Ice Storm of 1976
Ice Storm

A reporter described the ice storm scene as "a science fiction picture of a post-atomic war world with trees stripped of limbs, power lines arcing fireballs and the night sky lit by quick flashes of green light as transformers blew."

Thirty years ago today, on Thursday, March 4, 1976, Madison and much of Wisconsin got hit with an ice storm for the ages.

It was a worst-case winter scenario, a perfect storm that first brought rain, then cold, and finally wind - a blustery ice invasion that had 600,000 Wisconsin residents living four days, and in some cases more than a week, with no electricity, no telephone, no flushing toilets, all as temperatures plummeted.

In Madison, on the second day of the storm, Mayor Paul Soglin estimated a third of the homes in the city were without power. He had declared a state of emergency at 10 p.m. Thursday. By the next day six emergency shelters were established, the largest at West and La Follette high schools. A reporter found Soglin Friday at the West shelter, sipping a cup of coffee and trying to get a handle on the situation.

It was grim and it took a while to get better. The Crestwood neighborhood in Madison went five days without power. Twenty-three of the city's 27 water pumping stations were shut down. The Fire Department got 300 calls in one day from mishaps or worse caused by people trying to keep warm inside with charcoal grills and fireplaces.

A pet shop owner on Monroe Street watched helplessly as the water in his tropical fish tanks cooled and the fish perished.

The Dane County Board was due to meet that Thursday night at the City-County Building. Of the 41 supervisors, only three were at the meeting. Jonathan Barry, later county executive but then a supervisor, was in attendance only because there had been no way to alert him to stay home.

County Clerk Jack Hebl took a roll call and said, "Thirty-eight absent."

Barry made a motion to adjourn the meeting, and Chairman Mary Louise Symon accepted it. The Cap Times reporter covering the meeting, Howard Cosgrove, found county emergency planning director Edward Kroll in his basement office. Kroll was dressed in a sweatshirt and said he'd come in because his power was out at home.

"I'm just trying to keep updated and make a judgment about how close we're getting to disaster," Kroll said.

The answer was: plenty close. The next day, a Madison Gas & Electric employee, Floyd Morgan, told The Capital Times, "Parts of this town look like they got hit by a tornado. I've never seen anything like it."

Another day later, Saturday, the State Journal described the city as looking almost surreal: "A science fiction picture of a post-atomic war world with trees stripped of limbs, power lines arcing fireballs and the night sky lit by quick flashes of green light as transformers blew."

I think it was that Saturday night that I personally remember. It's my one memory of the ice storm. I was living on the UW-Madison campus at the time, and college kids can get along without plumbing and electricity. Getting the beer on ice wasn't a problem. So I don't remember any terrible hardship.

What I recall is walking alone up Langdon Street that Saturday night, a little before midnight. The stars were out and even if there weren't streetlights - and there probably weren't - the ice-covered trees lining Langdon, shimmering in the starlight, were about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The only noise was the wind. It was just stunning.

It wasn't good for the trees, of course. The State Journal had run a story on Friday headlined: "Leave icy trees alone, professor warns." Trying to knock the accumulated ice off the trees would only cause them further injury.

It affected everything. Ditches were full of cars. Farmers had to try to milk their 200-cow herds by hand. The cable TV system was down, not that it mattered, since people couldn't turn on their sets. By Saturday, power was slowly being restored, but that evening's Capital Times had a front page headline estimating that 7,000 Madison families were still without electricity. Across southern Wisconsin, the paper said, "the number of families without power may easily be as high as 75,000."

By Monday, March 8, some normality had returned, and the extent of the damage was beginning to be assessed. The top-line State Journal headline read: "Ice storm costs surpass $8 million."

This week, the Madison Fire Department issued a press release reminding people of the ice storm anniversary, as part of the department's PREP - People Responding to Emergencies Program. The release noted how the 1976 storm "completely snapped hundreds of utility poles, downed thousands of power and telephone lines and totally destroyed many trees. Some wires and tree limbs were coated with up to 5 inches of ice accumulation."

The release was a good reminder, but in this case, it's doubtful that anyone who was here in March 1976 had forgotten.

At the time, a reporter had located a farmer in Cambridge, Orlow Notstad, who made it clear an ice storm is not the kind of thing you forget.

"We had one in 1936," Notstad said, and then he paused. "But it wasn't this bad."