April 01, 2020

Power crews making gains

Approximately 100,000 more Maine households had power and heat Sunday evening than did Thursday night, but the gains came slowly and 200,000 others still will wait days or weeks before the worst ice storm in memory is consigned to history.

“The good news is that the major part of the transmission system seems to be patched together,” Gov. Angus King said Sunday evening. “Now it’s hand-to-hand combat, street by street, to get people back on line. The heart of the problem was the duration of the storm … It was the four days running that killed us.”

The state has had two deaths so far, from efforts to avoid the cold rather than from the cold itself. Men in Waterville and Newport suffocated after inhaling deadly carbon monoxide gas produced by generators they had brought indoors to light and heat their homes. Emergency officials say such incidents pose the greatest risk to Mainers.

Hospitals reported few injuries from crashing tree limbs and falling ice. People were treated for hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning and injuries from slipping on ice. In Waterville, police took several elderly residents into protective custody to get them out of their freezing homes and into shelters.

Utility companies, city staffers and the Maine National Guard worked long hours — around the clock in some cases — to clear away downed tree limbs, to repair power lines and open roads. Some of the crews taking part came from as far away as Virginia.

Private contractors also helped. One utility spokesman said there was no time to ask whether some of those workers were volunteering their services or expected to be paid.

Members of the state’s congressional delegation called on President Clinton to act quickly on the state’s request for a federal disaster declaration, which Gov. King is expected to submit by the middle of the week. One lawmaker even urged the Navy to bring a ship to Eastport and supply needed power to Washington County.

As darkness fell Sunday on the roughly 200,000 Maine households still without power, state officials warned that people should seek shelter as temperatures fell to the single digits overnight. The governor and emergency officials urged people without heat to find a friendly living room or head to one of the 10,000 beds in 121 active shelters around the state.

“These couple of days of sunshine have maybe lulled people a little bit, and we don’t know when the power’s going to come back on,” King said. “People should just prepare and assume that it may not come back on and therefore be prepared for another cold night and get to a shelter.”

He also urged people to make special efforts to check on elderly neighbors, “because we’re going to lose somebody otherwise.”

Shelters housed 2,300 Mainers Friday night and 2,800 on Saturday. Those numbers were expected to swell Sunday night as the cold deepened.

Power returns slowly

Over the weekend, Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. restored power to half of the homes that went dark over the past five days. Early in the storm, 45,000 to 50,000 Bangor Hydro customers had no power, but spokesman Bill Cohen said that only 20,000 were powerless by Sunday afternoon.

The company faces its biggest challenge in Washington County, where a tranmission line snapped Saturday, toppling dozens of towers and draping eight to 10 miles of line across blueberry barrens near Deblois. That line is the primary for 10,000 customers in Jonesport, Eastport, Machais and Lubec.

But there is good news for Washington County residents who previously heard they might be without light for more than a month: A diesel generator in Eastport brought electricity to residents there and in Machias on Sunday on a rotating basis, and the company’s efforts to fire up its mothballed Indeck Jonesboro Power Plant could bring power to the entire area by Monday afternoon if all goes well.

“Our transmission is back except for that problem Down East,” Cohen said. “And we’re now working on the process of starting at each substation and following each local distribution line, making repairs and putting it back in service. … And that’s just a long, slow, arduous process.”

Central Maine Power, the state’s largest utility, reported 275,000 households cut off the grid Thursday and Friday. By Friday night, workers brought that number down to 229,000. But progress was slow for most of the weekend, with outage numbers holding steady at 210,000 households.

“Every time crews would restore a section of line, we would get a report of another one being out somewhere else,” Gail Rice, a CMP spokeswoman, said Sunday afternoon. “We’re continuing to have problems with new power outages. The ice is continuing to weigh down tree branches and limbs and continuing to cause them to fall down on lines.”

Rice said that the weekend’s warm, sunny weather made company crews hopeful for what they could accomplish, but the icy reality limited progress. New outages remain a threat as long as thick ice still covers lines and tree limbs, she said.

The numbers improved Sunday evening, when the company reported that a new low of 185,000 homes remained dark and cold.

In CMP’s coverage area, Augusta and Lewiston were hardest hit: 32,500 and 29,000 homes respectively had no power. In Waterville, 17,000 homes were dark, as were 16,000 homes in the Rockland and Belfast areas. In Dover-Foxcroft, 2,200 homeowners waited for crews to turn on their lights, as did 3,300 in Skowhegan.

Both Cohen and Rice hesitated to predict when all customers could expect things to get back to normal.

“As far as when we’re going to be out of the woods, we don’t know yet,” Rice said. “We’re going to be restoring power for at least a week.”

Cohen said that his company’s efforts were coming together, but otherwise gave no time estimates.

“We’re so focused just on getting the place put back together again that we just can’t begin to project,” he said. “It wouldn’t even be fair to our customers to . Because, really, we would just be picking a number out of the air.”

Federal aid no cavalry

Both of Maine’s U.S. senators have asked President Clinton to expedite the state’s planned application for federal disaster assistance. Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for the governor, said the state is still putting together the numbers it needs to send to Washington.

Although Bailey expects the state will qualify for aid, the storm’s damage was primarily to private property which is not covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The fiscal impact is going to be primarily overtime for road crews, salt and sand and materials,” Bailey said.

“It’s not an obvious sort of disaster where houses are floating down the river or something. The impact here is incredible with no power to so many people, but there isn’t a lot of structural damage or damage to infrastructure … and that’s what FEMA is good for. They pay for repairing public buildings, public roadways, things like that.”

When the money does come, as Bailey expects it will, he warns that “it won’t be like calling in the cavalry.”

“This is simply money to reimburse towns and counties for their expenses dealing with this storm. The federal government could say tomorrow we’re going to declare the disaster area, but people’s lights won’t immediately go on. They’re not going to send in the troops … it’s simply a fiscal reimbursement,” said Bailey.

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