April 07, 2020

Coping with Crisis: Communities pulling together> Monroe bands together to weather crisis

MONROE — As fog moved in, blotting out the sun Saturday afternoon in Monroe, volunteer Fire Chief Dan Lawson barreled down Route 139 in his red pickup, tired eyes scanning the branches strewn along both sides of the road.

“My biggest fear is an emergency call I can’t get to,” he said, voicing the obsession behind his steady, unstoppable effort to clear the town’s roads of debris from last week’s ice storm.

Lawson, who estimated he had slept six hours between Thursday morning and Saturday afternoon, was at the center of Monroe’s emergency management operation. Like small towns all over Maine hit by the worst winter storm in decades, Monroe’s 800 residents banded together to help each other.

Dozens of volunteers with chain saws rallied to clear roads while others swept from house to house, checking on elderly neighbors and delivering propane, water and prescription medicine up tree-clogged country roads. Selectwoman Maxine Clement staffed storm headquarters at the fire station, while Gene Gibbs, head of emergency management, helped take charge.

Shelter was available at the town office-fire complex, but as of Saturday the self-sufficient townspeople had not camped out there, choosing instead to stay with friends and neighbors.

“We’re pretty tight,” said Jackie Robbins, a Stovepipe Alley resident who worked with neighbors to clear roads, hoping Central Maine Power Co. trucks would appear. “I think Monroe has a good spirit.”

Like a small-town Bruce Willis, wearing a day or two’s stubble, Lawson received a hero’s welcome at dark, cold homes all over town. A former selectman and a father of five, he maintained a sense of humor even without a spare minute to find a cup of coffee.

Across Maine, other hardy volunteers just like him also sacrificed sleep for the good of their communities.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without him,” said Ruth Wescott, peeking out her door after Lawson ducked under a blue tarp on the porch to knock, startling one of her countless cats, who bounded across the yard.

From a radio on his dashboard, he directed vounteers to hard-hit areas, while surveying conditions and distributing thanks and encouragement out his rolled-down truck window.

“Freddy, your wife’s a good cook, pal,” he called to one worker. “She cooked us a good breakfast this morning.”

Lawson, who hadn’t been home since Thursday morning, was catnapping at the fire station around midnight Friday when a fire call came in from the nearby Hunton residence. Within minutes, volunteers were drenching the wall behind the family’s fireplace, where shoddy construction had allowed flames to spread. Saturday, Roger Hunton was grateful he hadn’t gone to bed.

“I was sitting in the living room, and it got real bright outside,” he said. “I said, `The moon just came out.’ But I could see flickering on the ice.”

In a classic example of neighborly caring, Lawson instructed his men carefully to move Joan Hunton’s prized collection of 200 glass and china elephants from the fireplace mantel to the safety of nearby chairs.

“And they never broke a one,” the relieved collector said.

Along with the elephants, the house was intact Saturday, except for cracks in the fireplace mortar and soot on furniture. “The big thing is we’re all still alive, the house is still standing, and we can still live in it,” said Roger Hunton.

Everywhere Lawson went Saturday, people reminisced longingly about the 15 minutes Friday night when power returned briefly — “just long enough to flush the toilets,” residents said with good humor.

Tired of cold cereal and sandwiches, by Saturday, Ruth Treworgy donned her fur hat and headed down to the fire station to cook up burgers, peas and macaroni on a grill set up in the garage behind the yellow fire engines.

Across town, with her husband, George, and pet poodle, Lady, Harriet Ireland maintained a cozy room temperature — and baked a cake — with the help of her gas-powered oven, turned up to 250 degrees.

Lawson said he expected increased traffic Saturday night into Sunday, as confinement grew tiresome and tempers stretched thin. “People will just want to get out and go — it won’t matter where,” he said.

Maneuvering around a corner blocked by wires and a broken telephone pole, he encountered a smiling, ambling Lloyd Stevens, out for a walk wearing sunglasses after cataract surgery Wednesday. Lawson introduced himself as “your fire chief.” Stevens confirmed he was doing fine, with a wood stove and the support of family.

“If you need anything, call down to the firehouse,” the chief said in parting.

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