The Ice and Snow Storm of 1998
The Storm of the Century
This story comes from the front page of the Mar. 17, 1998, issue of the Lowell Tribune:
Last Blast of Winter Paralyzes South County
Just on the brink of one of the mildest winters ever in Northwest Indiana, Mother Nature snuck up on the region with one of the worst late-snow storms in recent memory on Mon., Mar. 9.
The storm started early Monday morning, when a steady rainfall that had started a day earlier turned to snow. Whiteout conditions quickly made driving impossible as the heavy snowfall was accompanied by wind gusts of 50 miles per hour and higher. Also, the wet roads turned icy, with falling snow on top of the ice, exacerbating the treacherous conditions for motorists.
As the storm continued dumping as much as a foot of snow in Northwest Indiana, with south Lake County one of the areas hardest hit, utility poles were toppled in the wind and icy power lines snapped throughout the area, plunging as many as 135,000 homes and businesses into darkness.
Workers who had arrived safely at their jobs early Monday, when north-south roads were still passable, found themselves stranded at their offices and stores, in some cases, while others quickly departed for home as businesses were forced to close.
Area schools had already cancelled classes for Monday as the storm hit in the early morning hours, not realizing at the time that an entire week would be lost due to the impassable roads and power outages that extended for days.
Most activity in Northwest Indiana communities came to a halt by Monday afternoon as families tried to cope with dropping temperatures in their unheated homes, the lack of refrigeration, lighting and fresh water. Many people gathered at the homes of neighbors or relatives who cranked up their generators, lit fireplaces and fueled space heaters with kerosene to keep warm throughout the night.
Also by late Monday, warming shelters were being set up by the American Red Cross, the Indiana State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), local towns and fire and police departments, which emergency transportation service offered to bring stranded citizens to the shelters. On the highways, there were no serious accidents reported, but many vehicles slid off the road or became involved in minor accidents, forcing motorists to stay huddled in their cars or abandon them to seek refuge.
The Indiana State Police set up a command post at the Lowell District Post, and the Indiana National Guard was called in to help transport stranded motorists to shelters and supply them with cots, blankets, food and emergency workers.
Tues., Mar. 10, was spent coping with the storm's aftermath, including hundreds of downed utility poles and a like number of downed trees and branches, some falling onto houses and cars, others blocking driveways. There was little or no commercial activity in south Lake County on Tuesday, while motorists were urged to stay off the roads and snowplows tried to clear a path where they could, hampered by abandoned vehicles stuck in the snow.
By Wednesday morning, Mar. 11, businesses started to reopen as employees were able to dig out and power was restored. But a mid-morning snow squall that passed thru the area again, this time concentrating on eastern Lake County and Porter County, served as a warning that Mother Nature was still in control. Many of the businesses that had reopened quickly closed again and sent their employees home while they could still make it, and the new snowfall again hampered repair crews and clean-up efforts.
As many as 10 Northwest Indiana counties had declared snow emergencies, and Lake, Newton, Jasper, LaPorte and St. Joseph were still operating under that status Wednesday afternoon, while the Town of Lowell had joined Hammond and Michigan City in declaring a local snow emergency.
In Lowell, the Lowell Fire Station had become the first warming shelter, and National Guard Troops tried to evacuate Apple Valley Estates residents who had gathered in the mobile home park's community center to await the restoration of services to their homes. Some agreed to leave, while others refused, said emergency rescue crews.
By mid-week, the site of the warming shelter for many motorists traveling thru the area who had been forced off I-65, had been moved to Three Creeks Elementary School in Lowell, where more people could be safely housed. Volunteers served meals, prepared by cafeteria staff, but the number of people seeking shelter dwindled as power was restored to most of the homes in the area.
In Cedar Lake, the EMS Garage was the first shelter, later replaced by the Town Hall, and again the EMS Garage before the number of people still needing shelter on Thursday were taken to the Marion Education Center adjacent to St. Anthony Medical Center in Crown Point. When the numbers dwindled to just over a dozen in Lowell, the Cedar Creek Twp. Community Center became the last warming shelter in the community, and a television set was borrowed from the nearby Town Hall to help pass the time.
"They really did do more than their jobs called for," said a grateful Millie Werner, a Cedar Lake resident who tried to remain in her home before calling for assistance when the lack of heat became too much to tolerate. "My relatives had called the police and asked them to check on me, but I finally called 911 about 2 a.m. Tuesday, and because I'm in a wheelchair, they sent the ambulance," recalled Werner.
"Everyone was so nice and helpful. It was a good thing I had my wheelchair, I guess, because I slept sitting up. We were at the ambulance base, but Wednesday they took us to the Town Hall, and several town officials stayed there all night with us. When they took me home Thursday, the ambulance crew came in and checked on the heat and everything before they left. They were really caring and I'm so thankful," she added tearfully.
By Thursday Gov. Frank O'Bannon had helicoptered over the area, and issued a statement of support for rescue efforts.
" I want you to know that your state and local governments have been pulling together to make your lives as bearable as possible," he said.
"State highway crews were out even before the storm hit, applying chemicals to prevent snow and ice from sticking to the pavement," O'Bannon continued. "And when the snow struck, the teamwork really began. State plows were clearing city streets; city plows were cleaning state roads. The snow was everywhere, and everybody worked together to deal with it."
Overland and by helicopter, O'Bannon said, extra state troopers plus National Guard personnel searched for and rescued stranded travelers.
"But it's easier to rescue people than to retrieve their cars. And as long as automobiles were clogging the roadways, plows couldn't get thru. "We can't plow thru abandoned cars and trucks anymore than we can control nature," O'Bannon explained.
We simply have to play the hand we're dealt. And that's what we've been doing and will continue to do until we can get conditions back to normal."
O'Bannon reported that more than 50 state snowplows had been deployed to the Gary Subdistrict serving Lake and Porter Counties south to State Rd. 2, while the command center at the State Police Post in Lowell had contacted all local police agencies to offer their cellular phone numbers during the power outage at the Post. The National Guard had sent out 136 personnel and 39 specialty vehicles, plus four helicopters used to search for stranded motorists, and airlift at least 1,100 meals and 600 blankets and cots to isolated shelters.
Also Thursday, SEMA reported the list of snow emergencies down to Lake and Porter Counties and the Town of Lowell, while shelters were providing refuge to just 149 people, down from a peak of 1,900. The number of homes, businesses and other electric customers without power had been reduced below 15,000.
First available at the Cedar Lake Fire Station for a fee, the water was later provided by the town at no charge to residents and the police station began accepting calls by last weekend from residents still without power, in an effort to coordinate repair work by NIPSCO in the area.
Two Cedar Lake meetings, the Town Council on Mar. 10 and the Economic Development Commission, were cancelled, with a full accounting of rescue and repair efforts expected at the next Town Council meeting at 7 p.m. Tues., Mar. 24.
Town Manager Tim Brown said the town was very appreciative of all the individuals and businesses that helped during the storm emergency with donations of time, materials, food, blankets, etc. By Friday, all major roads were passable, and residents were asked to remove snowbound vehicles from side streets so plows could get thru.
In Lowell, the southeast corner of town, including Lowell Shopping Plaza, was among the last areas to have power restored late in the week.
Crews working for Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) continued throughout last weekend to restore electric service to customers affected by severe weather. As of 3 p.m. Saturday, approximately 4,330 of NIPSCO's 400,000 electric customers were without power, including 300 in Lowell, 100 in Cedar Lake, 300 in Crown Point, 100 in DeMotte, 150 in St. John, and 38 in Hebron.
By Monday night, all NIPSCO customers, except for approximately 500 who have been contacted due to extensive transmission and distribution damage in their areas, should have power restored, the company added.
In the aftermath of the Mar. 9 snowstorm -- the worst ever experienced by the company -- approximately 135,000 NIPSCO customers in a 6,000-square-mile area were without electricty.
"I can not emphasize enough how much we appreciate the patience of our customers and the dedication of our employees," said Pat Mulchay, executive vice president and chief operating officer of NIPSCO. "This has been a very long week for out customers as well as all of us here at NIPSCO. Since Monday morning, NIPSCO has dedicated all of its resources to restoring service to customers. By Wednesday afternoon, when the roads were finally clear enough to enable access to problem areas, we brought in additional help from other areas to speed restoration. Our efforts will continue around the clock until every customer 's service is restored."
NIPSCO asks customers who still do not have power to call the utility at 1-800-4-NIPSCO (1-800-464-7726). Also customers who required repairs to their meter boxes or service connection points should contact NIPSCO to have power reconnected after an electrician repairs their electrical service entrance.
For several days, NIPSCO personnel have been phoning customers in areas struck by power outages to verify that power has been restored. If the customer is still without power, NIPSCO asks to verify the customer's address and phone number. NIPSCO is not asking customers for a Social Security number in connection with restoring service. Unfortunately, NIPSCO has received a few reports of persons claiming to be NIPSCO representatives contacting customers whose power is out and asking for a social security number as verification for service restoration purposes. NIPSCO advises customers not to give their social security number to anyone claiming it is needed to restore power.
Mulchay noted that this week's storm presented NIPSCO with extreme challenges due to a combination of factors, including heavy snowfall and hazardous or impassable road conditions that made travel difficult and hampered NIPSCO crews' efforts to reach areas that needed repairs. Extensive damage to NIPSCO's transmission and distribution system required repair before crews could even begin working in various communities; thus some customers may not have seen NIPSCO trucks in their neighborhoods until Thursday when key transmission and distribution lines brought energy back into their areas. In addition, large numbers of widely scattered or isolated incidents involving problems such as trees on wires or fallen wires require individual attention.
"Due to the weather and road conditions, we worked for 24 hours before we could even assess the scope of the damage to our system," Mulchay said. "Throughout the week, as we could reach further outlying areas of our service territory, we found the damage was more extensive than initial reports had indicated. We've had Commonwealth Edison helping us in Lake County for several days, and they have told us the damage here is far worse than it was in the Chicago area.
Hundreds of NIPSCO linemen and supporting crew members have been working since early Monday and will continue working into the night to restore power. NIPSCO has worked closely with local and state officials throughout the week to help coordinate road-clearing efforts and to find assistance for customers with special needs. Helicopters have been used to patrol electric lines, especially in areas that could not be reached by ground transportaion, to pinpoint damage.
Storm damage was not as extensive in eastern parts of the company's service territory, and restoration was completed earlier in the week in many areas; thus NIPSCO employees normally assigned to those areas have been assisting with restoration work in the hardest hit areas of northwest Indiana.
Once Northwest Indiana roads were cleared of snow, NIPSCO brought in line crews from Illinois, Michigan and other parts of Indiana thru the Utility Mutual Assistance Program and contractors. Additional resources have been brought in from Ft. Wayne and Indianapolis to help clear fallen tree limbs.
By Thursday, much of the work on key transmission and distribution lines was completed and energy could flow back into communities. Crews then were able to begin fanning out into neighborhoods to start the painstaking process of ensuring each customer's home or business was safely connected to an energized line. That work continued at least thru Monday night.
Last updated on September 28, 2005.
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