This must be the place: ‘North Country Ice Storm of ‘98’
I can still feel the cold air, the sense of hopelessness.
Watching the clips of the massive rainfall and flooding in Houston and greater Texas this week, I can’t help but simply direct my eyes towards the confused, helpless faces, the scenes of utter destruction at the hands of Hurricane Harvey. It conjured a slew of images in my own memory of the “North American Ice Storm of 1998.”
Though the title above was the “official name” of that weather event, we called it the “North County Ice Storm of ‘98.” Coming into Christmas 1997, I was a seventh-grader at Northeastern Clinton Central School, a mile or so away from the Canadian border crossing on Route 276 (Upstate New York). As a new kid to the middle school scene, I was a shy, rather pushed aside adolescent. I was more interested in history than girls, more about wearing a Grateful Dead shirt than the latest Abercrombie & Fitch fashions. So, as you can imagine, I spent a lot of time alone at my cafeteria table, or perhaps in the presence — rather solidarity — of others in my boat.
While home during Christmas break, I wasn’t looking forward to going back to school once early January rolled around. I liked sleeping in, reading my books, and not having to face the long, daunting walk down the seventh-grade hallway to my locker, onward to first period homeroom.
Sometime around Saturday, Jan. 3, 1998, I walked into the kitchen of my childhood home, an 1820 limestone farmhouse. Surrounded by cornfields, the large abode was mostly heated by a woodstove (an oil furnace kicked on during those 20-below-zero “three dog nights”), where it left our upstairs bedroom chilly at night, the kitchen tiles frigid on bare feet in search of breakfast. Scouring the pantry for my usual Frosted Flakes and Nestle Quik, I kept hearing the local weatherman mention this impending storm — one of not snow, but freezing rain.
By Sunday, Jan. 4, it seemed the storm was already gaining momentum — in strength and in lore. With a layer of above-freezing air atop a layer of sub-freezing air, raindrops would fall into the above-freezing layer and refreeze once entering the sub-freezing layer. If the drops don’t immediately freeze, they attach themselves to whatever surface they hit, only to then turn into ice. This “perfect storm” of air masses (cold northern air and moist southern air) collided on the Canadian border, right smack where I lived.
When it was announced Sunday evening there would be no school on Jan. 5, my little sister and I rejoiced. Over the first couple days, the freezing rain fell, covering our house, barn, cars and nearby large maple trees in several inches of rain. You couldn’t leave the house, you couldn’t get into your car. Everything was silent, except the bone-chilling sounds of the large maple trees cracking, branch after branch, in the middle of the night right outside your bedroom window, praying to the heavens one of those limbs wouldn’t come crashing through your roof.
That joyous nature of not having to go to school quickly disappeared once day six rolled around, my family huddled around the woodstove in our living room, attentively listening to the small, handheld battery operated radio about updates on the storm, on roads being cleared, on the continued “State of Emergency” for our entire region.
There are a million photos taken of the extensive damage left behind by the “North Country Ice Storm of ’98.” Images of whole rows of centuries-old trees decimated, as if an atomic bomb went off in your backyard. Scenes of the National Guard rescuing elderly residents stranded in their homes. Pictures of power lines hanging all over every single road like some long-forgotten cobweb draped over your entire existence. But, very few photos were taken of the damage to my hometown (Rouses Point, New York) seeing as, in essence, most folks couldn’t reach us, being one of the tiny border towns completely cut off from the rest of the world.
After 21 days of no power, and pretty much the same amount of days out of school, my classmates and I returned to NCCS, faces bewildered as if we’d seen “some shit.” And we had. My farm friends saw their cows, pigs and chickens die right before their eyes. There were stories of lost loved ones due to freezing temperatures and no electricity, some even perished by making the mistake of leaving their gas generator in the garage or house (ultimately dying from carbon monoxide poisoning).
Whenever I get a chance to go home and visit family, I’ll still see remnants of the “North Country Ice Storm of ’98.” You find yourself on some backroad, gazing off towards to the horizon, and there are the maimed maple trees, still standing, but like wounded soldiers of Mother Nature. You might come across some dusty ole T shirt (there are many) in a local Salvation Army that states, “I Survived The Ice Storm Of ’98.”
But, even some 19 years later, those memories of that experience remain, where they fill your field-of-vision when you see others going through similar circumstances, with other types of weather in other corners of this country, in the world.
And yet, with the terror or sadness, there’s always some glimmer of compassion and promise not far behind. You see it in the eyes of those selfless volunteers, police officers, National Guard, firefighters, etc. Because, at the end of the day, no matter how dire the situation, humanity will always come together for the greater good — something all too short in supply these days.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 The 111th Canton Labor Day Festival featuring Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Balsam Range, Chatham County Line and David Holt will be Sept. 3-4 in downtown.
2 Andrews Brewing Company (Andrews) will host a “Bluegrass Festival” from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2.
3 Bluegrass act Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, at the Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley.
4 Saturdays on Pine (Highlands) will host Darren & the Buttered Toast (funk/soul) at 6 p.m. Sept. 2
5 Nantahala Brewing Company (Bryson City) will host Plankeye Peggy (rock/Americana) at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1.