The week I almost froze to death

<strong>The Way I See It</strong> Jason Hawk, editor

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor

The thermometer reads 13 degrees as I write this, and the wind chill makes it feel like -1 outside.

The holiday break has been extended by the extreme cold all across Lorain County. No one is sledding or building snowmen — the freezing temps are simply too punishing.

Not to revel in one-upmanship, but the truth is I’ve lived through — and came close to perishing in — far worse winter weather.

For me, this is the 20th anniversary of the Great Ice Storm of 1998 in Upstate New York, when dying in a frozen tomb was a very real fear. Those memories don’t melt.

Polar winds swept down over the marshy flats of lower Canada on Jan. 4, raining a torrent of crystal destruction down over my home in Malone, a town of about 30,000 located between Montreal and the Adirondacks. For the next six days, wet Great Lakes air drizzled despair over the region, held in place by a high pressure system instead of moving up the St. Lawrence Valley as such storms usually would.

Everything from Ottawa in Ontario across the lowlands of Quebec to Burlington in Vermont was encased in solid ice. Three inches may not seem like much, but it was enough to freeze doors shut, to snap power lines like thread, and to cause utility poles to literally explode with a sound like a shotgun blast. Roads were closed. Snowshoes and snowmobiles became the only reliable methods of transportation — assuming you could get out of your house. Gas stations ran dry. Grocery store shelves grew empty and panic set in.

Literally millions of trees were crushed under the weight of the ice. Many fell, smashing cars and roofs. High-tension towers buckled and snapped, screeching in protest as they bent over.

Millions of people went for weeks without power. My family sealed up our house and moved into the basement, where a gas stove could be used for emergency heat. Blankets went over windows, sleeping bags rolled out, we wore snowsuits around the clock, and we huddled around the emergency radio listening for word the National Guard was on its way.

Our food supply started to dwindle and cabin fever set in. After a week without showers and living by candlelight, my father made a decision: It was time to evacuate.

Chipping away at the ice around the basement door, we tunneled out through a four-foot drift of snow and escaped to our Chevy Suburban. Snow chains and luck got us five miles down the road to Lake Titus, where close family friends had a summer retreat. “Use it anytime,” the snowbirds had said, and if ever there was a time it was January 1998. For another 10 days we survived by the heat of the camp’s wood-burning stove, bottled water reserves, and canned winter storm rations.

Slowly, an army of engineers and technicians restored power to the mountainous town and the outlying villages of rural Franklin County. Damage through the region was estimated at between $3 and $5 billion and the effects were felt for years.

But the true cost of the Great Ice Storm were the 40 lives it took through hypothermia, electrocution, and carbon monoxide poisoning from improperly vented generators. Thousands more flooded emergency rooms, injured in falls, chainsaw accidents, and burns.

Yes, Northeast Ohio’s weather can be a fickle and biting animal. But in my 15 years living here, I’m happy to say I’ve never once had to wonder whether my family would be killed by a wrathful Jack Frost. These past few years, despite a few brief blizzards, have been kinder, gentler winters, and I hope that never changes.

The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor

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