Extreme weather conditions take over the front page of daily newspapers. Three such blows by nature stick out in my mind, events which I helped cover during my 30 years of working as a news reporter for The Daily Independent in Ashland and The Daily Times in Portsmouth.
The first was in 1977, my second year of employment with the Independent. On Monday morning Jan. 17, the mercury dipped to 13 degrees below zero. It demanded a streamer headline across the top of Page One in the Independent.
The main story was written by Wickliffe R. Powell, assistant managing editor. A photo by staff photographer Phil Benton taken from the Ben Williamson Memorial Bridge showed the Ohio River frozen over from shore to shore with ice up to seven inches thick.
One of the more powerful towboats of Ashland Oil, pushing eight barges loaded with coal and fuel oil, had left a path down the middle of the river. It managed to lock through the Greenup Dam.
Lockmaster Don Haddox said the ice surrounding the dam was five inches thick and if conditions worsened the locks would be closed. Towboat traffic was light all up and down the river.
At the time we had four reporters on the regional staff and four on the city staff. Everybody’s attention was on the weather, interviewing people whose cars refused to start and those with frozen and burst water lines.
Conditions turned to the better, but temperatures remained at about 5 below zero for the next three nights.
The 13 below mark narrowly missed setting a record for the Ashland area. The record low reached 15 below zero on Jan. 24, 1963.
In 2003, a terrible ice storm hit Portsmouth and Scioto County, as well as across the river in South Shore. It was the mother of all ice storms. Trees and power lines were laden down with ice and came crashing down everywhere. Ashland and Boyd County escaped the major swath that stretched from Paducah to western Greenup County and north through Scioto.
I had retired from fulltime work with the Independent In 1998 but five years later went to work fulltime for a few years with the Times, where I started my journalism career in 1971.
I was standing in the second-floor newsroom looking out the windows toward the Kentucky hills. Something on top of that hill was different. Then I realized that the metal radio tower that reached several hundred feet toward the sky and was held by four guy wires …was no longer there.
The weight of the ice clinging to the tower sent it crashing down. It narrowly missed a crew of men who were working to clear electric lines leading across the hills from the power plant on the Greenup Dam to Vanceburg.
Covering the news required footwork. In one hollow with five homes a dozen or more trees had fallen across the narrow road that was the residents only way out.
As I made my way carefully across one deadfall (some trees brought live electric lines down with them) I heard sounds like a rifle cracking as trees in the hillside woods snapped and fell.
We had not lost power in our home, located in Sand Hill two mils east of South Shore. Power was off at the government housing apartments in Holy Manor.
We took in two residents we knew. We no sooner got them settled in for the night than our electricity went off.
In Shawnee State Forest, 10 miles west of Portsmouth, great swaths of tree were brought down. Workers could not get in to open hiking trails and salvage the lumber. Later, the state brought in helicopters and flew trees out to be sold to a lumber mill.
In March 1997 eight inches of rain fell in one day up and down the Ohio River and its tributaries. The Ohio swiftly rose to 62 feet, about 12 feet above flood stage. The water nearly surrounded the Greenup County Court House.
Sheriff Earl Marshall stood on a stoop at the entrance to his office with a rod and reel. He cast a lure into the muddy water. The fish apparently were so confused by where they were that he got no strikes.
Little Sandy River, Tygarts Creek and Kinniconick Creek all overflowed their banks, flooding summer cottages and moving some off their foundations.
Residents along Kinniconick, in Lewis County, said it was the highest they had ever seen the stream. Near its mouth, where it flows under the Double A Highway, it backed up to cover the bottoms and rise halfway up the walls of a grocery store.
The Ohio crept up the western end of Main Street in Vanceburg, flooding several homes.
The weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. It has a mind and a will of its own.
The great thing about it is that it changes. In one month, spring will be here.
Reach G. SAM PIATT at [email protected] or (606) 932-3619.