April 09, 2020

Coping with Crisis: Communities pulling together> Central Mainers unite

PITTSFIELD — Charles Shaw of Detroit hooked up an electric generator to his well pump and hung a sign on the front of his house: “Free Water.”

Karen Wagner of Pittsfield opened her doors and revved up her wood stove over the weekend for 15 people who had lost power.

Becky Williams, who normally would be teaching school at Maine Central Institute, instead was cooking corn chowder Sunday afternoon for the four dozen people using the school gymnasium as a shelter.

And Sunday morning in the First Universalist Church in Pittsfield, Kathy Brooks lit a candle in celebration of neighbors and friends who have been helping one another survive the ice storm of 1998.

“Now I know what community is all about,” said fellow parishioner Doug Crate.

As shelters remained open, schools remained closed and streets were still impassable because of downed trees, people in central Maine counted their blessings as neighbors helped neighbors adapt to survival conditions.

“I have never seen such a sense of community,” said Fairfield Fire Chief Dana Sweet. “The town manager [Terry York] was cooking spaghetti for town workers Saturday night. People are opening up their homes to strangers who need to get warm. People are working 12 and 18 hours without rest and without a complaint, ready to do more.

“It is absolutely fantastic,” said Sweet.

Brooks, who has been without electricity since Thursday, was staying at her sister’s home on the other side of town.

“It basically has been sort of like a big gathering,” she said Sunday. “People coming in and out, food being prepared. We’ve played lots of games.”

The television and useless electronic games were cast aside in favor of old favorites such as cards, Parcheesi, Clue and Scattergories.

But as temperatures continued to drop Saturday night, Brooks became concerned about her pipes. Not to worry, she said, because another friend came to the rescue with a kerosene heater to bring the house’s temperature up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit to keep the pipes from bursting.

“I could weep for the joy of knowing we all have each other,” said Trudy Ferland, who also opened up her Pittsfield home for evacuees from Detroit. With a wood stove and an outside grill, meals were delightful, sometimes even exotic, she said. Sleeping arrangements weren’t much more than sleeping bags on the floor, and cribbage and backgammon kept her family and friends entertained.

Don Hallenbeck was restless at the Pittsfield shelter Sunday afternoon. He was reading his third book of the weekend and was running a popcorn machine that usually feeds hungry crowds at basketball games.

“We’re doing OK,” said Hallenbeck, “but we’re pretty anxious to get home.” The gym at MCI has been home to about 40 people since Thursday night, and although some people whose power had been restored in the last four days were leaving Sunday, others who had run out of fuel, firewood, food and patience were arriving.

Red Cross workers Don and Louise Neville were working side by side with dozens of volunteers, including Pittsfield’s junior firefighters and students who just wanted to help out.

Parents left their children outside to sled on the MCI hill while they went indoors to serve soup, play a game of cards or just visit with the evacuees.

Residents at the shelter hailed from Pittsfield, Newport, Palmyra, Burnham and Detroit.

Pittsfield Fire Chief Bernard Williams said his firefighters had been working around the clock for four days helping to evacuate residents, haul water and remove dead wires and downed limbs.

“Everybody got to go home Saturday night and get some rest,” he said. “But we are all pretty tired.” Williams’ home was without electricity for much of the storm.

Waterville Fire Chief Darryl Fournier said he was amazed at the level of community cooperation. “It really has been a case of neighbor helping neighbor and it’s really heartwarming. I truly love this state.”

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