When the trees froze and fell

G. Sam Piatt

It was Feb. 19, 2003. I had come out of a four-year retirement from the Ashland Daily Independent to go back to work as a reporter for the Portsmouth Daily Times, where I had begun my 40-year journalism career in 1971.

I arrived just in time for the biggest disaster to strike the area since 1937. That was when the Ohio River continued its rampage until its muddy water overflowed the Portsmouth floodwall and immersed downtown buildings in water up to the second floors.

But this disaster probably affected more people than the flood had. We recall it as The Big Ice Storm of 2003. It began the weekend of Feb. 15-16. Snowfall followed by heavy rains followed by freezing temperatures left trees and power lines encrusted with more ice than they could bear. They came crashing to the ground, leaving thousands of homes and businesses without life-depending power – no light, no heat, no TV, no phones.

Some residents were trapped in their homes as trees groaned and snapped under the weight and fell across roads and power lines.

Mike Snyder, who lived along Milldale Road in New Boston, had to negotiate fallen trees on foot just to make it a half-mile down the once-busy road.

The Times building, on 6th Street, did not lose power. We reporters were busy in the second-floor newsroom gathering information as best we could and writing stories for the newspaper that would still go out, at least to some.

On that Nov. 19 day I took a break from my keyboard to look out the windows toward the white, ice-covered trees along the Kentucky hillside across the river.

T0wers come down

As my eyes scanned the ridgetop it struck me that something up there was missing. The communications tower of Radio Station WPAY, which had stood 660 feet tall, along with a smaller tower, were not there.

The ice building up on the metal proved to be more than the towers could bear. The smaller one crashed through the roof and part of the wall of the concrete block building housing $130,000 worth of the station’s communications gear.

The taller one fell along a ridge leading southward, narrowly missing and trapping construction workers and their equipment vehicles. The men had been busy trying to restore a power line leading from the power plant on the Greenup Dam across the hills to the city of Vanceburg.

“Thankfully, nobody was hurt,” said then Vanceburg Mayor Bill Tom Cooper. “We now have two emergencies, ours and WPAY’s.”

He said all customers on the Vanceburg electric system, which stretched as far east as the Carl Perkins Memorial Bridge at South Portsmouth, had been without power since the ice storm struck on Sunday the 16th.

The tower also held communications equipment for the Portsmouth police and fire departments. Communications were limited to a much shorter range by radio to radio.

The village of South Webster was isolated for a time as fallen trees blocked SR 140, the main road leading in and out.

Postmaster Silvia Myers said the office had been without power for most of the week. Once postal clerks worked late into the evening sorting mail in the parking lot illuminated by headlights from vehicles.

Thousands of trees were down in Shawnee State Forest. Ohio Forestry Division officials said it would probably be a year clearing trails. Plans called for harvesting most of the fallen trees. Some would be moved out by helicopter as it was difficult to get equipment into some of the hollows choked by fallen timbers.

The ice storm was far-reaching. It affected a wide swath across Kentucky from Paducah to Ashland.

Managers of area nursing homes and public housing projects asked for volunteers from homes still with power to take in residents. At my home in Sand Hill, a subdivision two miles east or South Shore, we took in two from Holly Manor – my brother-in-law, Dewey, and an elderly lady who was a friend of the family.

We just got them settled in for the cold night when the electricity went off.


G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at [email protected] or 606-932-3619.

Reach G. Sam Piatt at [email protected] or 606-932-3619.