Region marks anniversary of epic ice storm of ‘98

Published: Jan. 5, 2023 at 5:56 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Twenty-five years ago, a major storm system moved into our region wreaking havoc on the Champlain Valley, Saint Lawrence Valley, and southern Quebec by leaving the area coated in ice.

The Champlain Islands were one of the hardest hit areas in Vermont by the 1998 ice storm, cutting off access for residents and challenging utility workers,

“Things were just falling apart around us. Shut the lights off, let it all fall down, start picking it up the next day,” recalled Shawn Juaire, who worked as a new lineman for Citizens. “I was on the utility side of things either trying to keep the lights on or get the lights on, and there came a point where you couldn’t get ahead of it.”

Juaire remembers taking the work pole by pole, starting right around the corner from his office. “I just remember driving by that one down on the way to the substation, and then on the way back there were three others broken,” he said.

“Big branches of trees just breaking off and hitting the ground making a crashing sound,” recalled WCAX meteorologist Gary Sadowsky, who followed the ice storm from its origins in Canada. “Freezing rain, freezing rain, freezing rain, hour after hour after hour, and you go boy this has been going on for hours, and then you realize, they are getting a major ice storm in southern Quebec.”

The clash of freezing temperatures and a warm front climbing from the Gulf of Mexico created an overlapping storm system with moist, warm air dropping rain, passing through freezing air underneath and creating an icy winter disaster.

Inches of ice accumulation bent trees, snapped power poles, and created town-wide ice rinks in the Champlain Islands. The storm dragged on for five days. It would take upwards of nine days for the northern parts of the islands to see the power come back.

“I’ve been through a lot of snow storms, floods, and that is the one that really sticks out to me,” Sadowsky said.

The storm changed the way utilities prepare for major storms. They now monitor forecasts well in advance, calling in ample crews and positioning them proactively. “Helping restore these outages faster and help people avoid outages alltogether,” said Green Mountain Power’s Kristin Carlson.

She points to increasingly severe storms and at a higher frequency and says new technology including Powerwalls, underground lines, micro-grids, and car-to-grid technology make the state more reilient. “Those innovations that we have been working to delivering to customers have worked, and now we need to do more of it,” Carlson said.

Back in the Champlain Islands, Shawn Juaire says what stood out most in the storm was not the destruction but how the community lifted itself up afterward. “Just the community people coming together and taking care of each other,” Juaire said.

He is confident if a similar ice storm returned, the state could handle it.