BANGOR — On the eve of his arrival in Maine to survey personally some of the damage from last week’s ice storm, Vice President Al Gore approved a request made by Gov. Angus King on Wednesday to airlift additional out-of-state utility crews and vehicles to Maine to aid in the power restoration effort.
About 50 utility crews and 46 trucks have been offered from North Carolina. Those crews and equipment are expected to be airlifted on military aircraft to the Brunswick Naval Air Station this morning.
“The problem is we have hundreds of utility crews from out-of-state. They are cold and tired and it’s time for them to go home. Plus those from the Mid-Atlantic states are needed back home where they are expecting this major snowstorm Friday,” said Dennis Bailey, King’s spokesman.
At press time Wednesday evening, about 104,890 customers statewide remained without power — 98,290 Central Maine Power customers and 6,600 Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. customers.
Crews from places such as Delaware and Maryland that have been aiding CMP crews for several days were caught off guard Wednesday by the severe cold that blasted the state.
The National Guard and L.L. Bean donated parkas and other outdoor gear to clothe the utility workers.
“Crews coped with freezing winds and additional outages this morning,” said CMP spokesman Mark Ishkanian, “but were able to continue making progress.
Crews are now keeping an eye on a large weather system headed for New England.
The National Weather Service expected winds to die down Wednesday night, but reported even colder temperatures were expected to settle over the state.
Forecasters were still unsure whether a large storm system would affect Maine on Friday. A storm watch was posted for New Hampshire and western Maine for heavy snow tonight and Friday.
With reinforcement from utilities and other companies throughout the Northeast, CMP now has more than 1,500 people on the road making repairs.
Bangor Hydro spokesman Bill Cohen said his company had about 80 two-person crews working on lines and another 75 people clearing trees from lines.
About 30 of those crews are from Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island, Cohen said.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, plans were being made for the arrival of Vice President Gore, who is expected to land at the Brunswick Naval Air Station at 10 a.m. today. Gore will fly by helicopter to Augusta, where he is expected to meet with Gov. King and other state and federal officials at the Maine Emergency Managment Agency’s office in the basement of the State Office Building.
Plans Wednesday night called for two helicopters — one with the vice president on board and the other with King and the state’s congressional delegation — to fly from Augusta to Lewiston. Plans call for the helicopters to land in Lewiston so that Gore can survey some of the damage on the ground.
Damage estimates from the storm continued to grow Wednesday, and Federal Emergency Management Agency crews were in the state recording preliminary estimates.
Officials from the Maine Emergency Management Agency said their latest data indicated that the cost to state and local agencies of storm damage was more than $15 million.
In Penobscot County, U.S. Rep. John Baldacci helped provide a tour for FEMA officials who checked out the damage on Broadway and Poplar streets in Bangor, where one tree had fallen and crushed a car.
Damage estimates in Penobscot County, with 20 towns left to report, exceeded $4 million, Baldacci said.
Jerry Durnbaugh, FEMA’s lead public affairs officer for this disaster, clarified Wednesday that while most of the federal assistance requested by King had been authorized Tuesday by President Clinton, the aid for individuals affected by the ice storm had not yet been approved.
“The state is still gathering information to support their request for individual assistance,” he said.
Baldacci said Tuesday he believes the aid for individuals will be forthcoming. “It’s just a matter of completing the paperwork,” Baldacci said.
Bangor Hydro made a lot of progress in Washington County on Tuesday night and Wednesday, with an estimated 1,000 customers still without power Wednesday night. That figure was down from a high of 5,000 Tuesday.
Cohen stressed that those figures were simply estimates and the Hydro was encouraging customers still without power in Washington and Hancock counties to call Hydro’s customer service center.
“We need those customers without power in those two counties to make sure that we are aware of their outage and to make sure our records are up-to-date,” Cohen said.
CMP encouraged its customers to turn on the switch to their front outside lights to help crews determine who has power, as they are doing an increasing amount of work at night.
Both companies continued to ask that people refrain from talking to power crews who are working on restoring electricity.
“Please do not stop our crews to seek information about restoration,” Cohen said. “They do not have dispatch information and you slow us down and can put yourself at risk of an accident.”
As of late Wednesday, 4,000 Bangor Hydro customers remained without power in the Bangor division; 100 in the northern division; 1,500 in the Hancock division and 1,000 in the Machias division.
In Augusta, 18,000 CMP customers remained without electricity as did 1,500 in Skowhegan, 10,200 in the Rockland-Belfast area, 400 in Dover-Foxcroft and 10,075 in Waterville.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 111 shelters remained open statewide, housing 1,670 people.
CMP line worker Carl McCrillis of Pittsfield said Murphy’s Law was working against his crew Wednesday.
“We started off the day with four trucks,” he said. “The first one lost its generator in Newport. Then the second one lost its hydraulics. The third one just quit. We’re down to one truck.”
Another problem McCrillis’ crew experienced was missing wires.
“We pull up to a break and discover that 300 feet of wire are missing. Where is it? Under the ice. We hooked one truck to a cable and the front of the truck lifted right up in the air. At another spot, when we hooked the truck to the cable, the wheels just spun. That cable is just frozen solid. And where do we get another 300 feet of cable?” McCrillis asked.
McCrillis said he has been working with power crews from Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. “These guys are just great,” he said.
With their assistance, he said, steady progress is being made in central Maine. “We got it all the way to Patterson’s Store in Burnham,” he said, “but then we found a broken pole farther down the Lower Road. In some places it is pretty slow going.”
Meredith Finn, spokesman for CMP, said her company was told Wednesday that people were stealing downed electrical lines and trying to sell them to junk dealers for the copper they contain.
Bangor Hydro and CMP are combing the nation for electrical lines, transformers and utility poles. Trucks are pouring into the state from as far away as Mississippi with replacement poles and other electrical supplies.
Bangor Hydro will need 170 utility poles, 144,000 feet of 115,000 volt transmission line just to repair the 8-mile line that went down in Washington County, Cohen said.
That project alone is expected to cost the company upwards of $1.5 million. Cohen said manufacturing companies across the country had gone to great lengths to increase their productivity to help Maine get back up as soon as possible.
As a result of that help, Cohen said, the company hoped to begin rebuilding that 8-mile transmission line near Deblois early next week with a completion date by the end of February.
Cohen said an out-of-state plant that manufactures transformers actually opened up Sunday night and began cranking out transformers slated for Bangor Hydro.
“We’ve got 60 poles on the way now and we should have them on Friday or over the weekend and we have 30,000 feet of line manufactured and have secured the balance needed for the Down East project,” Cohen said.
Though the bitter temperatures and high winds slowed progress a bit, Cohen said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the effort to restore power to the company’s 6,600 customers still in the dark.