Joe Purington’s first challenge in helping to get power restored during the Ice Storm of 1998 was getting into his car. He remembers waking before dawn and needing a hammer to chip away at his Jeep Cherokee, encased in ice, so he could open the door.

Finally on the road from his home in Winthrop to Central Maine Power’s headquarters in Augusta, Purington could see that this storm was different. Typical storms drop branches and trees onto power lines. What he noticed were broken poles and cross arms everywhere, collapsed under the sheer weight of the ice. It was at once terrifying and beautiful.

“When I looked at the scenery, when the sun was rising, it was almost magical,” he recalled.

Purington was a substation manager back then. Today, he’s CMP’s president and chief executive.

Today, the infrastructure that makes up distribution and transmission systems at Maine’s largest utility are becoming more robust, engineered to handle worsening weather. That’s one legacy of the ice storm, but it’s an ongoing and costly process.

While the Ice Storm of 1998 was a seminal event, extreme weather conditions are becoming more common in a warming world, spawning more heavy wet snow and strong wind gusts. That reality was underscored late last month with back-to-back snow and wind storms that cut off power to hundreds of thousands of homes.


As the climate changes, ice storm conditions also are becoming more frequent. While the severity of the historic 1998 storm was the result of an unusual combination of factors, it’s something Purington wants to be ready for.

“We could have a storm like that again, without question,” Purington said of the 1998 event. “The difference is how we prepare and plan for it.”

Central Maine Power President Joseph Purington at the CMP garage in Augusta in December.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Today, Maine utilities get better weather forecasts. They have formal protocols for staging crews when storms threaten, including more out-of-state workers called up through mutual aid pacts.

Utilities have better communications with emergency management agencies. They can help inform customers via text alerts and online outage maps.

And utilities now have set requirements for how to perform scheduled tree trimming, although there are calls for even more-aggressive pruning to help keep branches off wires. It’s a top priority in a state that’s more than 90% forested. At the same time, stouter poles, coated wires that resist damage and redundant circuits that limit the number of outages when trees do fall are replacing older infrastructure.

These measures cost money. There’s constant tension in finding a balance between hardening the grid, and the impact on already-high electric bills.


But even now, extreme weather can cause widespread outages, as much of the state was reminded at the end of December.

A two-day storm that hit Maine roughly a week before Christmas buried some inland areas under more than 2 feet of heavy, wet snow that toppled trees and utility lines. At its peak, more than 122,000 CMP customers were without power. It took five days to get everyone back, even with 1,700 workers who came from as far away as Pennsylvania and New York.

A second powerful storm barreled across the country and brought torrential rain and hurricane-force winds to Maine on Dec. 23, knocking out power to more than 300,000 CMP customers. Many were without power for days over the holiday weekend. The restoration effort, which lasted through Christmas Eve and Christmas, included resetting more than 300 broken utility poles.


The Ice Storm of 1998 was one of Maine’s greatest natural disasters. More than half of the state’s population was plunged into darkness; it took CMP 23 days to restore power to the last home. All 16 counties were declared federal disaster areas. In total, the storm cost the state $320 million – more than $584 million today – and resulted in eight deaths.



Weather forecasters knew a storm was coming, and warned Mainers to prepare for ice. But the unprecedented impact was linked to three days of steady, light rain falling on frigid surfaces, starting Jan. 5. Sometimes described as a slow-moving disaster, it coated the state with a layer of ice up to 3 inches thick.

A total of 340,000 CMP customers lost power, some more than once as newly formed ice took out more of the system. The company replaced 2,600 poles, 4,000 cross arms and strung 2 million feet of new wire.

Dennis Marrotte, a substations general technician from CMP, walks toward a house on Route 302 in Westbrook to do a storm assessment before repairs are made to broken power lines after the Ice Storm of 1998. Jack Milton/Press Herald

At Bangor Hydro, the utility now called Versant Power that serves eastern and northern Maine, 105,000 customers lost power. Full restoration took 12 days, although all repairs took almost a month, including resetting 429 poles. It took 29 days to rebuild a major transmission line connecting parts of Hancock County, using a generator from the National Guard.

Mainers tend to think of the event as “their” ice storm. But the impact was severe over a wide area stretching from Ontario and Quebec through upstate New York to New Brunswick. It killed 35 people and injured 1,000 in Canada, according to the CBC, and left 3.5 million Quebecers in the dark. The government called up 15,000 troops to help, the largest peacetime deployment in Canadian history.

In the United States, the National Weather Service dubbed it the Great Ice Storm of 1998. Weather Underground ranked it first in a list of top 10 ice storms to hit the country.



After arriving at CMP’s headquarters, Purington was assigned to drive ahead of line crews with circuit maps to assess damage. A major challenge was resetting the fuses on utility poles that had tripped when trees fell on lines, or opening them so workers could safely make repairs in the area. Those cutouts, as they are called, are controlled manually by a lineworker with a telescoping stick.

But all the cutouts were clad in thick ice. Workers needed to go up in bucket trucks and whack them with pliers to access the switch. Today, the system is being enhanced with solid state “reclosers,” switches that have components protected inside the unit. They can be operated remotely and can reroute power to reduce the impact on a circuit.

In 1998, CMP initially had 25 crews on call from other areas. During the second storm last month, the company deployed field workers from 20 other states, as well as New Brunswick and Quebec. Of the 637 contractor crews that helped restore power for CMP, only 70 were based in the state.

Many stayed in motels around the service area prior to the storm, potentially cutting days off full restoration.

A Central Maine Power lineman works to remove a limb from an icy power line in Augusta on Jan. 8, 1998. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

CMP and Versant Power, which serves northern and eastern Maine, are members of the North Atlantic Mutual Assistance Group, made up of 21 utilities in 31 states and four Canadian provinces. They have developed formal processes and protocols for helping each other when major outages threaten.

That call-up is driven by weather forecasts. CMP contracts with three private meteorologists who provide daily forecasts, including wind speed and ice accumulation models. The forecasts, and past experience, help shape a detailed emergency response plan. It assembles resources based on how severe the event is expected to be.



In an outage, customers want to know when the lights will go back on. Communicating with customers was more challenging 25 years ago, when the internet was young and not everyone had a cellphone.

Clark Irwin, who worked in a four-person public affairs department at the time, remembers long days in Augusta on the phone talking to news media and customers who were shunted to his team. Some callers had heard rumors that CMP was somehow re-routing power to other areas, and bypassing their roads.

“Those customer calls,” Irwin said, “often involved people understandably upset that they were still without power, and often could see lights on nearby. … Many of these customers were frustrated and angry – sometimes desperate because their cold homes had small children or elderly residents – so these phone conversations did not always go well.”

For people who couldn’t watch television or get a newspaper delivered, radio became a powerful tool. If people had battery-powered radios or access to their cars, they could get information.

Irwin’s home lost power for 10 days. His family burned scrap wood and broken tree branches to stay warm and keep the pipes from freezing.


Communicating with customers is easier today than in 1998, with street-by-street outage details and restoration time estimates available online and through a mobile app.

Central Maine Power President David Flanagan discusses the ice storm on Jan. 22, 1998. More than 200,000 homes lost power during the storm, 41% of CMP’s customers. Gordon Chibroski/Press Herald

But the ice storm also illustrated the value of top leadership speaking directly to customers, a technique used with great success by David Flanagan, who had Purington’s job in 1998. A couple of days after Mainers awoke in cold, dark homes, radio stations began running ads featuring Flanagan.

“If we work together and look out for each other,” he told anyone who could hear him, “we’ll get through this.” Flanagan, who died in 2021, was credited with conveying the image of chief executive as a hands-on problem solver.

Mark Ishkanian, who worked in CMP’s public affairs office, recalls that this was a sustained effort throughout the long restoration period. But as is still the case with any prolonged outage, it was a challenge. He remembers going with Flanagan to meet some lineworkers around day 19 of the outage.

“We went out to the Norway area,” Ishkanian recalled, “talked with some crew members and then were accosted by a couple of customers whose patience was exhausted. When they realized it was the CEO they were talking to, their tone changed somewhat, but they were still frustrated to be without power. David listened to their complaints and assured them we would redouble our efforts to get them online soon.”

Another facet of the public relations drive was reviving media ads from a safety awareness campaign launched a few years earlier. It featured a burly lineworker who grew up on the Maine coast, Jim Wright, warning customers in his Down East accent, “No line is safe to touch, ever!”


Newspaper ads showing CMP lineworkers and ice-coated trees reinforced that marketing message by modifying what had become a catchphrase of the era: “Now more than ever, remember that no line is safe to touch.”

The slogan was so ingrained in Maine’s popular culture at the time that it resonated when Vice President Al Gore came to Maine to view the disaster and announce federal relief efforts. Visiting a restoration site in Auburn, Gore was photographed holding a utility wire, and moving it out of the way.

Vice President Al Gore and Auburn Assistant City Administrator Mark Adams grab a power line while inspecting the damage from the storm. Gore promised $28 million in relief during his Jan. 10 visit to Maine. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Wright, now a construction manager in CMP’s high-voltage division, said he saw the photo in a newspaper the following day.

“I chuckled about it,” he said. “But customers I met in the field and coworkers would say, ‘Jim, you have to go talk to Al Gore. He didn’t see your ads.’ ”


For all the lessons learned in Maine, the storm left an even bigger legacy in Quebec.


Rain fell there for five days, plunging downtown Montreal into darkness, taking down 24,000 poles and 900 steel towers. For Hydro-Quebec, the provincial power company, it was a wake-up call for the growing impacts of climate change.

“Hydro-Quebec,” the utility notes on its website, “now performs twice as many interventions due to climate change because more frequent episodes of wet snow, freezing rain and strong winds increase the risk of falling trees or branches on power lines.”

As in Maine, Quebec is installing stronger poles and wires along its street-side distribution system and trimming more trees. But a parallel lesson was to harden the transmission system, essentially the interstate highway of any electric grid. The storm was so severe that giant towers weighed down by ice collapsed and pulled down their neighbors, an event called cascading.

Today, every 10th tower is hardened to prevent cascading. Lines are made to withstand ice coatings up to 4 inches. Redundant routes have been established around Montreal, so power can be fed from other areas.

Anticipating more ice as the climate warms, Hydro-Quebec has developed a real-time icing event management system that includes remote sensors and alarms. It built a remotely operated, truck-mounted de-icing vehicle that can blast steam at a frozen substation.

The lessons weren’t lost on Maine, where transmission corridors are being strengthened with steel monopoles that resist ice build-up better than old-style lattice towers. Existing H-frame wooden structures that feature two poles connected by a horizontal piece are being upgraded with X braces.

“I think the transmission system is way more sturdy,” said Lisa Martin, a Versant Power manager who formerly worked in transmission development at the company.

Part of that strategy includes tying together nearby transmission routes to create a system in which power can be shunted from another line to restore service, something the company has been working on in the Orono-Old Town area.

“If you can switch the system around and feed customers a different way, it creates more of a looped system, rather than a radial system,” Martin said. “Having redundancy at the transmission level, that’s the key.”

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