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LePage declares state of emergency as state prepares for Irene

Posted Aug. 26, 2011, at 12:10 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 27, 2011, at 3:21 p.m.

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An image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Irene as photographed from onboard the International Space Station at 3:14 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. The image, captured with a 38mm lens, reveals the eye of the storm at center of the frame.
NASA | AP
An image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Irene as photographed from onboard the International Space Station at 3:14 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. The image, captured with a 38mm lens, reveals the eye of the storm at center of the frame.
A contractor hired by the Portland Downtown Association on Friday uses a bucket truck to take down a street light banner in anticipation of Hurricane Irene. Past storms have damaged decorative city banners, said one association guide, so this time, the group is taking them down.
A contractor hired by the Portland Downtown Association on Friday uses a bucket truck to take down a street light banner in anticipation of Hurricane Irene. Past storms have damaged decorative city banners, said one association guide, so this time, the group is taking them down.

PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage declared a statewide emergency Friday afternoon to enable state, county and municipal governments to respond effectively to the impact of Hurricane Irene, which is expected to hit Maine on Sunday and Monday.

“I urge all Maine Citizens to take necessary steps to prepare and heed all warnings issued in connection with this event,” said LePage. “We continue to have daily updates with Maine Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service. We will continue to monitor this changing situation statewide and plan for all possible emergencies.”

The National Weather Service put the entire state under a tropical storm watch for Sunday. The forecast has accelerated the arrival of Hurricane Irene, with the heaviest rain and wind hitting Maine and New Hampshire on Sunday night.

John Jensenius, a forecaster with the weather service, said there’s a possibility of hurricane-force winds, meaning 74 mph or more, when the storm arrives in Maine and New Hampshire.

Jensenius says there’s “very little to no chance” of a repeat of the last two hurricanes to target Maine, Kyle and Earl, both of which spun harmlessly to the east.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, Irene was moving across eastern North Carolina and was moving north-northeast at 13 mph, according to an updated bulletin released by the National Hurricane Center. The Category 1 storm had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph.

Sunday events at the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront have been canceled because of the impending storm. Saturday’s folk festival schedule also will change, and updates will be available at bangordailynews.com.

Rain was not expected to shut down the festival.

In Brunswick, where tens of thousands are attending the Great State of Maine Air Show, organizers are still deciding whether to try to hold a show on Sunday. Organizers say there’s available hangar space at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station for the aircraft if the weather becomes rough.

Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for Maine Emergency Management Agency, said officials from FEMA have arrived in Maine and are expected to stay as the storm passes through.

“Having those people here makes working with FEMA much easier,” Miller said.

The city of Portland held a press conference at 3 p.m. Friday at which City Manager Mark Rees, Mayor Nicholas Mavodones and Fire Chief Frederick LaMontagne warned residents to prepare for long periods without electricity.

LaMontagne told representatives of local media outlets that residents should assemble drinking water, medications, small tools, flashlights, battery-powered radios and other handy or necessary items. He also urged residents to stay away from the coast, despite the allure of high waves, and to clear their yards of loose items that could be blown into windows. He said basements could flood, and residents should prepare accordingly by placing items up high and getting sump pumps ready.

Rees said city workers are trimming trees, clearing catch basins and preparing to secure floating docks. He told residents who find downed limbs blocking roadways or other nonemergency hazards to inform the city by calling 874-8493 during the hurricane and its aftermath.

Mavodones, who also works as the operations manager for the Casco Bay Lines ferry, said the organization has canceled Bailey Island cruises Sunday and likely would cancel vehicle service to Peaks Island on Sunday as well. He urged Peaks Island residents to get their vehicles onto the island by Saturday night, but said passenger service to the island would continue on Sunday “weather permitting.”

Campgrounds and parks were taking steps to close down coastal facilities during the weekend.

In Acadia National Park, campgrounds are expected to close Sunday morning, while access to low-lying roads or other parts of the park might be restricted as conditions develop.

All coastal state parks will be closed to day use on Sunday while two — Warren Island State Park off Lincolnville and Eagle Island State Historic Site off South Harpswell — will be closed on Saturday, according to Maine Department of Conservation officials. Twenty-seven state parks in all, including several inland parks, are expected to be closed on Sunday because of Irene, Conservation Department officials indicated Friday. The tower observatory in the Penobscot Narrows Bridge is also closed until Tuesday, although the bridge will remain open to traffic.

Lt. Nick Barrow of the U.S. Coast Guard in Portland on Friday stressed the importance of securing vessels, preferably on land.

Barrow said that boats can sink from excessive rain, even if they remain securely fastened to moorings or sheltered docks. Boat owners who cannot or elect not to remove their boats should remove all valuable items from their vessels, he said.

Barrow said that the Coast Guard will do its best to respond to vessels in distress or any that are reported adrift. Boaters should stay off the water and do the best they can to secure boats to prevent unnecessary searches, he said, because the Coast Guard usually has no way of knowing whether anyone may have been on a drifting vessel.

“It expends a lot of resources and money to do that,” Barrow said of rescuing vessels.

Barrow also cautioned people not to try to get a close look at the surf generated by Irene as it crashes against the shore. In 2009, several sightseers in Acadia were swept into the water and one died when a wave churned up by Hurricane Bill crashed over them as they stood a few feet away from Ocean Drive.

“Waves [pushed] ahead of the storm will be dangerous,” Barrow said.

On the coast, Maine lobstermen are moving their traps to deeper water. Lobsterman Greg Griffin in Portland said Irene could be a “career-ending storm” for those who aren’t careful.

The hurricane has caused the Maine Department of Marine Resources to suspend the enforcement of the closed-period lobster hauling law until after the storm passes by the state. Fishermen will be allowed to haul and move their traps at any time until Irene leaves, including Sunday, which is usually against the law.

On Mount Desert Island, workers at two Morris Yacht service yards have been busy helping customers secure their boats ahead of Irene’s arrival.

“We have hauled over 40 boats,” Sarah Fawle, the company’s marketing director, said Friday. “Some people called way in advance. People are still calling us and saying ‘help!’’’

Fawle said that in addition to hauling boats, Morris Yachts has been clearing its mooring fields and securing any outdoor items at its properties in Bass Harbor and Northeast Harbor. The company is pulling in its floats and ramps and expects to have extra people on duty over the weekend to help with the workload, she said.

In Bar Harbor, at least one of two cruise ships scheduled to visit on Sunday has canceled its scheduled stop and the other is expected to do the same, according to local officials.

In Brooksville on Blue Hill peninsula, meanwhile, owners of boats large and small were seeking spots to anchor in the sheltered harbor of Smith Cove.

“It’s known as a ‘hurricane hole’ and is very well protected,” said Brooksville harbor master Sarah Cox, adding that boats as large as 100 feet in length sometimes seek shelter in the deepwater cove.

Irene is expected to cause tens of millions of dollars of lost revenue for the tourism industry in Maine as people alter their travel plans or cancel trips altogether, said Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie Institute of Public Service in Portland.

“If this had happened in July, people would’ve postponed their vacations and postponed their travel,” Colgan said. “But a lot of the losses for tourism won’t be recovered simply because of the timing.”

That could be the case for Cindy Gallant, owner of Hobby Horse Flea Market on U.S. Route 1 in Searsport. At her business, five indoor shops and 20 different outdoor vendors sell things such as jewelry, pottery, vintage glass, coins, artifacts and taxidermy animals. She said Friday afternoon that her business already was hurting as lines of cars headed south without stopping.

“The tourists are all scrambling home to get ready,” she said. “And Saturday, it’s a really big day for us. It’s going to totally ruin it. So much money lost, for me and the vendors.”

Last summer, Gallant heeded a storm warning given over Labor Day weekend.

“We picked up our stuff and got a little puff of wind and some rain,” she said. “It’s scary when we hear the word ‘hurricane.’ Now, we won’t [pack up] until we have to. We’ve had a lot of false alarms.”

While some farmers across the state made preparations to protect their investments, others said they feel like they can’t do much against Irene.

Liam Burnell, an employee at South Paw Farm in Unity, said that the farm’s crops are safer in the ground than harvested — but added that workers are concerned that high winds might damage the greenhouses.

However, he said it’s too soon to panic.

“If it gets within 1,000 miles of us — then I’ll start to worry,” he said.

Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. said late Friday morning it is readying repair crews and preparing equipment for emergency restoration work over the weekend. The company said it is asking its customers, especially those in coastal areas, to take steps to brace for the storm.

Central Maine Power Co. moved up its staffing plans from Monday morning to Sunday afternoon as heavy rain and high winds from Hurricane Irene are now forecast to reach the state by midday.

“We’re always ready to adjust the scale and timing of our storm response to match the needs, and it looks as though Irene is going to arrive a little sooner than some of the earlier forecasts,” said Tom Depeter, CMP’s Director of Operations. “Depending on how hard it hits, our priorities tomorrow will be to make any downed lines safe and to keep the power on at all vital facilities such as hospitals and public safety facilities.”

The company expects to add more crews from private contractors from Maine and Canada starting at 5 a.m. Monday. Depending on the severity of the storm, CMP has arranged to bring in as many as 200 line crews and 150 tree crews by Monday afternoon if necessary.

t was only the second time that CMP officials could recall bringing in Canadian crews before a storm in anticipation of damage.

Marine geologists with the Maine Geological Survey are evaluating potential consequences in terms of coastal flooding and erosion and advising other state organizations, according to Stephen Dickson, marine geologist with the agency.

Dickson said in a press release the storm could bring an unusually high tide of 11 feet, accompanied by a storm surge of 2 feet, plus high winds and rogue, or large, solitary waves that could do extensive damage to vulnerable sections of Maine’s coast. Dickson listed potential damage in Saco, particularly Camp Ellis, as one site facing serious consequences.

There also could be some bank erosion, slope failures and potentially small landslides occurring along the coast or river banks due to flooding and several inches of rainfall, Dickson said.

“We are expecting moderate beach erosion that will be similar to some of the past nor’easters,” the marine geologist said. Dickson said monitoring already is under way at Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg.

Storm surge is a major concern for many communities along the coast and on tidal rivers as the hurricane pushes more water toward the shore.

Bill Cohen, spokesman for Verso Paper, said staff at the riverfront Bucksport mill have been preparing for the storm for several days by checking the facility, fuel tanks and wastewater treatment plant.

“We brought in some sand bags, just in case,” he said. “We are just trying to be very prepared.”

Cohen said the mill, which typically operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, hopes to remain working but staff have received a refresher course on the plant’s emergency response plans.

The University of New England announced Friday afternoon that move-in on Sunday, Aug. 28, and Monday, Aug. 29, has been postponed until Tuesday, Aug. 30. The UNE new student convocation originally scheduled for Tuesday has been canceled, and the first day of classes will be on Thursday, Sept. 1.

Students should check the UNE website at www.une.edu for additional details and any updates.

In northern Penobscot County, officials in Howland and Mattawamkeag, two towns prone to flooding, had firefighters and Public Works Department workers standing by with all equipment ready to go, they said.

Mattawamkeag residents in the area of Lake and Jordan Mill roads, near Route 157, are staying put for now.

“We are not looking at doing any evacuations right now,” Fire Chief Bobby Powers said. “We want to make sure all our equipment is fueled up and ready to go. The generators are all lined up and ready to go. We are anticipating the worst and hoping that it’s minor.”

“We just want to be aware of it,” Howland Town Manager Jane Jones said, “and make sure that whatever catch basins [that usually flood] have been checked on, that anything anybody thought should be has been checked on.”

Flooding most typically occurs in Howland along the Penobscot and Piscataquis Rivers, particularly near Water Street and the town dock, and farther south in some areas of Passadumkeag — usually because of accumulations of runoff into the river.

Powers asked that people interested in volunteering to help during the storm — preferably with firefighter and EMT experience — call the Fire Department at 736-2931.

Lincoln Public Works Department workers have detour signs aboard their vehicles in anticipation of storm drains flooding even though they are cleaned and functioning, department Director David Lloyd said.

“All my guys are on standby. I have asked them all to hang around at least until Monday morning,” Lloyd said.

For preparedness and safety information, the latest weather forecasts, and links to the latest advisories and tracks for Hurricane Irene, visit MainePrepares.com.

BDN reporters Judy Harrison, Abigail Curtis, Bill Trotter, Alex Barber, Seth Koenig, Kevin Miller, Nick Sambides Jr. and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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