A long, dazed journey into light

Chicago Tribune

In this no-stoplight town framed by snow-covered farms, the fire station had become the main chow hall. Two men and a generator were single-handedly keeping the water and sewers running. And city vehicles prowled the streets 24 hours a day to be sure the remaining 618 townspeople were getting by after almost a week without electricity.

Since a devastating ice storm struck on the last day of November, the number of blacked-out Illinois residents has been slashed from about 235,000 to about 55,000. But among those still in the dark Wednesday were residents of this town, where the high school team has an unfortunately apt nickname: the Storm.

In true small-town fashion, longtime friends and neighbors bonded ever closer as they cooked, cleared brush and looked after one another.

More than 20 small towns lost all power during the storm, but Ameren, the power company serving the bottom half of the state, restored service to many within a few days. Until repair crews showed up late Wednesday evening, Niantic, just west of Decatur, was one of the exceptions. About half the town's residents fled to hotels or homes of relatives.

For those who remained, kindness came in the form of free hot meals at the fire station and volunteer firefighters looking in on about 60 elderly residents every few hours to check on carbon monoxide levels. The concern paid off: One woman was in danger, and a man was burning charcoal in his home.

Though last week's ice storm is being compared to one that hit on Good Friday 1978, residents said it was both unprecedented and a shock: They expected loads of snow and just a thin coating of ice. Instead, the snow fell sparsely and the ice built in sheets, weighing down branches until they snapped, one after another after another, in what residents said sounded like shotgun blasts above their homes.

About 10:30 p.m. Nov. 30, the power went out.

On Wednesday, about 3 p.m., the town heard its first good news in a week: A line of power company trucks was heading its way. At the fire station, shouts of "hallelujah" began echoing. Rumor had it that power could be on within an hour, but as darkness fell, most lights were still off.

Slowly, however, they started coming back. Volunteer firefighter Tiffany Stanton, 31, pointed out a window to a far-off streetlight that hadn't been illuminated since the storm.

"Have you seen that?" she said to Battalion Chief Clay McCall. "It's called a light."

With a plateful of food, McCall walked to the window and peered out.

"It must be a mirage," he said.

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