BANGOR, Maine — There’s a history in Maine of approaching hurricanes blowing out to sea and making little impact other than whipping up spectacular surf for sightseers to gawk at along the coast.
But some storms have caused significant damage and even caused deaths before they’re through.
State officials said Thursday that the latest approaching storm, Hurricane Irene, was likely to land in the second category when it arrives this weekend. The storm’s rainfall and wind open the potential for power outages, widespread flooding and dangerous surf.
“That’s why people are bugging out of here,” Charlie Phippen, Bar Harbor’s harbor master, said Thursday about local boat owners. “Most of the fishermen have made plans to move their boats elsewhere.”
Lynette Miller, spokesperson for Maine Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that Irene is expected to track farther to the west rather than blow out to sea. If the storm’s center passes over New Hampshire as the National Weather Service currently is predicting, it could bring strong winds, rain and significant storm surge into the Gulf of Maine.
“We expect a severe storm,” Miller said.
She said MEMA will continue to get storm updates and will coordinate with county and local emergency management agencies as it prepares for possible responses to the storm.
But the eye of Irene may pass through the region late Sunday anywhere from upstate New York to Eastport, Maine, said John Jensenius, warning coordinator for the National Weather Service in Gray.
Tony Mignone, a forecaster with the weather service in Caribou, said Thursday that rather than passing over New Hampshire, the storm could track farther east, passing over Cape Cod before making landfall on the southern Maine coast. The more the storm center passes over warmer coastal waters south of Cape Cod, he said, the stronger the storm is expected to be when it reaches Maine. He said it likely will be moving at a “fairly good clip” as it approaches New England, which would help preserve its strength.
“The strongest winds are usually on the east side of the storm,” Mignone said. “One of the things we are concerned about is the large waves that could appear ahead of the hurricane.”
The forecaster added that the high tide around 11 p.m. Sunday is expected to be one of the highest of the month, which increases the likelihood of coastal flooding. Regardless of the tide, however, forecasters also are concerned about the number of people in coastal Maine this time of year who may be tempted to go watch the hurricane surf as it pounds the shoreline.
“It’s happened here before,” Mignone said about people being swept to their deaths when large waves pulled them into ocean.
Portland area officials were taking precautions on Thursday for heavy rains and seas. Casco Bay Lines, which operates car and passenger ferries between Portland and nearby islands, released a statement Thursday indicating that it expects to suspend or cancel some of its services over the weekend.
Robert Leeman, Portland’s director of public buildings, said that many boats seemed to be coming in to port before the storm. He said there are no cruise ship visits scheduled for Portland this weekend, but he predicted that American Cruise Lines would tie up one or more of its smaller vessels at the local Ocean Gateway Terminal, which the company uses as its home port.
Leeman said his staff planned to remove floats and was checking building drains and storm sewers to make sure they were clear for heavy rains the storm is expected to bring. He said if the storm ends up having a more severe impact on Portland, city staff would be ready to open up shelters.
“The last report I just looked at suggested [the storm] might be going inland more” to the west, he said.
In Acadia National Park, Chief Ranger Stuart West said that the park is planning to close its campgrounds on Sunday morning. Whether it takes additional steps such as closing Sand Beach, Ocean Drive or other low-lying roads at Seawall or Schoodic Point, he said, will depend on how conditions develop.
Ocean Drive runs along the shore between Sand Beach and Otter Cliffs. Thunder Hole, a popular attraction there, is next to where several people were swept off the rocks and into the surf while watching waves generated by Hurricane Bill in August 2009, leaving one 7-year-old girl dead.
Phippen, the harbor master in Bar Harbor, said the cruise ship Maasdam still was expected to visit on Friday but that its planned reappearance on Sunday likely would be canceled. The smaller cruise ship Independence, which usually ties up directly to the town pier when it visits Bar Harbor, also likely will skip its scheduled stop on Sunday, he said.
Phippen said he has not heard from the cruise ship operators about their plans for Sunday, but he is planning to secure some of the town’s floats and to take up others in anticipation of heavy seas during the weekend and into Monday. The harbor master said forecasts he has seen are predicting waves 5 to 9 feet high off MDI.
“[Conditions are] going to be unstable for a few days,” Phippen said.
Penobscot County Emergency Management Agency officials are reviewing emergency plans and communicating and coordinating with other organizations and municipalities.
“The National Weather Service is laying out prospects for a significant storm,” said Tom Robertson, the agency’s director.
Officials are keeping a close eye on where the storm will make landfall. If Irene comes ashore in New York, it likely will be a “real big storm” for Maine, he said. If it hits North Carolina, it will cause significant rainfall late Saturday morning or early afternoon.
“The ground’s already pretty saturated, so a lot of large trees with shallow roots could come down,” Robertson said. “The winds are probably going to start late Saturday night and certainly Sunday. We’re looking at 50 to 60 miles per hour with a possibility of 70.”
Robertson said officials from the National Weather Service in Caribou and others involved in the conference call were likening the early characteristics of this storm to a recent hurricane that was so destructive its name was retired by the National Hurricane Center.
“Our last significant storm in 1985 was Gloria and it’s very similar to this one,” Robertson said.
Officials discussed possible options and evacuation plans.
“One of the considerations is if they close Acadia [National Park] and evacuate people off Mount Desert, we’d need a place to put them, but my hunch is most tourists are planning to leave or already in the process of leaving,” Robertson said. “I heard the local grocery stores looked like it does when we have a big snowstorm coming and everyone stocks up on canned goods and water.”
Robertson said a packed weekend events schedule complicates things.
“We have the folk festival in Bangor and air show in Brunswick this weekend and the forecast was cautiously suggesting we may want to start taking things down Saturday night, but we’ll know more when we meet again Friday morning,” he added.
The Associated Press reported that the board of the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront planned to meet Saturday to decide whether or not to hold the final day of performances in Bangor. Rain won’t stop the festival, but high winds might, an official said.
The University of Maine in Orono is extending its move-in hours to accommodate sophomores, juniors and seniors traveling to campus this weekend. Students will be allowed to move into residence halls as late as 9 p.m. Saturday, according to university spokesman Joe Carr.
Move-ins will resume at 9 a.m. Sunday.
Carr said students should not take “any unnecessary risks” by traveling during the storm.
Robertson said there are already pre-printed evacuation and shelter setup plans, but he’s encouraging people to take the time to make emergency plans just in case.
“The public needs to sit down today, if you haven’t already done it, and come up with a plan in case things do get messy,” Robertson said. “People just do not go to shelters in Maine. They’d rather ride it out or go to a relative’s house, but they need to have some pre-packed kits ready to go with important papers and things. The most important thing is monitoring the radio and TV for updates.”
In Piscataquis County, Tom Iverson, emergency management agency director, said Thursday that he also was working with local EMA directors to ensure shelters are in place if needed during the storm.
Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin said he hoped the county would have some forewarning of the storm’s pathway as it progresses up the coast. Early indications are that it will cross Piscataquis County. He said if needed he will have extra patrol on Sunday night to help Central Maine Power Co. with traffic control for any debris clean-up.
“We’re hoping that it will dissipate before it gets up too far into the state,” Goggin said. “We do get complacent and forget how much damage Mother Nature can bestow upon us.”
The people of more northern reaches of Penobscot County seemed largely unaffected by the looming storm, at least if their purchases are any indication. Clerks at Smart’s Tru-Value and Aubuchon hardware stores in Lincoln said that buyers showed awareness of the storm, but didn’t buy much to prepare for it.
“We have had a few people come in and get sump pumps at the main store,” said Smart’s clerk Hokan Okeson. “In the annex some people were calling about generators. That was about it.”
“It’s been a pretty steady flow of customers,” Aubuchon assistant store manager Jerry Gagnon said. “People were talking about the storm, but they weren’t doing anything special or different or out of the way.”
Belfast is another harbor where boaters are packing up in a hurry and looking for hurricane holes — protected places to moor their vessels during the storm, according to harbor master Katherine Messier.
“Most people are expecting the worst and are hauling out,” she said Thursday afternoon.
Because the latest weather updates predict that Irene will hit the hardest to the southeast, and Belfast Harbor is exposed in that direction, people there are taking this one seriously.
“We’re hoping that it will weaken over land. But you never know,” she said.
At least one midcoast official is optimistic that the storm won’t be one for the record books.
Ray Sisk, director of the Knox County Emergency Management Agency, said that while he’s preparing for the worst, he’s hoping for the best.
“Every successive hurricane advisory we’re getting from the National Hurricane Center is moving this storm to the west,” he said. “It’s tracking up the New Hampshire-Vermont border. It’s going to be a bad day for a picnic in the Connecticut River Valley … and good for us.”
Nevertheless, Sisk is urging residents to take some precautions, among them to go outside now to trim trees and also to put outdoor furniture inside so it won’t blow around during Irene, which he expects to be mainly a wind event.
With the weather service calling for just 1 to 5 inches of rain, Irene probably won’t be the first occasion that the state’s new evacuation signs are put to use, Sisk said.
“If we were to have a [Category] 4, we would absolutely be wanting to get people away from the coast,” he said. “But every forecast I’m seeing, every weather advisory I’m seeing, is better for us. Hopefully we’ll get out of this with no more than a bad day at the beach.”
However, Coast Guard public affairs officer Nick Barrow wasn’t quite so sanguine. Officials are urging people to act now to take their boats out of the water, he said, adding that boats breaking free of their moorings during heavy weather is a big problem. Small-craft weather advisory flags are already flying in Portland Harbor, he said.
Unsecured boats can drift ashore or sink — and cause problems for Coast Guard crew members either way.
“When boats that break free are reported to us as being adrift, we search. We send crews out,” he said. “It extends resources and may cause unnecessary searches to occur.”
Additionally, if boaters do find themselves in real trouble during a major storm, it’s possible that the weather conditions could exceed the capacity of Coast Guard boats and aircraft.
“We may not be able to get them,” Barrow said.
The public in Somerset County is urged to be prepared, said Michael Smith, director of Somerset County Communications Center and Emergency.
Smith said he has doing his part to make sure any power outages caused by the storm are dealt with quickly.
“Just making sure all the departments are aware of what’s going to happen and they have their equipment ready to go,” said Smith. “[Central Maine Power] was on the call this morning. Bangor Hydro was on the call this morning. I know I’ve had contact with the local rep from CMP and they started their protocol as far as hurricane management goes.”
Exactly what the hurricane will bring is still unclear.
“I think we may have a clearer vision come [Friday] morning.”
Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service Co., its sister utility to the north, are coordinating plans to have staff on standby over the weekend from virtually every department, including repair crews as well as customer service, safety, stock room and environmental workers, to name a few, Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Susan Faloon said Thursday.
“It’s better to be prepared for something big and have it fizzle than the other way,” she said.
“We’re really looking at Sunday as the focus,” Faloon said. “Our Bangor and northern Penobscot division probably will be more significantly hit [than other service areas] if the storm stays on the track that it’s on now.”
How to prepare
The Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross is helping residents prepare for the storm, according to a prepared statement the organization released Thursday. Red Cross Pine Tree offices in Bangor, Rockland and Caribou are advising all residents of eastern and northern Maine, especially those in coastal Knox, Waldo, Hancock and Washington Counties, to check weather updates and make sure they have emergency and disaster supplies.
Gretchen O’Grady, emergency services director of the Pine Tree Chapters, said homeowners, visitors and residents should secure outdoor furniture, grills and other items that can be tossed by the wind, and have batteries ready for flashlights, radios and lanterns.
O’Grady also suggested that Maine residents have a full tank of gas in their cars, keep a three-day supply of prescription medicines in their homes and pick up any special items they need at home by midday Saturday. Visitors and seasonal residents, especially those on coastal Maine islands, should be on the lookout for storm plans, she said.
Anyone with questions should contact the Pine Tree Chapter of the Red Cross at 941-2903, through its website at www.maineredcross.org or by stopping by the main office at 73 Hammond St.in Bangor.
Central Maine Power cautioned people to stay away from downed power lines and flooded basements. People should have a cell phone or land line available and should take care when using generators or alternate heating sources such kerosene heaters or unused fireplaces.
Other agencies advised Mainers to remove boats from the water or, keeping possible storm surge in mind, to secure them and to make sure bilge pumps are functioning properly. Extra fenders and tie-down lines should be used and all valuables removed from vessels left in the water.
Home and boat owners were urged to document their belongings, with photos or videos if appropriate, and to keep copies of their insurance policies in a safe place. Serial numbers of possessions and contact information for emergency response agencies and insurance companies also should be kept in places where they are safely and easily accessible.
BDN writers Abigail Curtis, Bill Trotter, Diana Bowley, Ryan McLaughlin, Andrew Neff, Alex Barber, Nick McCrea, Dawn Gagnon, Nick Sambides and The Associated Press contributed to this report.