April 08, 2020

Disaster area; Clinton signs federal decree > State of emergency; Gore to survey damage from air

BANGOR — Maine became an official disaster area late Tuesday afternoon when President Clinton signed the paperwork that will start federal funds flowing into the state to alleviate the exorbitant costs associated with last week’s ice storm.

In his letter to the president, Gov. Angus King requested a “full menu” of federal assistance, including individual and public assistance, low-interest loans and hazard mitigation assistance. All will be forthcoming. The federal government will absorb 75 percent of the public costs associated with the storm.

Now that the paperwork is signed, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will establish offices in the state and begin official damage estimates. Every county except Aroostook, which escaped significant damage, is eligible for federal aid.

“The money should actually start to flow in very quickly,” said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for the governor’s office.

Also Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore announced that he will visit Maine on Thursday. Gore will survey by helicopter the damage in Augusta and Lewiston.

On Monday, King estimated the costs to local and state agencies at $6.2 million, but Bailey said that figure continues to grow.

“We knew that was not realistic, but we just got in as much as we could so that we could get the paperwork in and the process started. We didn’t need an exact figure, we just had to exceed the $1.2 million mark to qualify for the assistance,” Bailey said.

County by county damage and cost estimates continued to increase on Tuesday. By midafternoon with 23 towns reporting, Penobscot County was up to $2.1 million for public costs and $1.5 million for individual costs.

Kennebec County reported more than $3 million in damage associated with the storm and Waldo and Cumberland counties each estimated more than $1 million in damage.

The actual statewide costs associated with the storm, which has claimed three lives, are expected to get into the tens of millions of dollars, Bailey said.

Most of the federal aid will be used to reimburse state and local agencies for overtime costs and damage to public buildings. But some individual assistance will be available, especially in the form of low-interest loans.

The state’s congressional delegation, upon the request of Gov. King, asked President Clinton Tuesday for the emergency release of Maine’s $6 million allotment of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, funds that would make immediate assistance available to individual homeowners who have incurred costs due to heating problems.

“These funds would be available for such things as repairing heating systems damaged by the storm,” said Rep. John Baldacci.

The money could also be used to repair electrical systems and hookups and for reimbursement of the costs of purchasing fuel for temporary heaters.

Meanwhile, another storm system that swept through Maine Tuesday hampered efforts to restore power to the thousands of Maine residents who remained without electricity. While some progress was made, additional outages were still occurring throughout the evening.

Tuesday afternoon the number of customers statewide without electricity had been reduced to 121,250 — 112,000 of Central Maine Power Co.’s 520,000 customers and 9,250 of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.’s 110,000 customers. At the height of the outage, 325,000 customers of the two companies were in the cold and dark.

Although both utilities suffered millions of dollars in damages, they are not eligible for federal relief because they are privately owned.

Cancellations of schools and meetings continued, and the Legislature on Tuesday announced it would cancel all public hearings and work sessions for the remainder of the week.

The only legislative business not canceled is Thursday’s legislative session which “will be unusually short.”

Bailey said the governor thought “we saw a light at the end of the tunnel” Tuesday morning, but as the rain and snow came down and the winds picked up, he became increasingly concerned that more power outages would occur during the night.

“We’d like to be out of this thing [the state of emergency] in a couple of days. But it’s not going to happen right now, that’s for sure,” said Bailey.

The National Guard remained active Tuesday and the request for its services was officially extended to Friday, said Maine Army National Guard Capt. Susan Wallace.

Two hundred troops arrived in Washington County on Tuesday, where 3,000 Bangor Hydro customers remained without power Tuesday night. That number decreased dramatically from Monday night when it was estimated that at least 10,000 customers were without electricity.

“Guard personnel have found a tremendous number of elderly people who have been alone and without power for days,” said Capt. Wallace. “These are people who don’t want to leave their homes, but we are able to provide them some assistance.”

Bill Cohen, spokesman for Bangor Hydro, said efforts to reroute power and bring in portable generation to the county had succeeded and much of the county was up and running by Tuesday afternoon.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Bangor Hydro reported that 3,500 customers remained without power in the Bangor area, 2,000 in the Hancock area, 750 in the Northern Division of Greenbush and Howland, and 3,000 in Washington County.

“We’ve made a great deal of progress. We were slowed a bit today by a few problems, but right now at 4 p.m. we appear to be stable,” said Cohen.

CMP experienced new outages in several areas Tuesday morning and crews were working on repairing those problems.

“We continue to make progress in restoring power to more customers, but we have suffered some setbacks this morning with new outages,” CMP spokesman Mark Ishkanian said Tuesday afternoon.

At noon Tuesday 18,500 customers remained without power in the Augusta area, 1,600 in the Skowhegan area, 10,500 in the Belfast area, 1,000 in the Dover district and 11,500 in Waterville.

The costs to both utility companies were expected to be astronomical and today the Public Utilities Commission will consider approving orders that would establish specific storm-related accounts for both companies. Those accounts would allow for a tally of the costs associated with the storm in the event that the companies can find a way to recover some of those costs down the road, according to Phil Lindley of the PUC.

While more shelters were able to close Tuesday as power continued to be restored to people’s homes, a few more in rural areas were established as people in those areas finally gave up and left their homes, according to Sgt. Major Allyson Cox of the Maine Army National Guard.

About 111 shelters remained open Tuesday statewide offering refuge to 2,089 people, Cox said.

That figure was down from 2,182 people in shelters Monday night.

On Tuesday the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross said more than 520 Mainers had taken advantage of the Red Cross shelters in Bangor, Orono, Milford and Old Town since last Thursday.

The majority of the shelters were staying open today, though a couple had been closed and merged with shelters in nearby communities.

In Penobscot County, Steve Watson, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency, said things were steadily improving, but stressed that thousands of people around the county remained without power.

“This is not over. People who have power are getting on with their lives and may think it’s over and done with, but it’s not,” he said.

Watson’s office has been busy coordinating the delivery of generators to public agencies and shelters in need of power.

As of Tuesday every agency that had requested a generator had received one, Watson said, thanks to supplies from the Maine National Guard.

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