BANGOR — After the first ice-coated power line fell last week, scores of others followed, quickly thrusting hundreds of thousands of Mainers into cold darkness. The emergency escalated so fast that the Maine National Guard, which has since mobilized across the state, did not have time to name its relief effort until just after noon Monday.
“Operation Ice Guard 98” is a fitting moniker as 450 citizen-soldiers of the Army and Air National Guards, called into state active duty Monday, continue an around-the-clock effort begun last Thursday to aid and protect Mainers left vulnerable by last week’s storm.
“There’s a lot we can do to help. We have generators and cots and chain-saw crews,” said Maj. John McKenney, deputy chief of staff for the Maine Army National Guard. McKenney called Operation Ice Guard 98 the “biggest disaster relief effort” perhaps in Maine history.
“We’re here to help,” echoed Col. Ron Elliott, executive support staff officer at Maine Air National Guard headquarters.
McKenney said the Army Guard has provided aid ranging from offering shelters with generators and water to transporting residents to those shelters to working with local fire and police departments to check on isolated residents.
Elliott said Air Guard efforts generally mirror those of the Army Guard, with two exceptions: the Air Guard also has provided workers and a facility at Bangor International Airport for a Red Cross shelter, and is staffing a storm hot line at WCSH in South Portland.
Some of the Army Guard’s assistance has been coordinated from Guard offices in Bangor.
The phones there started ringing at about 4:30 p.m. last Thursday and have not stopped since, said Capt. Diane Dunn, training officer for the Bangor-based 1st Battalion of the 52nd Troop Command.
Dunn is managing the battalion’s disaster relief effort. “For the last week,” she said Monday, “we’ve been in emergency management mode.”
Dunn is assigned “missions” by Guard headquarters in Augusta, which she passes on to one of seven units that comose her battalion.
The major mission last Thursday and Friday, Dunn said, was getting cots, generators and water to shelters around the state. A Brewer-based engineering platoon also was activated specifically to clear roads in support of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.’s power restoration efforts.
On Monday, two easels outside Dunn’s office held handwritten lists of active missions. One logged Augusta-assigned missions, many calling for generators to be delivered or transferred. The other detailed what Dunn called “civic missions,” like Monday morning’s call from the Carmel Fire Department asking that water be delivered to shut-in residents.
Similar requests from other public agencies and municipalities have had Guard soldiers delivering batteries, water and flashlights to a farm in Exeter, chipping ice off a ramp for the disabled in Winterport, and checking in on residents throughout the region.
In Bangor, as around the state, soldiers are working in shifts to keep the relief effort running 24 hours a day.
The primary concern now is “the unknown of how long this will last,” Dunn said. More ice or a deep drop in the temperature will put those already without heat at greater risk. “We’re watching the weather closely.”