by Terry Rogers
On February 8, 1994, rain fell in the area despite the fact that the temperature hovered around 30 degrees. As the rain fell, a coating of ice developed on tree limbs, power lines and surfaces, slowly building up from a thin layer to a thick, heavy layer of frozen precipitation. Traffic accidents were reported throughout northern Sussex County and small electric outages began to be reported.
The rain did not stop, however, but slowed to a light drizzle, adding even more layers of ice to the already bending trees and power lines. By Thursday, February 10, the power lines and trees could no longer take the weight of the ice. Anyone who was in the Milford area on that night and throughout the next day will tell of hearing tree branches snapping, sounding almost like gunshots in the dark. Branches hanging over power lines fell, pulling the lines and utility poles with them.
By Friday, February 11, telephone, radio and data systems are out of service for all utilities in the area, making it difficult for them to relay information to the public and almost all of Milford had been plunged into darkness as more than 10,000 electric customers lost power. Almost immediately, the storm was classified as a 100-year storm, something even the oldest Milford residents would say they had never witnessed. Emergency shelters were set up in Milford schools and more than 200 people took advantage of the safety. Many of them lived in mobile homes that were destroyed by falling tree limbs.
Others remained in their homes, using kerosene heaters, wood stoves or fireplaces to stay warm. People resorted to storing cold foods in coolers outside because there was no electricity to operate refrigerators or freezers. Even City Hall remained dark at the height of the storm, leading the late City Councilman Skip Pikus to create a storm center in the police station. Police officers, electric crews, dispatch and other staff worked 16-hours on with just 4-hours of rest throughout the storm.
“They worked radios, telephones and after their shifts, they came back and cooked for the crews and backed up whoever was on duty,” then-Chief Richard Carmean said. “I know some people might think they got a short answer when they called but, these people were on the front line and they did a great job. What some don’t stop and think about that all of them have families, some without heat or power, but they kept doing their job in spite of their personal situation.”
By Saturday, February 12, heavy icing continued and all prior electric restoration efforts proved futile. The entire electrical system in the area approached collapse as falling lines endangered crews to the point they could not risk going out to make repairs. Electric switches are frozen in place by one to three inches of ice. By Saturday afternoon, however, the temperatures rose above freezing and the ice began to thaw, allowing crews to safely attempt to get electric power back on. By Friday, February 18, power had been restored to all but 300 Milford customers.
The City of Milford was not the only utility company facing problems during the storm. The Delaware Electric Co-op had almost 50,000 customers without power, some out for just a few hours but a large number out of power for almost two weeks. More than 400 utility poles were destroyed in the ice storm, all of which had to be replaced. Jim Smith, who was the public relations officer at the Co-op at the time, said the company had gone through ten years’ worth of line splices during the storm. Cable company crews also worked around the clock in an attempt to get everyone back online. At one point, Delmarva Power and Light reported almost 19,000 customers without electricity.
Interestingly, although this was called a “100 Year Storm,” it was not the first ice storm to hit the area and cause significant damage. On December 16, 1973, a similar storm brought down limbs and antennas while also causing electrical outages. Although the 1973 storm did not cover such a wide area, it left 45 to 55 percent of Milford without power.
After the 1994 storm, steps were taken by all power companies in the area to remove any limbs that could result in outages during or after storms.