An ongoing assault of freezing rain left hundreds of thousands of Mainers without power Thursday and prompted Gov. Angus King to declare a state of emergency as power lines and tree limbs bent and broke under the weight of the four-day ice storm.
As King ordered most state workers home for the day, he also signed the emergency order which allows the state to call upon the National Guard to help provide power and evacuate residents.
The emergency order stated, “A severe winter storm is battering Maine, causing extensive electrical power outages and dangerous transportation conditions that threaten public health and safety, and endanger public property.”
The state of emergency became effective at noon Thursday and will remain in effect until further notice.
The National Weather Service issued a national storm warning for most of Maine, calling for mixed precipitation throughout Thursday night and today.
The storm was the worst to hit Maine since Hurricane Gloria left about 185,000 utility customers without power in 1985.
Bell Atlantic urged customers in Maine to avoid unnecessary calls because the ice storm forced the phone company to turn to backup power systems. Only about 600 customers lost their phone service.
Central Maine Power, Maine’s largest utility with 520,000 customers, said it had more than 90 crews in the field trying to restore power. Crews from Massachusetts and Rhode Island were arriving to help.
Emergency officials throughout most of the state were on full alert trying to keep roads sanded, and removing limbs and downed power lines from roadways.
The central Maine area was hit hard early Thursday, and shelters were set up for some of the 185,000 people in eastern, central and southern Maine who lost power early in the day.
Many Augusta residents were awakened shortly before dawn by the crack of ice-laden tree limbs that plummeted to the ground with a roar and hit with a dull thud. Those branches were responsible for the downed power lines, and at times, the sky lit up with the flash of electrical transformers shorting out.
Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield became a refuge for cold, hungry people from Pittsfield as power outages caused mass evacuations of nursing homes and housing for the elderly. More than 40 elderly people were taken by school bus from West Branch Terrace on Thursday afternoon and housed in the gymnasium at MCI.
Nursing home patients from Pittsfield Convalescent Center and Sebasticook Valley Nursing Home were taken across the street to Sebasticook Valley Hospital for care.
In Waterville, Mount Merici Academy and Convent was being used as a shelter until power there was lost at about 2 p.m. Those at that shelter were transported to the Colby College field house. Police cruisers were transporting people to the shelters.
A temporary shelter in Fairfield at Lawrence Junior High School had to be relocated to Hinckley School on Route 201 Thursday afternoon when the junior high itself lost power. According to Fairfield firefighters, about 50 people were moved to Hinckley. Those 50 were later relocated to the Colby field house.
A Fairfield resident reported to police Thursday afternoon that ice slid from a neighbor’s metal roof and shattered a window in his home.
Steve Watson, director of the Penobscot County Emergency Management Agency, was prepared for trouble Thursday morning as the line of freezing rain made its way north.
“Every tree in the county has reached its breaking point. If they start coming down we’ll see some major outages,” Watson said.
By noon, the sleet that had pelted Bangor throughout the morning changed to freezing rain and, as Watson predicted, the lines and limbs began to fall down.
A major distribution line in the Hampden area caused an outage on the west side of the city at 1 p.m., and many other parts of the city, including Broadway, experienced outages.
Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. spokesman Bill Cohen said full crews were out dealing with the outages as they occurred.
The problems began slowly, with only about 350 Bangor Hydro customers without power early in the day. But by 3 p.m. that figure had risen to 6,000, according to Carroll R. Lee, vice president of operations at Bangor Hydro.
“The way it looks right now, it looks like it’s going to be a long night and probably into tomorrow. It could be even longer than that, still hard to tell right now. I know the governor has just declared a state of emergency,” Lee said.
He said the Ellsworth area, along the coast and inland to Bangor were the areas hardest hit.
“It’s less of a problem the farther north you get,” he said.
Central Maine Power customers in Winterport lost electricity early in the day, sending town officials scrambling to set up overnight shelter for those left without heat or lights.
According to Fire Chief Stanley Bowden, power was not expected to be restored until this afternoon.
By 2 p.m. Thursday, the basement of the Calvary Apostolic Church on Route 1A in Winterport was nearly ready to house up to 100 or more guests for the night, with generators providing the necessary power.
Pastor Wilbur Strout described his congregation as “energized” to help, with church members providing blankets, pillows and food.
Supplies from the Neighbors Cupboard Food Bank, which is located at the church, also will be used in the emergency, and Strout said help was expected from the Red Cross as well.
Maine State Police were busy with numerous vehicles off the road, but no major accidents.
“The challenge has been motorists trying to avoid downed limbs and power lines, particularly in central Maine, and with the forecast as it is, we’re very concerned about the next 24 hours,” said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety.
In Bangor additional crews were called in to the Bangor Fire Department and the public works department.
Police, fire and rescue crews were extremely busy. In Bangor, police called in extra dispatchers to answer the heavier load of phone calls coming in, and 12 police cruisers were out on the road when normally there’s about five, Sgt. Jim Owens reported.
“Everything that has a blue light is out there,” Owens said.
By 3:15 p.m., all of the city’s barricades were in use, as police blocked off roads where tree limbs or power lines had fallen.
Town offices, state office buildings and courthouses were shut down early or never opened.
Bangor public works crews, already tired from the four-day ice ambush, geared up for another 24-hour battle.
“We’re prepared for the worst,” said Arthur Stockus, Bangor public works director.
Fortunately, the storm came early in the season, ensuring ample supplies of sand and salt, but the city probably will feel the pinch at the end of the season, Stockus said.
The bigger problem for the public works department was the demand on personnel. The city has about 55 people assigned to keeping the roads and walkways clear, and by Thursday the crews were tired.
“We’ve had trucks running steady 24 hours a day since Sunday night. Some people have worked 24-hour shifts. They’re tired,” Stockus said.
And clearing trees and wires from roadways only added to the already heavy workload of the crews.
Staff at Bangor area supermarkets and grocery stores reported a steady stream of shoppers Thursday, but noted that Wednesday had been an unusually busy day. That is when the dangers posed by the current storm began to become apparent.
Thursday found people who hadn’t already stocked up on the basics scrambling to pick up bottled water, batteries and a variety of grocery items — bread, cheese and milk, anything that could provide sustenance without electricity. Though most local banks were closed, most grocery and convenience stores were open, and planned to remain open through the duration of the storm if possible.
“We have no plans to close, but at this point it depends on the weather,” said Dick Danforth, manager of the Union Street Shop ‘n Save store. “We have to stay open as long as we can because the consumer expects us to be there.”
Meanwhile, at Shaw’s on Main Street, Kim Giles of Bangor was among many shoppers out Thursday gathering staples.
“I’ve got peanut butter and milk, bread, and yogurt and cottage cheese, rice cakes — all easy things.” She planned to fill her kitchen sink with snow to keep the milk cold during the power outage which struck her west side neighborhood before lunchtime.
Giles was among many who shopped in the dimly lit supermarket. Shaw’s lost its power Thursday and was operating on a backup generator. The generator kept some of the lights and the public address system running, but wasn’t able to operate the refrigeration units. Personnel at the store were working to keep cold food cold by covering the fronts of refrigerated display units that lacked doors with meat wrapping paper.
Among the most obvious signs of the storm’s impact was the early closure of Pilots Grill.
Though the popular eatery on Outer Hammond Street has closed half an hour to an hour early in times of inclement weather, Wednesday night’s 5 p.m. closing time marked the first time since 1962 that Pilots closed before the dinner crowd, according to owner Bill Zoidas.
In late December of that year, Maine was hit by a storm bad enough to land it in Newsday magazine, Zoidas recalled. Though he closed his restaurant to his usual patrons, he kept the building open as a civil defense center — at the request of the state police.
Zoidas planned to play it by ear Thursday. He did not discount any early closure if the weather continued to worsen.
Bangor International Airport continued to operate Thursday, although at least one carrier decided to shut down for the day.
“We do have a number of cancellations,” airport Director Bob Ziegelaar said in midafternoon. “Part of it is tied in to weather south of us. USAir has canceled for the rest of the day.”
Delta Air Lines had a plane at the gate, ready to depart, he said, and Business Express was also expected to operate later Thursday.
Power to one part of the airport was out Thursday afternoon, knocking out the runway lights, Ziegelaar said, but a generator was expected to restore the lights shortly.
“We haven’t stopped functioning,” he said, and he didn’t expect there would be any shutdown. In his memory, the longest the airport had ever been closed was four hours, “so we could get organized.”
He also didn’t expect that many passengers would get stuck in Bangor because of canceled flights. “Most of the passengers have been rebooked one way or another,” he said in the afternoon.
Crews continued to work diligently to clear “the working areas” of the airport, Ziegelaar said.
For the Rev. Dana Reed it was a close call Thursday afternoon when part of a tree branch from a tall maple tree fell on him. Reed was shoveling the end of his driveway off Grant Street in Bangor around 2 p.m. when he said he heard a cracking noise that sounded like a rifle shot.
Unable to locate where the noise came from, Reed said he realized that he had to move away quickly.
Reed avoided being struck by the heavier section of the branch, which he estimated weighed 100 pounds and was 4 inches at its thickest point.
The end of the branch struck Reed on the head and shoulders with a thud, he said, but the impact didn’t knock him down.
“I thought, `I’m going to die or at least I’m going to receive a really bad injury,” Reed told the Bangor Daily News by phone, as tree branches continued to fall sporadically. “Oh, there goes another one,” he said, interrupting a sentence he was making to note a tree limb falling.
Neighbors Jim and Patty Kounihan walked their dog around the “Little City” neighborhood to assess the carnage. It was damage the likes the Kounihans had never seen, a half dozen or more trees had lost branches and two streets were blocked off because of fallen branches. Two power lines apparently had fallen down as well.
“I don’t think it’s over yet,” Patty Kounihan said shortly after 3 p.m. “There are a lot of branches hanging really low and they look like they’re going to go.”
Elsewhere in the city, Lincoln, Maple and Birch streets along with Mount Hope Avenue were blocked off or were in the process of being blocked off Thursday afternoon.
Many town offices in central Maine were closed Thursday.
Corinna remained open and the quiet business day was helping the staff catch up on some end-of-the-year work. “When people call, the first thing we hear is, `I can’t believe you’re open.’ But I don’t know how long we’ll be here,” said a town employee.
“People are listening,” Newport Police Chief James Ricker said of the lack of traffic on Newport streets Thursday morning. “They’ve had two days to prepare for this. They’re either slowing down or staying home.”
In St. Albans, a budget meeting planned for Thursday night was canceled.
Power outages were spotty, but expected to be lengthy throughout the area.
In Newport, outages appeared to be few, according to Ricker. He emphasized, however, that if any outages were prolonged and people were without heat, his department and the Newport Fire Department were prepared to help. There was no site designated as a shelter because Ricker said he was hesitant to move people, especially the elderly, to a place that could lose power. He expected attempts would be made to help people in their homes as long as possible.
Ken Thompson, dispatcher at the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department, reported power outages in Sebec and Brownville on Thursday afternoon. Despite the slippery road conditions, only one motor vehicle accident was reported, and involved no injuries, he said.
Area schools were closed for the day, but most government offices stayed open, including Piscataquis County Superior Court in Dover-Foxcroft.
The story was much the same in Belfast, where police dispatchers reported “tons and tons of lines down.”
Power was out in pockets all over Waldo County. Much of Belfast’s electricity was out part of Wednesday night. East Belfast lost power again by Thursday afternoon.
Northport and Monroe were without power Thursday afternoon.
“The biggest thing that’s causing it is that trees are falling down and taking power lines with them,” said Rick Farris, who directs Waldo County Emergency Management. “It’s a mess out there.”
Farris worked through Thursday with the Red Cross in setting up emergency shelters at Unity Elementary School and East Belfast School on Swanville Avenue.
The Unity school will not be affected by power outages because it has its own generator, Farris said. A generator can be brought relatively quickly to the Belfast school if needed, he said. People with special needs, such as health conditions, will be sheltered at the emergency management offices in Belfast.
Fire departments throughout Waldo County were busy cutting trees and branches that fell steadily onto roads under the weight of ice, Farris said. “But I don’t guarantee anything on the side roads,” Farris said. “And it could get a lot worse.”
The Trustworthy Hardware store in Belfast sold out its supply of six kerosene space heaters Thursday. It has sold two truckloads of rock salt since the ice-rain storm began.
In Hancock County, minor accidents or cars off the road were reported throughout the area.
Far more vexing to police and fire departments were widespread power outages Wednesday night and Thursday morning. In some areas, such as parts of Blue Hill, Ellsworth and Stonington, the power had gone out more than once by early afternoon, residents said. Mount Desert Island got off relatively unscathed, since temperatures remained warmer and power problems were few, officials said.
Despite the snow mounting up, residents of the St. John Valley said Tuesday they were more fortunate than others in Maine who were pummeled by rain, sleet and freezing rain all week.
According to Finland Dumond, a weather watcher at Fort Kent, the area had received 11.5 inches of snow from Monday night to Thursday noon. He had 27 inches of snow on the ground at his Market Street home Thursday.
It has snowed each day since Sunday in the St. John Valley.
Thursday morning’s new 5 inches of accumulation was the most in one day since the beginning of the week.
On Thursday it was cancellations, postponement and early closings. All St. John Valley schools closed before 1 p.m. because of the threat of sleet and freezing rain.
Donald Guimond, town manager at Fort Kent, said, “Town crews have been burning the candle at both ends all week. We haven’t had any major problems, but we have been getting a lot of snow since Monday.”
“But, we would rather have snow than the freezing rain they have been having elsewhere. Freezing rain and ice, now that’s a lot of work,” Madawaska Highway Foreman Yves Lizotte said.
Allan Bean, town manager at Houlton, said it was a mix there Thursday afternoon. The snow and sleet were creating problems for municipal crews.
He said, “Our crews are up to it. They’ve been out straight for four days”
Bean suggested, “Anyone who knows where the off switch is can now turn it off. We’ve had enough.”
Bangor: Air National Guard Base, Bangor International Airport
Belfast: East Belfast School
Bucksport: Public Safety Building
Ellsworth: City Hall
Milford: Lewis S. Libby School
Old Town: Community Center
Orono: Town Hall
Pittsfield: Maine Central Institute gym
Unity: Unity Elementary School
Waterville: Colby College Field House
Winterport: Calgary Apostolic Church
ICE STORM SAFETY TIPS
The American Red Cross, Bangor Water District, and Central Maine Power offer the following tips for dealing with the aftermath of the storm:
Stay home: All area shelters also rely on regular power, and there is always the danger of a shelter’s lights and heat going out. Most of the time you’ll be better off staying in your own home and bundling up. That way you have access to additional clothing and bedding, and you don’t run the risk of an accident while traveling on the icy roads or becoming stranded due to the driving conditions.
Make use of other heat sources: If you have a gas stove, it can be used for heat. Also make use of fireplaces and wood stoves, or go to a friend or relative’s home where these heat sources are available. If you use a portable heater, like the ones used by hunters or people fishing, make sure you use them on a hard, flat surface, keep flammable material away from them, and don’t leave them running while you sleep. Never use charcoal fires indoors.
Preserve your heat: Avoid opening doors and windows.
Bring your pets inside: Animals should not be exposed to extreme conditions.
If your heat goes out, turn on your water taps a trickle. This will reduce the likelihood of pipes freezing.
If your pipes freeze, DO NOT use a flame implement such as a candle or blow torch to thaw them. This greatly increases the risk of fire.
Don’t open freezers or refrigerators unless absolutely necessary. Food will keep longer this way in the event of a prolonged outage.
Stay clear of downed power lines. Even a line that appears dead can be dangerous.
Check on elderly friends, neighbors and family members. The elderly are particularly prone to hypothermia.
Listen to local radio stations for updates on power restoration efforts. Keep flashlights, batteries, candles and matches available.
For further information, contact the Red Cross at 941-2903.