AUBURN — As Vice President Al Gore’s motorcade negotiated the ice-crusted road leading into a Sunset Avenue subdivision Thursday, the swath of devastation he had viewed from his Blackhawk helicopter struck him flush in the face.
The hardy souls who live beneath the fallen power lines and splintered tree limbs had ventured out to meet the second-most-important man in the United States.
They greeted him with little more than tired smiles and huge heaps of collected debris that adorned the edge of every lot, waiting to be carted away by the Auburn Public Works Department.
“It’s every bit as bad as I thought it would be, and they were all telling me how much worse it looked three or four days ago,” Gore told reporters. “Even now, these lines are still down and it just goes to show you how serious it’s been with people working full time around the clock. It’s incredible.”
Joined by Gov. Angus S. King, the Maine congressional delegation and James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Gore visited the Lewiston and Augusta areas, two regions receiving the heaviest damage from last week’s unrelenting ice storm.
Along with federal aid accompanying the state’s designation as a federal disaster area, the Clinton administration sent additional repair crews and equipment aboard military transport jets based in North Carolina to boost the efforts of nearly 4,000 emergency workers deployed throughout most of the state.
“On behalf of President Clinton and the whole country, I extend sympathy to those who have suffered losses of property and, in a few cases, people who have died and been injured,” Gore said. “I want you to know that the whole country is standing with you in these two communities and throughout the state.”
Neighborhood residents watched in near disbelief as Secret Service agents fanned out across their street to hold back about 50 members of the state and national media swarming along the edges of their property. Then they saw the small white sport utility vehicle emblazoned with the seal of the vice president of the United States.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Renee Wilson, who had just gotten her power back Wednesday night. “I mean, why here? There’s other places that have it worse.”
“This is kind of a surprise,” said John Ward, who lives a street away from Wilson. “I heard he was coming and there he is.”
For local reporters, the strange dance choreographed between the vice president and the national news media was a rare peek into the business of White House coverage. With the help of muscle provided courtesy of the Secret Service, Gore staffers herded a docile mob of reporters and photographers into key positions that would provide the best angle of Gore as he:
Shook his head in disbelief at the devastation.
Grasped hands with homeowners coping with their losses.
Fed a tree limb into a chipper.
Apparently unaware of Joe Lineman’s warning from Central Maine Power’s television ad (“No line is safe to touch, evah!”), Gore even grabbed hold of a downed power line, raising the eyebrows of at least one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect him.
Even if the photo opportunities were contrived, there was no doubt of Gore’s sincerity. The vice president repeatedly expressed his admiration for emergency workers who had responded to the call for assistance in the storm that had left more than 500,000 without electrical service.
He also empathized with those who were still in the dark Thursday.
“Of course nobody who is sitting in their homes without power believes that it’s quick enough, but they all appreciate greatly these incredible efforts by these folks to get the lines fixed,” he said of the utility workers. “I think everybody understands. This is just unprecedented. There’s never been a catastrophe like this in Maine and so it has taken some time.”
During an earlier press conference in Augusta, Gov. King told the vice president, “It’s not a terribly visible disaster — it’s not like a hurricane, where the roof is blown off,” and there are dramatic pictures for TV. “But if you wanted to design a storm to knock out the electrical system of an entire state this was it.”
King said that although the state had been declared a disaster area for public expenditures, he would like for that to be extended for individuals and businesses.
Gore immediately said, “Approved,” and the crowded hearing room in the State Office Building burst into loud and sustained applause.
“That’s what I call a responsive federal government,” King said, smiling, and Gore answered gravely, “I’m sorry it took a full two seconds.”
Elaborating on the federal effort to help Maine businesses and residents recover more quickly from the financial hardships incurred as a result of the storm, Gore promised several programs designed to assist those hardest hit.
“We will provide not only SBA low-interest-rate loans, but also $28 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and, new today, the individual grant assistance for individuals and families who have had expenses related to the storm and who need help in getting back on their feet.”
The HUD money could be used to repair homes and businesses damaged by the storm. It normally is released in the spring or summer and is not normallly intended for disaster relief.
Dana Totman, deputy director of the Maine State Housing Authority, said he was confused by the press releases he had seen because the money has already been budgeted for other programs in the state next year. “It would be like me giving you your paycheck this week and saying, `Here, I’m giving you this money for emergency relief.’
“What I would request here at housing authority is to get the president to release $6 million in low-income home energy assistance,” Totman said. “That’s the relief we need.”
The congressional delegation has pressed for that aid, but had not received word yet Thursday afternoon.
Doug Dunbar, the press secretary for U.S. Rep. John Baldacci, said the HUD money is for emergency relief because it is available right away and the use is flexible. If the money is used for storm-related costs and more money is needed for the other programs, he said, “the delegation is certainly prepared to advocate for a supplemental release of money down the road, and that is possible.”
Several members of the delegation and the governor also pressed Gore about the major cost of the storm, which will be on the shoulders of the private utility companies. That’s estimated at well over $30 million, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency money does not cover it, yet it probably will be passed on to people on their electricity bills. When Gore was answering that FEMA cannot cover those costs, and spoke of the grants and loans that would be available, in a slip of the tongue he mentioned “low-income utilities.”
David Flanagan, the president of Central Maine Power, said afterward, “Hey, we qualify,” with a rueful smile. But he said he was encouraged because the vice president seemed to understand that the real damage was to the electricity infrastructure and promised to look into what the options are for funding. Flanagan said that now CMP will be putting together the documentation to prove what its expenses have been, and he knows that there are a lot of people pushing the issue for him.
They are. Major Gen. Earl Adams, commissioner of the Department of Defense and Veterans Services, told of people who had been working around the clock to solve problems and set up shelters, and “sometimes around 12 o’clock or 1 I’d put my head down for a few moments, but the phone would ring — it would be Governor King on the other end …”
“I know the feeling,” Gore interrupted, laughing.