In January 1998, a massive ice storm knocked out power in parts of northern New York, New England, and eastern Canada. Host Steve Curwood talks with Steven Doheny-Farina, a resident of Potsdam, New York, and author of the book The Grid and the Village: Losing Electricity, Finding Community, Surviving Disaster.
CURWOOD: For people in northern New England, New York, and eastern Canada, the ice storm of 1998 is still a vivid memory. Pounding rain and frigid temperatures created conditions that cut off communications and shut off electric power for days, in some cases weeks, in many places along the northern tier. One such community was Stephen Doheny-Farina's hometown, Potsdam, New York. Welcome sir!
DOHENY-FARINA: Thank you.
CURWOOD: The cover of your book is certainly something else. Can you tell us about it, please?
DOHENY-FARINA: Well, it's a photo taken at some point during the disaster, the ice storm of 1998. And what we're looking at is, oh, in this picture, three completely crumpled, huge power distribution towers, the kinds of things you see in the distance, hundreds of feet high. And we can see two gentlemen standing in front of a row of crumpled towers. You look at this and you know that something is seriously wrong.
CURWOOD: Suddenly those towers look like a child's erector set, and that somebody has sat on them.
DOHENY-FARINA: Yeah, it's amazing. This was ice that did this, and yet they seem so fragile when you look at the picture. You know, so strong when you look across the horizon and see them, and so fragile when something as simple as ice coated them.
CURWOOD: Okay. So let's go back now to January of 1998. The ice storm was bigger than anyone had expected. But how was it so devastating? What happened?
DOHENY-FARINA: Well, it all happened very slowly, and it just started raining. A huge storm came up the eastern seaboard. But what happened was there was cold air that just wouldn't budge, and it was this large tongue of cold air that cut across eastern Canada and into northern New England and northern New York. And for five days it rained. In the end, I think we're talking about roughly four inches of ice coating everything, a little more in some places.
CURWOOD: What was it like to be in this storm? How did you know that it was more serious than your average winter squall?
DOHENY-FARINA: Well, that was just the thing. No one knew that. I'll tell you the moment. The moment when suddenly something seemed more serious was when I woke up, my wife woke up, saying, "Ah, there's no power. Huh. It should be on soon. We'll just have to sit tight here. Let me turn the radio on. Let's hear what the status is." And there are no radio stations. I mean, nothing, not a sound, up and down the dial. And this just doesn't happen. And the power always comes back on. Well, it just didn't come back on. For, I think, at least a day or two, many of us figured, "Well, the power will just be back on soon," because we were suddenly so isolated. So it was a gradual – but there were moments when suddenly we thought maybe this was bigger than we realized.
CURWOOD: Radio – what was the role of radio in all of this?
DOHENY-FARINA: It was kind of an interesting combination of commercial and public. The commercial stations sort of became more like public stations. They rarely ran any ads, and when they did they just seemed strangely – they would apologize on air. "Sorry, we have to run this ad." But they just seemed totally out of place, and they didn't do much of it.
The public stations, they were doing commercial things. Like, you know, after a few days, you know, "There's a load of kerosene arriving at so and so station," you know. In other words, they were promoting things to buy in the community. And it was this kind of middle ground that had developed. They ended up sort of telling the story, and it was our story. People were calling in and telling what's happening, and that was one of the main sources of news, was people in the community calling the station and reporting. It was intensely local, and in a way that just doesn't happen in any other situation.
CURWOOD: The title of your book is “The Grid and the Village,” and I'm wondering, when did your small town become a village during this disaster, and what's the difference?
DOHENY-FARINA: Well, I have to say that I think if you asked people before the ice storm, you know, "What's the status of the community here," you know? “Are people interdependent?” Well, oh, you know, somewhat. But no more than anywhere else. We can pretty much live without knowing our neighbors. I mean, that's the common status of the nation. But the ice storm really revealed to us a vibrant network of community ties that I think most people had thought maybe had withered away over time. But it was still there. And it was energized as the power grid became de-energized.
CURWOOD: Share with us the image that sticks with you from this ice storm.
DOHENY-FARINA: Well, one indelible image was the night that my family and my neighbors and I, after a number of days, made it to a shelter to eat. And I had this moment, sitting in this large cafeteria-like area, and looking around, and everyone was talking with everyone else, whether you knew them or not. We were all bound by the same absolute necessity, and all pretense of individuality was lost. There was just constant conversation: "How are you doing?" "What do you have?" "How are you surviving?" "Where are you?" "Have you heard anything?" "Do you know anything?" "What's happening out there?" It was a very powerful moment for me.
CURWOOD: Once the storm had passed and the power was back on, one of the women you chronicle in your book, you quote as saying, "I wish I could do it again, because now I've got a dress rehearsal." What do you think she meant by this?
DOHENY-FARINA: Well, you know, that points to the real conflict in this whole thing. I was so unsettled afterwards, you know. At one point, I write about a couple days after I had power. And, you know, now I have to go back to my pre-storm life. And I was tremendously let down by that in a strange way. I didn't want to live without power, but why was I so unsettled? This happened with person after person. The power went out suddenly – and it was only for a brief time – but suddenly I was energized again. You know, "Wow. Let me get a hold of my neighbors again."
People – the woman you referred to and others – they had this tremendous sense of purpose, and they felt tremendously tied to people around them, and now they didn't. And while you don't want to live in a 40 degree house without a bathroom and lights, something was lost when the power came back on that was very powerful during it.
CURWOOD: Stephen Doheny-Farina is a professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and author of the book, “The Grid and the Village: Losing Electricity, Finding Community, Surviving Disaster.” Thanks so much for talking with me today.
DOHENY-FARINA: Thank you very much for having me.
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