Ice attack leaves Vermont with a powerless feeling Freeze: Snow? No problem for residents of the Green Mountain State. Ice? That's another, more chilling story.

January 25, 1998|By Thomas H. Naylor

CHARLOTTE, Vt. -- When my family moved here four years ago to escape the urban-industrial rat race, we knew it would be cold in the Green Mountains. And cold it is. Temperatures of 20 degrees below zero, 40 mph winds from across Lake Champlain and annual snowfalls of 120 inches are not uncommon.

So accustomed are Vermonters to snow that a 10- to 12-inch snow- storm creates hardly a blip on the radar screen. Life goes on as usual. Most Vermont communities are well equipped to deal with repeated winter storms. Schools are seldom closed because of weather.

But ice - that's an entirely different story, as tens of thousands of Vermonters have learned this winter.

Five minutes after the 11 p.m. local television news began on January 7, the announcer fortuitously warned, "In the event your electricower goes out ... " Zap! The television suddenly went dead, as did our lights, our water pump, our heat and every other electrical appliance in the house. Thus began a six-day ordeal without power in the dead of winter in Vermont.

After scurrying around the house in search of candles and flashlights, we fired up the tiny wood stove in my study, which was to be our only reliable source of heat for nearly a week. Fortunately, we had just received a load of wood the week before. Previously, the stove had been used primarily for its aesthetic charm. Being completely dependent on it for our sole source of heat around the clock was quite a different experience. With outside temperatures in the teens, we had to add logs every two hours through the night just to keep the inside temperature above freezing and avoid the risk of frozen pipes.

By the next morning, northern Vermont looked like a cross between a war zone and a winter wonderland. As in the aftermath of a tornado or a hurricane, trees were either uprooted or had their tops severed, power lines and telephone lines were down everywhere, and roads and driveways were solid sheets of ice more than an inch thick. From our battery-powered radio, we learned that 20,000 homes were without power in Vermont, 30,000 in New Hampshire and 400,000 in Maine. But this was nothing compared to the devastation in Quebec, 60 miles to the north, where nearly 3 million people were without power.

In spite of state-of-the art nuclear power plants, sophisticated international electric power grids connecting the United States to Canada, computer-controlled electronic switching networks and modern high-tech communications equipment, tens of thousands of people in New England were powerless for more than a week, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians for more than two weeks. Quebec Prime Minister Lucien Brouhard reported that on the night of Jan. 8, Montreal came perilously close to a complete power blackout. Four of the five major power transmission lines serving Montreal were out of service.

All of this suggests a high price might have to be paid for our uncritical affirmation of bigness, global interdependence, universal solutions to political and economic problems, dehumanizing uniformity and standard mass production and distribution. Size, entangling economic relationships and technological complexity are not risk-free in the electric power industry or any other industry. We are far more vulnerable than the high priests of our government and corporate America would have us believe.

Responding to the crisis, Vermont's governor, Howard Dean, who wants to be president, toured Vermont with TV cameramen, had the state declared a federal disaster area, called up the National Guard and requested millions of dollars in federal aid - all in a state whose motto is "Freedom and Unity" and that takes pride in its "independence" from "big government" and "big business." Both U.S. senators quickly agreed that what Vermont needed was lots of federal assistance. Meanwhile, Vermont's legendary revolutionary folk hero Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys must have been turning over in their graves. Not unlike Hydro Quebec and the Canadian military across the border, Green Mountain Power and the National Guard couldn't seem to get the power back on in Vermont.

As my wife, Magdalena, our 10-year-old son Alexander and I sat huddled around the fire each night in the flickering candlelight, we wondered what it might have been like back in 1777 when Vermont first became an independent republic, which it remained for 14 years. There was no electric power, natural gas, heating oil or federal emergency assistance program. The Americanization of Vermont had not yet begun. The biggest threat to Vermont lay to the west of Lake Champlain - Yorkers. There were no interstate highways, shopping malls, fast-food restaurants, big box stores or consolidated high schools. How was it possible to survive without telephones, radios, television sets, fax machines, computers, the Internet or portable electric generators? We also wondered whether all of these high-tech devices have enriched our lives or made life more complex and difficult?

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