BANGOR — More utility trucks and out-of-state power crews rolled off military cargo planes at the Brunswick Naval Air Station on Thursday to help with the “slow but steady” progress being made to restore power to approximately 82,000 Maine households still without electricity.
The military planes, carrying crews and equipment from North Carolina, began landing in Brunswick shortly after Vice President Al Gore left the base to begin his tour of some of the areas in Augusta and Lewiston that were ravaged by last week’s ice storm.
Power officials were keeping their eyes to the skies, but could only hope that a storm working its way through New England would stay to the south of Maine.
The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for parts of New Hampshire and York County on Thursday night and a winter weather advisory for central and southwestern Maine where 3 to 6 inches of snow was forecast for late Thursday and today.
Northern Maine was expected to escape the storm.
The Maine Department of Transportation issued a request Thursday that the public avoid all nonessential driving during any storms occurring while the restoration effort continues.
The DOT advised that many plow routes on local roads still have obstacles due to storm debris which will hinder plowing operations.
State road crews have been ordered to give priority to assisting utility crews working to restore power, even if those efforts are on town roads.
“This could delay sufficient plowing of state roads in some areas,” said Dennis Bailey, spokesman for Gov. Angus King.
At the Maine Emergency Management Agency’s command post in Augusta, staff switched gears Thursday from handing out generators and tracking shelter activity to providing information about federal aid to business owners and individual homeowners who are looking to alleviate the costs attributed to the worst ice storm to hit Maine in decades.
Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were in the state to begin the long and tedious task of assessing storm damage. As of Wednesday, damage and cost estimates to local and state agencies topped $15 million, but that figure was expected to rise dramatically over the next few days.
During his visit Thursday, Gore extended federal assistance to public entities to individuals, including emergency housing, low-interest loans, grants, crisis counseling and legal aid.
Gore also declared Aroostook County a disaster area Thursday. That county originally was not addressed by President Clinton’s disaster declaration earlier this week. Gov. King, however, told Gore on Thursday that much of southern Aroostook also had suffered severe damage, and Gore immediately included that county on the federal aid eligibility list.
U.S. Reps. Tom Allen and John Baldacci said the Department of Housing and Urban Development was immediately releasing more than $28 million to the state of Maine and to individual communities, including $1.2 million in Community Development Block Grants to Bangor to help families affected by the storm. The money normally would have been sent to Maine in April.
The Federal Housing Administration also issued a moratorium on foreclosures of FHA-insured mortgages to prevent people affected by the storm from losing their homes.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has asked HUD for help paying more than $30 million in damage that Maine utilities say are the result of the ice storm.
Anyone interested in trying to obtain federal assistance is encouraged to call a special number linked to FEMA headquarters in Augusta — 1-800-462-9029. The hearing-impaired may call 1-800-462-7585. Have your Social Security number, income, and insurance coverage information available when you call.
Sgt. Maj. Allyson Cox of the Maine Army National Guard said her office at MEMA was fielding calls from countless business owners who have suffered major business and inventory losses as a result of the storm.
“The calls range from a limousine service that was unable to get their cars on the road for five days, to restaurant owners who went days without power and lost not only business, but freezers full of food,” she said.
State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. said Thursday it expects claim payments from its company to reach $8 million. The company is anticipating receiving about 5,500 claims from customers.
The company has established disaster offices throughout New York, Vermont and Maine, and policyholders were encouraged to call their local State Farm agent.
One State Farm official called it “the greatest catastrophe challenge we have seen in Maine in many years.”
The governor Thursday extended the service of the Maine National Guard through next Tuesday. That order applies to those working at Guard headquarters in Augusta and to 200 members of the 240th Engineering Group also out of Augusta. The remaining 150 Guard members now working around the state are scheduled to remain on duty through today, but they also may be ordered to remain active, said Maj. John McKenney of the Maine Army National Guard.
“They are currently assessing the situation to see what is needed,” McKenney said.
While tens of thousands of Mainers remained without heat or lights, there did appear to be some light at the end of the icy tunnel.
As of late Thursday afternoon Central Maine Power Co. reported 78,000 customers remained without power, down from the peak last Friday of 275,000.
Districts still affected were: 5,500 in Alfred; 15,300 in Augusta; 18,000 in Bridgton; 2,600 in Brunswick; 250 in Dover-Foxcroft; 1,000 in Farmington; 12,900 in Lewiston; 5,200 in Portland; 8,500 in Rockland-Belfast; 700 in Skowhegan and 8,200 in Waterville.
Bill Cohen, spokesman for Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., said 3,782 of that company’s customers remained without power Thursday night, 2,000 of them in the Bangor area. Nearly 50,000 Bangor Hydro customers were without power at the peak of the crisis.
Cohen reported only two households without power in the northern division of Lincoln and Howland; 980 in the Hancock County area and 800 in the Machias area.
“It is slow going,” said Cohen, “The outages are farther apart, and it’s taking us a lot longer to turn on fewer people.”
Another 60 customers in the Calais area served by the Eastern Maine Energy Co-op also were without power Thursday night.
Utility companies were encouraging customers with power to switch on their front porch light so that passing power crews would be able to identify those houses still without electricity.
Cohen further urged powerless customers to place signs at the end of their driveways.
“People should continue to call and make sure their outage is recorded with us. We are making progress. Our crews are working shifts of 16 hours on and eight hours off,” he said.
Both companies continued to urge customers to shut off generators when power crews were in their areas, to avoid injuries to line workers. Running generators can result in a dangerous “backfeed” of power that energizes lines that crews may think are dead, officials said.
After a rash of thefts, police are urging Mainers to keep a sharp eye on portable generators.
Between 12 and 15 generators have been stolen from Bell Atlantic telephone switching stations between Cumberland and Bucksport. The thefts caused temporary telephone outages.
Five generators were stolen in Cumberland, and Police Chief Joseph Charron said suspects have been identified in the other thefts.
“It appears that four of the five were stolen for personal gain, and not because they needed them to heat a house,” Charron said. “This appeared to be a moneymaking venture.”
Continued power outages around Maine have made gas generators a target for thieves.
Generators should not be used indoors because they emit dangerous carbon monoxide fumes. More than 150 people have been treated for carbon monoxide poisoning in Maine since the storm hit late last week. Two people have died from the fumes. The storm is being blamed for three deaths.
Public works crews, bolstered by help from the Maine National Guard, continued to clear downed tree limbs from roads throughout the state.
In Bangor, residents were encouraged to leave brush and limbs at the side of the road for removal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.