Storm cuts power for 140,000

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 8:59 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:47 a.m.

A howling storm that produced gusts of up to 91 mph and dumped more than 8 inches of rain in parts of southern Maine knocked out power to about 140,000 homes and businesses Thursday night and into Friday. Residents were warned that it could take days to undo the damage to power lines knocked out by heavy precipitation and strong winds, which toppled trees and utility poles across the state.

The Maine Emergency Management Agency said that as of 4 p.m., about 100,000 homes and businesses were without electricity, down from a peak of about 140,000.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci declared a state of emergency Friday to let power restoration crews work longer hours. Crews from Canada, Massachusetts and Michigan were summoned to Maine to assist.

Central Maine Power Co. warned it could be several days before power is totally restored. Damage was heaviest in York and Cumberland counties.

In Knox County, 8,166 customers were without power Friday afternoon, according to CMP officials. About 2,200 of those accounts were in St. George, where the whole town was without power.

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Knox County Regional Airport clocked winds at 54 mph and Aqua Maine in Rockport reported 4.28 inches of rainfall Friday morning.

“It really was concentrated from Knox [County] down,” said CMP spokesman John Carroll. “It got progressively more intense in terms of outages.”

The storm created unusual problems because ground frost melted and allowed trees to sway and tip over. Frost keeps trees tight in the ground and prevents tipping, but branches can break instead, which causes less severe damage, Carroll said.

Carroll said Friday there was no timeline in Knox County for restoring the power, and people closer to main roads would get power back first.

Camden-area schools were in session Friday, but SAD 40 schools in the Waldoboro area were closed because of road washouts. RSU 13 schools in the Rockland area were closed due to power outages.

In Rockland’s downtown, trees were uprooted in Limerock Street and a roof blew off a Main Street building and into the road. Main Street was closed in the morning and reopened early Friday afternoon.

Rockland’s sinkhole on Old County Road apparently widened a bit at the top, according to public works officials. The winds blew down the chain link fence around the hole and was replaced by public works crews. The crews also dealt with wires down on Burrows and Limerock streets, flooding on Route 1 and traffic lights that went out.

Jeremy Smalley of Tenants Harbor didn’t complain about the uprooted tree in his front yard. He took his chain saw to it Friday afternoon. He wanted to cut up the tree before the power came back on and electrified it.

“I’ve been cutting pulp wood, so it works to my advantage,” he said as his kids did cartwheels and bounced on moon boots in his driveway. “I can’t get ahold of CMP, so I have to do it.”

According to St. George harbormaster Dave Schmanska, there was minimal boat damage. Schmanska said small skiffs got swept off wharves and sank, but other than that, “we got very lucky — no major vessel damage.”

Several roads were closed in St. George because of downed power lines, according to Fire Department Lt. Chris Leavitt. Kinney Woods Road washed out and was closed for 24 hours due to water running over the road, but reopened Friday afternoon.

Camden’s Maine Public Broadcasting Network antenna at the top of Ragged Mountain broke during the storm and interrupted the station’s fundraising efforts Friday morning. Gil Maxwell, the chief technology officer at MPBN, said it will cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to fix and will be done in about two weeks.

“It’s part of the price of doing business on the top of mountaintops in Maine,” Maxwell said.

A boat went aground in Owls Head at about 10 p.m. Thursday, according to Coast Guard officials.

“God was with that boat. It laid right on the beach there,” said Coast Guard officer Curtis Barthel.

The storm caused scattered power outages and temporary road closures in Waldo County, said Dale Rowley, director of the county’s Emergency Management Agency.

Roads closed due to downed power lines, blown-over trees or partial erosion included Route 137 and the Files Hill Road in Thorndike. All had reopened by the early afternoon Friday.

“Most towns are calling and saying they had no real damage,” Rowley said, adding that last April’s heavy rainstorms wreaked much more havoc in Waldo County.

By afternoon, fewer than 200 CMP customer accounts in Waldo County were without power, said Carroll. Those still in the dark were mostly at the county’s southern edges, including 26 homes or businesses on Islesboro, 45 in Lincolnville, 52 in Montville and 60 in Palermo.

“The lower tier of towns in Waldo County — they got it,” he said of the storm.

In Hancock County thousands of residents found themselves without power by the time the sun came up Friday. Many of them also could not get far from their homes because of trees blocking surrounding roadways.

As of 10:30 a.m. Friday, Bangor Hydro was reporting that more than 12,000 customers were without power, with the vast majority of those outages in Hancock County. By late Friday morning, several communities in Washington and Penobscot counties still had areas without power, according to information posted on the company’s Web site.

By approximately 5 p.m. Friday, Bangor Hydro had reduced the number of customers without power to about 6,300. Because of the amount of damage in Hancock County, some customers there might not get their power back until Saturday or Sunday, the company indicated in a prepared statement.

Ralph Pinkham, Hancock County’s emergency management director, said most of the county’s storm damage occurred on the Blue Hill Peninsula.

“The towns of Blue Hill, Brooklin, Sedgwick and Deer Isle probably got hit the hardest,” Pinkham said.

The damage, though extensive, was limited mostly to downed trees and power lines, with some minor flooding, according to area emergency response dispatchers. Several said they had not heard any reports of injuries or of trees damaging buildings.

Pinkham said around noon Friday that he was unaware of any plans to open emergency shelters in the affected communities. He said the relatively warm conditions outside should reduce the discomfort level for people waiting for their electricity to be restored.

John Cousins, a Sedgwick firefighter and ranger with the Maine Forest Service, said he had been called at 3 a.m. Friday to respond to reports of downed power lines along Route 15 near Caterpillar Hill. Throughout the morning, firefighters in the Blue Hill area were busy clearing roads and putting out small roadside fires started by arcing power lines, he said.

An estimated 60 or more trees were knocked down along Route 175 alone in Sedgwick, according to the National Weather Service.

Cousins was still at it around midafternoon, one of a dozen forest rangers assisting in storm response efforts throughout the state. He was helping Brooklin firefighters clear brush on Flye Point Road where several fallen trees were hanging on power lines and blocking the road. About 25 homes at the end of the peninsula, 15 of which had year-round residents, were affected by the fallen trees, he said.

“They’ve not been able to get out since 3 o’clock this morning,” Cousins said. “Not only did they not have any power, but they couldn’t call out.”

FairPoint Communications had workers out in the area restoring phone service and assisting Bangor Hydro with securing utility lines.

Roger Kellett of Brooklin missed witnessing the local storm damage because he was visiting one of his daughters Thursday night in Brunswick. He returned home Friday to find several large, heavy limbs from a tree in his yard lying inches from his house. A large limb several inches thick broke off a tree and was caught in the utility wires.

Kellett said his Bangor Hydro service had not been restored but that he had a generator and backup battery power to use. He said he told dispatchers at Bangor Hydro that he could wait until they had helped others who had no backup power.

“The batteries will last us two or three days,” he said. “At least nobody has to worry about their house freezing up.”

Emergency response crews on Mount Desert Island and in the Bucksport and Ellsworth areas also responded to calls of downed trees and power lines and to vehicles that had slid off roads, but the storm damage in those areas was relatively minor, according to dispatchers and incident reports.

In southern Maine, Scarborough received nearly 8.4 inches of rain over a 48-hour period, while Standish got about 7.5 inches. Gorham, South Windham and South Berwick all got more than 6.5 inches.

At the same time, northern areas and higher elevations were receiving snow, with Jackman recording 22 inches.

It’s unusual for Maine to get so much rain in February.

While a relentless winter storm that blasted the Northeast brought cold air to the South and West, warmer moist air poured into Maine from the ocean, said National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Cempa.

“New York City ended up with a foot or a foot and a half of snow, and we end up with all this rain,” he said.

The top wind gust of 91 mph was recorded at the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands that straddles the Maine-New Hampshire border about 10 miles offshore. On the mainland, gusts of 70 mph were recorded in Brooklin and Lubec, while Portland received a gust of 67 mph, and Brunswick got one of 62 mph.

Utility crews from New Brunswick and Massachusetts arrived Friday to help CMP, and additional crews from Michigan were on their way, said CMP spokesman Carroll.

Officials said the rain and winds downed trees and utility poles statewide. At one point, more than 70 roads were closed, primarily in southern and midcoast areas, according to the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

The heavy rain opened up a 2-by-3 pothole on the Maine Turnpike forcing crews to shut down one of the southbound lanes in Falmouth for five hours, said spokesman Dan Paradee.

Amtrak announced Friday that its Downeaster passenger train that runs from Boston to Portland would not be operating on Saturday or Sunday because of downed trees and power outages.

The Coast Guard said Friday it assisted a number of vessels in danger of being swept from their docks in the Portland area in Thursday night’s high winds. No injuries were reported.

MEMA said Friday evening it had opened warming centers in York, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties for people whose homes are without heat. Lincoln County centers are located at: Wiscasset Fire Department, 51 Bath Road/Route 1; Waldoboro Fire Department, 1600 Atlantic/Route 1; Bremen Fire Department, 6 Ledge Land; Dresden Fire Department, 1075 Middle Road; and Boothbay Center Fire Department, 911 Wiscasset Road/Route 27.

BDN writers Bill Trotter in Ellsworth, Abigail Curtis in Belfast and Heather Steeves in Rockland and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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