping, one breaking and taking three or four more with it. The sound is something you have to hear and see to believe. I can't describe it—it's too overwhelming to see 60 to 80 foot trees and

So being the nice guy that I am, I asked him if he wanted to buy a cup of coffee, for say,

My friend Dennis, the Amish man who owns a machine shop, was building generators and pumps out of anything he had that would generate or pump. He's lucky he has such a collection of equipment to work with. We left with a diaphragm pump and suction hose. Dennis never charged a single dollar for a pump, generator, or labor during the storm or recovery. We returned home and set the pump up at Chuck's place. We then went to the fire department to see who else in our area needed to be pumped out.


They gave us a list of four others and we started making rounds. By the time we got to the last one, the first one needed pumping again. The fire department gave us fuel and changed the oil in the pump every night, and as long as we were pumping, the travel ban didn't affect us. People were starting to get arrested for being out on foot or in cars. One couple in Watertown told the officer they had an emergency, they were out of cigarettes. They got two tickets and I hope one was for stupidity!

poles snap like toothpicks. When one power pole snaps, it takes a bunch with it, just like dominoes. We heard that the Governor and head of FEMA would be flying over looking at the damage. So I got four cans of bright yellow paint and put a large smiley face at the base of my Whisper 1500 and wrote "Home Power" in large letters. We never did hear if anyone saw it but we had a few good laughs.

Road Trip

We woke up at 8 AM the next day. It felt good to get some sleep after several days of two or three hours of sleep a night. We decided to attempt to go to an Amish friend's to see if he had a spare pump to pump out the basements that were flooding. We were bored and a travel ban was in place—no travel except for emergency traffic. But while pumping, we became emergency personnel. It's only a 35 mile drive to my friend's place, but it took two and a half hours to get there. My Chevy Sprint has four studded snow tires and was small enough to fit under or around most of the trees and poles. A four wheel drive truck would never have fit through the holes that we went through—it would just be too big. It was like driving through tunnels of glass. Ice surrounding tree branches a quarter inch thick was three inches thick by the third day.

The engine quit on the pump so we went back to Dennis, hat in hand, wondering what that Honda was worth. Dennis explained that it had previously been frozen, backed over, and generally fifty bucks. abused plus that it was around ten years old.

He put a new engine on it, sent me back with a 4400 watt generator, and wished us good luck. It was starting to look like a few hundred thousand people were going to need lots of it! After six days, only a part of the city of Watertown had power on most of the time.


The next morning at 6, Chuck pulled in the driveway at a high speed, ripped the door open, and yelled, "Call 911! I've got a fire!" His dog, a huge Rotweiler/Great Dane cross, had knocked over a lantern. Fortunately, I was able to get a line on the cell phone. I gave them the info and was out the door in under two minutes. By the time I arrived, the front of the house was fully engulfed in flames. I called 911 back and advised them to send everything they had. We ended up with nine departments there before it was over. They had it almost out when they ran out of water, and when a new pumper got backed up to the tank, everything had frozen up. At 15 degrees below zero, it's hard to keep the water in the pumps, hoses, and hose ends from freezing.

Within an hour we figured it was all over for Chuck's house. Theresa Fire Department had a great response time, but everything else went against them and the other eight departments that responded. Several of the guys had showered, drank coffee, and done laundry at my place and they felt real bad that things hadn't gone better. The fire was out by 10:30 AM, but it was a total loss. We had gotten Dennis' pump and generator out before they had arrived, so we started pumping out his basement to see if we could get to his fire file (a steel wrapped concrete box, very much like a safe with drawers) that was in the basement. If you ever find one of these concrete files, buy it. They weigh several hundred pounds but they are worth it for the protection. After six hours of pumping, we got into the file. We brought the drawers to my place and Chris started peeling papers apart and drying things out.

Good News—At this Point Anything Was an Improvement

With lower temperatures, water stopped running into basements, so we stopped pumping. Most of the fun had gone out of it by then, anyway. Much of Watertown had power part of the time by then, and it was improving daily. Outlying areas would have to wait five or six weeks for power, according to a NIMO spokesmen. No one had a clue when telephone service would be restored.

The utility companies did a fantastic job. They built an entirely new power grid from scratch in three to four weeks. On January 28th, power trucks were all over our three mile long road. By dark, they had two places connected and powered up. Then I had to help my neighbors with their frozen water pumps and pipes. One pump was cracked badly enough to need replacing. On the 29th, the power company was out at my pole looking things over. With all of the poles that were needed but fell over, this one wasn't needed but didn't fall. I went out to talk to the power company crew, and asked them to disconnect the transformer because I didn't need it. That got me some strange looks!

After I explained that I had an independent power system, they agreed and unhooked the transformer and feed lines. They even asked for some cards to give to people who ask about other power choices besides the grid. Lots of people in the area are interested in having backup power systems. We have had three storms with long power outages in the past decade: an ice storm in 1991, a microburst in 1995, and this mother of all ice storms in 1998. You would think that everyone would at least own a generator by this time. A customer who had me build a 22.5 KW diesel genset to power his grocery store called me and told me that he was so happy he could kiss me. He was the only store open for 35 miles and was cooking for the Fire Department's shelter across the street. They also ran a line next door to run the furnace, and a line 200 yards to get the local bar open. I think it's a law in this village that a bar has to be open no matter what—there isn't a lot to do here, even on a good day.

Power's On!

Power wasn't on in all parts of Jefferson County until twenty-five days after the start of the storm. Even after power returned, it was not stable and went off frequently. It took another two to three weeks for all telephone service to be restored. Telephone service was also unreliable for some time. After a rain there were no dependable connections—the lines were lying along the roads being driven over for up to seven weeks. According to a Watertown Daily Times article, on February 2nd, there were still over 1,400 customers without phone service. Bell Atlantic had over 1,100 crews working in the region to restore service, and expected to have phone service restored within a week. That was really good news for my wallet, since my cell bill was $256 for the first ten days of this mess. At this point, as many as 50,000 homes were without power in Quebec and Ontario, Canada. At the peak of the outage, about 3,000,000 people were without power.

Disaster Humor

There were some things that may seem funny to Home Power readers. The power company set poles and ran wire all day on one local road. When they got to the last home on the road, they couldn't find the meter. As you may have guessed, the owner returned home and told them that he hadn't been on the grid for almost twenty years! This is only funny if you weren't on the crew who did the work. Then there was Theresa Highway Superintendent Jerry Reynolds who got his power back on after days of listening to his generator. He said that on the first night with restored power, he finally went to his garage and started his lawn mower beside his porch, just so he could sleep!

There was also the FEMA rep who met Chuck to survey the damage at his home. Chuck brought him to my house to do the paperwork. I had a friend's small generator we were testing under load (charging batteries) to see if it would misbehave. While the FEMA rep was here, it quit, but the lights barely flickered. He looked at the lights and at Chuck several times before he had to ask, "Wasn't that the generator?" We just love these questions! Chuck explained the system to the curious rep. After a while we just take it for granted that our energy systems work smoothly. Then something like the ice storm happens and it wakes you up to how lucky you are to be making your own power.


Author: Bob Ellison, Alternative Energy Systems & Supplies, 34642 Countryman Road, Theresa, NY 13691-2076 • 315-628-0601 • Fax: 315-628-5797 [email protected]

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