A look back at the ice storm of 2008

On the morning of Dec. 12, 2008, people over much of New England and upstate New York woke up to a changed world. Overnight, freezing rain fell on trees, twigs, branches and utility wires, and everything was encased in silvery ice.

The ice-laden trees, branches and poles fell over roads, knocking out power and making roads impassable.

To many people it looked like a frozen war zone.

In New Hampshire, 422,000 homes lost power, the biggest outage in the state’s history. The governor declared a state of emergency and called up the National Guard to help clear access for utility workers. Schools closed all over the region. Milford, Amherst and Mont Vernon closed for six days and Wilton and Lyndeborough schools didn’t reopen until Jan. 5.

At least four deaths in the Northeast were attributed to the storm, three of them from carbon monoxide poisoning from generators used inside.

For those without generators, the outages meant no light, no heat and no water, some for nearly two weeks, and the Red Cross set up two dozen shelters in southern New Hampshire. Souhegan High School opened for people to take showers and watch family movies, and Milford Middle School offered “no school” programs, with board games, crafts, movies and sledding. Fire stations provided water, and sometimes food.

It was a storm that Chris Thompson, of Milford, can not forget.

“To this day, I have anxiety over predicted ice in the forecast,” he said. With his wife and their two young daughters, he spent the first night “huddled in our living room while tree tops fell all around us.” One tree top crushed his new car and another punctured a hole in the house’s roof.

“We had no power for nine days, and we lived like nomads, going from relative to relative, trying to find some routine. I did manage to get a generator on the eighth day of those nine and I’ve used is many times since then,” he said.

Some houses in Mont Vernon lost power for seven days. A falling branch punched out a skylight in the home of Earle and Carolyn Rich.

Earle remembers clearing neighbors’ driveways with a chainsaw.

“We weren’t too bad off, with a wood stove for heat and cooking, water for flushing from a 350 gallon hot tub and (using) neighbors’ freezers for perishables,” he said.

David Brooks, of Mont Vernon, writes the Granite Geek column for the Concord Monitor. He remembers the storm’s aftermath as “a long, cold lab in high school physics.

“It taught me how much energy it takes to cause a phase change in matter … we had no water. So I was melting snow on the wood stove. And it took absolutely forever – many, many hours, far longer than I expected – to break the molecular bonds of the solid water crystals so that they’d be liquid water.”

David Palance, in Milford, had “a monster maple come down and trapped my sheep! They were thrilled as they could finally reach the top leaves.”

Only 8-years-old in 2008, George Hoyt, of Milford, remembers traveling to his grandfather’s house in Francestown on backroads and “gazing down on the rolling hills of the great frozen abyss and thinking to myself what a lovely sight … but the sight of neighbors being neighbors again was something … never again in my life have I seen people, strangers, be so kind and willing to give anyone a helping hand.”

David Wirbal, of Wilton, remembers his normal 20-minute early morning commute to Fidelity Investments in Merrimack taking two hours on dark roads after the sound of branches crashing to the ground woke him up at 3 a.m.

“Traveling 101 was like a war zone with dozens of spinouts and accidents, he said. “Amherst Street was also totally without power.”

Janet Langdell lives in a section of Milford that seldom has power outages, so she was free to enjoy the beauty of the ice-covered landscape.

“It was “absolutely beautiful late at night – no cars on the road or sounds other than the tinkle of ice on the trees when the wind blew and everything glistening.”

But many people were shivering in their dark homes or staying with friends or relatives and they were unhappy about how long it took to have their power restored.

The number of outages was the biggest that Public Service of New Hampshire (now Eversource N.H.) had ever faced, and roads first had to be cleared before crews could begin work. Since the storm was so widespread and affected all the neighboring states, crews from Canada and South Carolina came here. More than 100 were housed and fed at Hampshire Hills Athletic Club.

Don Nourse is now manager of distribution system operations for Eversource N.H., and in 2008 he was a lineman in the Milford area . He remembers listening through the night to the ominous sound of branches and whole trees breaking and falling. He remembers working 18-19 hour days until early afternoon on Christmas day.

A lot has changed in 10 years. Now the company has four mobile command centers with their own generators “able to go to remote locations.and pull into parking lots,” Nourse said.

One reason for the enormous magnitude of the damage, he said, is that New Hampshire is so heavily forested. Some of the trees are huge and the ones that fell on roads and power lines were very difficult to get out of the way.

The utility now spends $44 million on vegetation management, said Eversource spokesman William Hinkle, compared to the $13 million it spent in 2008. Then there were 85 crews that focused on tree trimming. Now there are 150.

And in 2008 the utility had to wait for customers to call and then figure out on a paper map where to find an outage.

Now a geographic information system means they don’t have to wait for calls and customers can be told, Nourse said, through phone, text message or email, that the utility is aware of the outage, the reason for the outage and the estimated time of restoration.

The ice storm was the first time the company had used Twitter and other forms of social media. When the storm started PSNH had 100 Twitter followers and by the end of the storm it had 1,900.

“It was the beginning of company efforts to communicate with new channels and provide real time updates” and share pictures of damage and the work that is being done, Nourse said.