Northeast still faces risk of more outages

Posted Dec. 14, 2008, at 8:04 p.m.

JAFFREY, N.H. — Joined by people seeking shelter from the bitter cold, parishioners at the Jaffrey Bible Church on Sunday thanked God for a warm place to sleep and for the utility crews struggling to repair power lines snapped by New England’s devastating ice storm.

“Your fellow Jaffrey residents have stepped up and made this a more bearable situation,” Walt Pryor, recreation department director for the town of 5,700, told the congregation Sunday morning.

Church administrator Rick Needham noted the “terrible devastation in our lives and homes,” recognizing two families whose homes were damaged by falling trees. About 150 people attended Sunday’s service in Jaffrey, about 15 miles from the Massachusetts state line.

The church had been turned into a shelter, with cots and mattresses set up in offices and hallways, and televisions and 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles for children in the basement. Donated food was plentiful, including lobster casserole, pot roast and barbecued chicken.

The ice storm knocked out electrical service to 1.4 million homes and businesses late last week. Roughly 614,000 customers still were without power Sunday afternoon in upstate New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Utilities in hardest-hit New Hampshire said power might not be totally restored to the region until Thursday or Friday.

Central Maine Power said Sunday the number of customers still in the dark because of the ice storm had dropped below 79,000 by midafternoon, with most of them in York County.

Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. reported all its customers were back on line by midday Sunday. Power outages in Maine peaked at more than 220,000 Friday.

CMP said it was making good progress Sunday and expected to complete repairs in more than 20 northern and inland towns by dark. But spokesman John Carroll said many homes in coastal towns west of Damariscotta and through Cumberland and York counties will be out for at least another night.

CMP said more than 500 line workers, 13 pole-setting crews and 159 tree crews were in the field, while hundreds more were involved in support duties.

Maine officials said Sunday that more people who’ve lost power in the ice storm turned to shelters to keep warm as overnight temperatures in most of Maine dipped into the low teens and single numbers.

Lynette Miller of the Maine Emergency Management Agency had no figures but said the shelters were busier than the night before.

Even as power is gradually being restored, the drop in temperatures is making for colder conditions for those who lack wood stoves, electric generators or other methods of ensuring heat.

The temperature dropped to 2 degrees in Fryeburg, 5 in Waterville, 9 in Sanford and 13 in Portland overnight Saturday. The coldest readings were in Aroostook County, including minus 15 in Presque Isle, but that part of the state did not lose power. Miller said about 32 shelters and warming centers remained open.

Officials warned there could be more outages in southern Maine and elsewhere in New England as drooping branches shed ice and snap back to their original positions, potentially taking out more power lines.

President Bush declared a state of emergency for New Hampshire and nine of Massachusetts’ 14 counties, directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide relief assistance.

Adding to the misery of downed power lines and property damage, temperatures dropped into the teens and 20s early Sunday, with single-digit readings in parts of New Hampshire and Maine.

The number of people at shelters in Massachusetts nearly doubled to 1,800 Saturday night as people faced another night without lights and heat. Nearly 1,300 people stayed at 56 shelters in New Hampshire.

In Jaffrey, Nancy Caisse tried to comfort her young daughter, who was sick with a stomach virus and fever, while helping elderly shelter guests with their medication.

She was trained as an emergency medical technician and said she was glad to be of use.

“This is a blessing,” said Caisse, 40. “I’d rather be here helping out.”

New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and Maine declared either limited or full states of emergency Friday. Crews across the region reported the ice had destroyed utility poles, wires and other equipment, but said the extent of damage was unclear because some roads still were impassable.

About 300 National Guardsmen were deployed in New Hampshire, mostly in Stoddard, 27 miles north of Jaffrey, to help with debris cleanup.

Despite the difficulties, utilities were making progress with help from utility crews from Canada and as far away as Virginia and Michigan.

As of Sunday afternoon, Public Service Co. of New Hampshire said about 194,000 of its customers still had no electricity, down from 313,000 Saturday. Statewide, about 230,000 homes and businesses were still blacked out Sunday, down from a peak of 430,000 on Friday, utilities reported.

In Massachusetts, about 162,000 homes and businesses remained dark Sunday, down from 350,000 at the height of the storm. In Vermont, about 10,000 customers were waiting for service, down from about 40,000.

“Slowly but surely we’re creeping in the right direction,” said Peter Judge of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

In Vermont, Green Mountain Power president Mary Powell toured affected areas, helping distribute lunches to the line crews, and said the damage rivaled or even exceeded what happened during the 1998 ice storm that hit northern Vermont.

“Whenever you get this kind of ice accumulation, there’s just nothing from a utility perspective you can do to protect your customers from devastating damage,” Powell said.

Emergency management officials reported four storm-related deaths. One man in New Hampshire and a couple in New York state died of carbon monoxide poisoning from home generators. The body of a Massachusetts public works supervisor who went missing while checking on storm damage was recovered from a reservoir.

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