Memories — and the Bates trees — come back five years after the great January ice storm
Story by H. Jay Burns, Photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen
Film critic Roger Ebert, writing about the movie The Ice Storm, a tale of morally uncomfortable families in upper-middle class Connecticut in the 1970s, calls the icy backdrop “a shroud of impending doom.”
Anyone who experienced the great January ice storm five years ago would agree with Ebert’s analysis.
As tree limbs crashed down on the Quad at the height of the storm, Bates arborist Bill Bergevin felt helpless. “You just wanted to yell out, ‘Stop!’” he remembers. “But you knew it wouldn’t help.”
The freezing rain began on Tuesday, Jan. 6, and ended late on Friday, Jan. 9. The National Weather Service office in nearby Gray recorded about 2.5 inches of rain during the event, much of which froze on trees like transparent coats of armor.
Nearly six out of every 10 Maine residents lost electrical power during the storm, and while the main Quad lost power and phone service for just Thursday and Friday, some Bates employees who lived in surrounding communities went weeks without power. Even just off campus, homes were without power for a week. Psychology professor John Kelsey, just two blocks from campus on Pettengill Street, had no electricity for eight days. “After six days, the pipes burst and the house was flooded,” he remembers. Still, this psych researcher had his work priorities in order: “My major concern at Bates was getting warmth to our rats in Carnegie.”
For faculty and staff without power, the campus became a beacon of normalcy. “Coming to Bates and its light and warmth was a welcome relief,” Kelsey says.
Prior to 1998, Bates had no policy for closing due to weather emergencies. That was a fanciful tradition reflecting the notion that residential colleges simply don’t close their doors. Everyone had heard the tall tales, like the one about Prexy Phillips snowshoeing from the President’s House to his office in Roger Bill.
So, classes were held throughout the ice storm and its aftermath, and Bates’ 800 faculty and staff did what they could to get to work. One day, Elaine Freeman, now retired as associate director of physical plant, stopped to offer a ride to Lorraine Brochu of dining services. En route to work, Brochu was struggling across icy Pettengill Street – on her hands and knees.
“It was too boring to stay home. No power, no lights, no nothing” dining service worker Chase Pray of Greene said at the time. “And I’m not one to stay still too long.”
Pray, a devoted runner, donned thermal polypropylene, Lycra tights, and spiked cross-country running flats and ran to work, covering nine miles of nearly impassable roads in an hour and 20 minutes.
“Work became a very real and crucial support to us,” remembers Peter Fackler, treasurer and vice president for asset management. “We commiserated, shared, and suffered together even as we battled on our own to keep life going at home and do the work necessary to keep the College functioning as well.”
(After the ice storm, the ideal of an always-open college shattered, Bates would create a Senior Emergency Response Group, an assembly of College officials that consults official policy in the event of weather and other emergencies. The new policy gives professors the discretion to cancel a class during a weather emergency and includes provisions for closing administrative offices during a weather emergency.)
On Thursday morning of the storm, Jan. 8, students, as well as faculty and staff without power in their homes, arrived for breakfast in powerless Commons. Was cold cereal on the menu? A bit of hardtack, perhaps? Hardly. Then-Director of Dining Services Bob Volpi and his staff broke out five 12-inch by 12-inch propane hot plates and cooked 2,000 two-egg omelets to order. Volpi welcomed all ice-storm sufferers back to Commons as long at they were without power.
In the following days, a faculty group exiled from cold houses (some just across the street from campus) gathered for meals in Commons. Misery loves company, and the group enjoyed a spirited sense of comradeship. But soon, their numbers dwindled as power was restored. Each time the news spread (“He got power back!”), a pang ran through those left behind. “Pure envy,” remembers biologist Sharon Kinsman, who spent a couple nights sleeping in her office.
In darkened Canham House, history professor Michael Jones welcomed his students for an apropos discussion of the decline of the Roman Empire. Holding the lantern up to the blackboard, Jones said he “felt like Diogenes.”
In the English department, Rob Farnsworth (13 and a half days without power) gained insight into Wordsworth’s poetry that you can’t find in Cliffs Notes. Staying with friends after he and his family fled their cold home, he lived and taught out of a small bag for two weeks. “About a week into this disorienting and disheveling experience, I was discussing with my Romantic poetry class Wordsworth’s early poems about mendicants and mad people, and it dawned on me: I had become the old Cumberland beggar.”
Farnsworth, reduced to feeling like Wordsworth’s hunched drifter (“Bow-bent, his eyes for ever on the ground, / He plies his weary journey…”), wasn’t the only person reflecting on his altered state of being, not to mention feeling a growing sense that anyone who preached asceticism could take the concept and, well, shove it.
Seated at his fireplace, Dean of the College Jim Carignan ’61 tried reading Ben Franklin by candlelight. He not only wondered whether anything productive could be done in those circumstances, but “I began to think that perhaps all of the history of the world before electricity and central heating was a fabrication.”
In nearby South Paris, 25 trees fell across the driveway of Dyk Eusden ’80, associate professor of geology. The National Guard and neighbors helped clear the debris, and as Eusden got familiar with hundreds of snapped trunks and limbs, an idea flashed in his mind – brittle deformation! Not as poetic as Eureka! but Eusden noticed how the shattered wood illustrated a geologic concept describing how the earth’s crust fractures. “I now have about three chainsawed tree trunks from the ice storm that I use every year in my classes to demonstrate brittle deformation,” Eusden says. “I cut them so each has a right angle bend preserved with lots of splintered wood.”
The grimmest looking person on campus during the ice storm had to be Bergevin, caretaker of Bates flora, who could be seen striding across the limb-strewn Quad during the worst of it Thursday and Friday, when 1.8 inches of freezing rain fell on top of Wednesday’s half-inch. With ax in hand and an expression of foreboding, he wasn’t far removed from a casting call for The Shining. Limbs just kept on falling and falling and falling,” he remembers. “At night, you heard the snapping, crashing, banging of limbs. You expect a storm to go at night and then end. But the length of this storm was overwhelming.”
Though the inconvenience of no power drove people batty in the days and weeks after the storm, the destruction of trees was the really hurtful part of the storm’s one-two punch. Speaking to The Boston Globe, a Mount Vernon resident noted that the storm toppled a half-dozen maples and willows outside her 200-year-old house. “It makes me so sad,” she said. “Those trees were half the reason I fell in love with this place.” At Bates, nearly 150 years after Oren Cheney and Johnny Stanton began planting trees on what was then a barren Quad, Bergevin had an apocalyptic vision: “I just felt there would be absolutely nothing left of our trees.”
Like any major weather phenomenon, extreme factors combined to create the epic event. In January 1998, an unusually strong fetch of tropical moisture sliced into very cold air. The result was a warm-air sandwich in the atmosphere, says Colin Marquis ’92, former on-air meteorologist for the Weather Channel, now forecasting for Weather Services International in the Boston area (the company that produces the Intellicast Web site).
“In an ice storm, it’s below freezing at the surface and way up high in the atmosphere,” Marquis explains. “But in the middle, several thousand feet up, there’s an intrusion of above-freezing air.”
Meteorologists and weather buffs tend to get giddy at the prospect of meteorological mayhem, but the prospect of an ice storm, even an awesome ice display like 1998, leaves even them cold. There’s no such thing as an ice storm hunter, and people don’t drive around the Midwest looking for an ice storm like the adrenalin junkies you see on the Discovery Channel.
Compared to ice storms, northeasters are far more thrilling. Tornadoes can transport Dorothy to a magical land, and hurricanes spawn parties and incite meteorologists to linger over satellite images, speaking lovingly of outflow patterns and eye walls. Even the Weather Channel, which likes to name every weather event, could only come up with “Southeast Mess” to describe a recent December ice storm.
Marquis, a New England native, got hooked on weather during the great Blizzard of ’78. He suggests the lack of excitement is because an ice storm is often “a transient thing” between rain and snow. An ice storm doesn’t fit the category of “wild weather” that captivates a meteorologist’s imagination. An ice storm is an imperfect storm, one that can’t decide its identity – snow or rainstorm. “You kind of have to put an asterisk next to any ice storm,” says Marquis. “Meteorologists go crazy over the power of atmosphere. That’s not what an ice storm is about.”
Back in 1998, the sun reappeared on Saturday, Jan. 11, and Bergevin’s gloom lifted a bit. “It stopped, and you looked and saw that the trees were still there,” he said. “It was amazing that they had survived.” Limbs littered the Quad, and the treetops looked like a very large, very dull scythe had whacked them all. Well into the following weeks cherry pickers from Whitney Tree Service roamed the Quad. Every jagged break on every tree had to be trimmed back to solid wood.
Even then, the prognosis wasn’t good.
“Some of the guys from the tree company thought the shock to the damaged trees would be too great, that they would just continue to go downhill and die,” Bergevin remembers. “Spring came, and you held your breath and hoped for the best. And it came.”
The trees rebounded (though observers remember Commencement 1998 being the lightest and brightest in memory, fewer limbs offering few shade leaves). To Bergevin’s surprise, the mature trees have even sprouted new growth in recent years. The maple between Hathorn and Dana Chemistry, for example, took a beating in the storm and afterwards looked like a gaunt, shell-shocked war veteran. But even this tree shows new growth (see below).
“You feel sort of sorry for it, the way it just sits there,” Bergevin says on a windy November morning, gazing up at the maple from a sunny spot near Hathorn. “Why it puts out new growth is beyond me, but it just wanted to live. So you have to respect it. You have to let it stay.”
Still, reminders of the ice storm lurk around campus, startling anyone who, as Bergevin says, hopes the storm was “one of those once-in-a-lifetime events.” Last summer, a few apparently healthy limbs fell from campus trees. “I said to myself, ‘What the heck?’” Bergevin recalls. He examined them and realized each had been cracked by the ice storm, but not enough to bring them down in 1998. After several years of new growth and new leaves, the added weight finally doomed the injured limb. “I’m sure we’ll find a few others over the next few years that will do the same thing.”
Tip O’Neill said that all politics is local, and that seems to go for natural disasters too. Someone able to take a morning shower and spin the thermostat up to 72 can’t appreciate the suffering taking place a few hundred miles away where there’s another person tempted to rip off cabinet doors to heat the house.
So it was during the ice storm, as Bates hobbled along. On Friday morning, Admissions staffers Adam Garcia ’92 and Dean Jacoby ’93 arrived at Lindholm House, which was cold and dark like the rest of Bates, the rest of Maine and most of Quebec. They lived nearby on Webster Street, so it was an easy walk, but many of their colleagues lived in ice-torn hinterlands.
“We were the only ones to show up,” Jacoby says. He and Garcia got some sweaters, broke out a cribbage board, and began to enjoy a rare quiet day in Admissions.
But not for long, as cars bearing Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts plates began arriving outside. Though Maine Gov. Angus King had declared a state of emergency, that news was lost on parents from away who were determined to keep their children’s interview appointments.
“People started pouring in,” Jacoby says, “and they all wanted to know what was going on, why the lights were out, how it looked like we were closed.”
One family was upset there were no tours. At the time, there were signs posted all around the campus: “DANGER FALLING LIMBS. DO NOT USE MAIN QUAD.”
“So the day,” Jacoby remembers, “just went on.”
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Tags: January 1998 ice storm.