Cleaning Up After 1991 Ice Storm Wreaked Havoc on Rochester

Rochester was hit with a devastating ice storm 25 years ago, the largest natural disaster in recent memory. Twelve counties across the region were declared federal disaster areas. Time Warner Cable News reporter Mike Hedeen focuses on the clean up in part two of his in-depth look back at the 1991 ice storm.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- When people woke up Monday morning March 4, 1991, they were greeted with up to two inches of ice. It was a gorgeous setting with trees and landscapes resembling a picture postcard. Behind all that beauty was more than $375 million worth of damage, most of it to trees and power lines.  

Rochester Gas and Electric estimated the storm took down nearly 60 percent of its distribution lines that took 100 years to build.  

"We couldn't give people restoration times because you'd fix something someplace, power would come back on, and a tree limb would come down someplace else. It was a long, drawn out process," said Rick Meier, RG&E spokesperson.

About 80 percent of the area lost power. More than half of those were back on line within six days. However, for others, it was nearly two weeks before their power was restored. That frustrated customers, city and county leaders. RG&E believes it did a remarkable job considering some of the obstacles line crews faced.

"A lot of the old neighborhoods have backyard services so you couldn't take a line truck back there. You had to wheel things back by hand, you had to dig things out by hand or use augers to dig the holes, put the poles in, climb the pole, restring the wire and we strung over a million feet of new distribution line," said Meier.

Public works crews from the city and surrounding towns tackled the massive job of cleaning up. There were trees and branches blocking roadways, on top of cars and on houses. The first priority was opening streets.    

"Just get in and do whatever we can do with the equipment that we had. Get the roads open. Our biggest concern was emergency vehicles. We wanted access to every citizen and if there was an emergency," said Albert Marrapese with the City of Rochester environmental services.

Maintenance crews worked 16-hour days. The clean up lasted a couple of months and also affected other services.

"The brush never stopped coming until June. I think there was still brush coming out because a lot of people couldn't get to their backyards until later on in the spring. For us, garbage and recycling backed up. Recycling was canceled for two weeks during that storm. That amount of recycling to come back out and garbage was canceled for a week. So there was a lot of stuff everywhere," said Tom Belknap, city of Rochester Environment Services.

In the city of Rochester alone, more than 14,000 trees were destroyed by the ice storm and it took more than four years to replace them.

The city ended up planting more trees than it lost. It also selected species that would do well in urban environments and ensured each street would be lined with a wide variety of trees. The city received federal funds for the reforestation project allowing it to create a digital tree inventory.

"If you lived in a particular place in the city, you could call forestry, even now, and say I live at blank blank and I'd like to know what tree is in front of my house, what is its condition and that allows for a significant management of the urban forest that we didn't have before the ice storm," said Tom Argust, former city of Rochester parks director.

Government leaders and utility companies say the ice storm was a major learning experience. They believe they're now better equipped to handle a natural disaster because of what we experienced in March of 1991.

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