July 13, 2020

Disaster Area> Hancock County; Towns want to be better prepared

ELLSWORTH — While the lights are still out in many rural areas of Hancock County, towns already are discussing how they can be more prepared for the next disaster. Residents were often surprised to find that their towns didn’t possess a single generator, even though basic services such as the public water supply system and the school furnaces rely on electricity.

“The storm has pointed out a number of inadequacies in the infrastructure,” said Deale Salisbury, director of the county’s emergency management agency, “such as the lack of generating capacity within the county.” Of the 10 schools designated as emergency shelters, only the Miles Lane School in Bucksport has its own generator.

In Ellsworth, Meadowview Apartments, a senior citizen housing complex, was evacuated when the power outage left the 84 apartments without lights, heat or cooking facilities. More than a dozen elderly residents spent Friday night on cots in the middle school gymnasium, which relied on a generator supplied by the National Guard for backup power. Salisbury said that despite the urging of the emergency management agency, the new high school has no generator.

“The school systems get millions of dollars to build new schools, and not one of them has a generator,” said Everett Austin, the Mariaville fire chief. “It’s really sad.” The Beech Hill School in neighboring Otis opened as a shelter Sunday afternoon when its power came back on.

The Mariaville fire station has been supplying water and providing a place to warm up, thanks to a generator lent by one of the town’s volunteer firefighters. The two towns lost power Thursday morning, and most residents still don’t have electricity.

In Winter Harbor, which went without power for 2 1/2 days, the Navy base came forward with a generator which a local electrician hooked up to the Winter Harbor Grammar School furnace. More than a dozen people brought their own blankets and food, and slept on tumbling mats in the gym Saturday night. The town also used the Navy’s generator to pump water up its standpipe and thus keep the public water supply flowing. Power returned for much of the community Sunday.

Sumner Memorial High School, the designated Red Cross shelter for eastern Hancock County, did not open due to a lack of staff. Until the Winter Harbor shelter opened, residents had to drive a perilous 25 miles to Ellsworth for a shelter.

“We have to resort to relying on ourselves, not the county,” Winter Harbor Selectman Katherine Heidinger said, adding that the town is discussing buying its own generator, which could cost $15,000 to $30,000. Most of Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro has power again. Higher temperatures along the coast spared the peninsula from the extensive damage of inland towns such as Mariaville and Otis, where hundreds of trees went down across Routes 180 and 181.

Enid Neleski, a Red Cross-certified volunteer, said part of the problem is not enough people are certified to staff a Red Cross shelter. At the Ellsworth shelter, she and three other certified Red Cross volunteers are swapping 24-hour shifts. Many people have volunteered to help out, but the Red Cross requires a certified volunteer to staff the shelter at all times.

“I think having a disaster of this scope will make people more aware,” Neleski said. “It would be very nice to have a core group of certified volunteers.”

Neleski pointed out that the Red Cross will provide transportation to rural residents who need a ride to shelters, and that most people have opted to stay with friends or stick it out at home. One family stayed at the Beech Hill shelter Sunday night, while a Gouldsboro shelter in the Prospect Harbor Methodist Church had two guests Saturday night.

About 150 to 200 people have used the Ellsworth middle school for showers, sleep, or a hot meal from Friday to Sunday, Neleski said. Downtown Ellsworth lost power only briefly during the storm, but many homes on side roads still have no heat or running water.

Penobscot residents had little need of a shelter. Since the power went out Thursday, the fire department has been making the rounds with portable generators, starting up furnaces for short periods, pumping basements, and cooling refrigerators. The department owns four generators, and Fire Chief Bim Snow said, “We’re thinking of investing in a couple more.”

Although Hancock County residents have suffered few reported injuries, two cars were struck by falling power lines Saturday morning on Route 1A in Dedham. Elise Krampner, 67, of Gouldsboro was taken to Maine Coast Memorial Hospital with glass in her eye.

Early Sunday morning, an unoccupied house in Dedham burned to the ground, but Fire Chief Frank Myatt said the fire was unrelated to the weather. In Hancock, a generator was stolen from a garage.

Power has been restored to the downtown areas of Ellsworth, Bucksport, and Blue Hill. The main roads, such as Route 1 and Route 15 south to Castine, have power back as does much of Deer Isle and Stonington. But side roads in almost every town still have no electricity, particularly in rural inland areas of northern Hancock county, the Blue Hill peninsula, Franklin and Sullivan.

The total damage estimate has been revised to $660,000.

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