PORTLAND, Maine — As Hurricane Irene touched down Saturday in North Carolina and quickly began tracking north, Maine joined the list of East Coast states in making last-minute preparations for the storm.
Gov. Paul LePage and Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Robert McAleer briefed members of the media Saturday afternoon in Augusta and both men urged residents to be safe and smart as the hurricane approached.
“Maine citizens are used to severe weather, but now is not the time to be overly confident,” the governor said. “Look out for friends, relatives and neighbors, but keep yourselves safe.”
Although Irene had been downgraded from a Category 2 to a Category 1 storm by Saturday, the hurricane’s wide path was expected to track directly through Maine from south to north, bringing high winds and heavy rain.
“We’ve heard recently that it’s starting to move a little quicker than anticipated,” the governor said. “With luck, we’ll get through this quickly; but it is going to [affect] the entire state.”
LePage declared a state of emergency on Friday in preparation for the storm, a move that allowed state and local officials to avail themselves of necessary resources to deal with any damage.
“I’m very confident that the state, federal and local assets have been put in place,” the governor said Saturday. “But I’m urging all Mainers to take precautions now. Do not wait.”
All of Maine should prepare for significant power outages and should heed all warnings in connection with the storm, LePage said. Residents in coastal areas, in particular, should be on alert for large waves.
McAleer said the state’s emergency operations center will go live on Sunday morning when the storm is likely to reach the state and will respond whenever and wherever resources are needed.
By all accounts, Maine is likely to be spared from the destruction that other states began to see Saturday. While other states along the East Coast ordered residents in some areas to evacuate, McAleer said Maine would not be one of those states.
“We considered that early on, but based on reports, we did not feel it was necessary to order any evacuation,” he said, adding that residents and visitors seemed to be making wise decisions.
A dozen emergency shelters are opening Sunday in communities in southern and coastal Maine. The Maine Emergency Management Agency says shelters are opening in Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook, Bridgton, Portland, Windham, Thomaston, Wiscasset, Islesboro, Saco, Wells and South Berwick. LePage said Mainers can find a shelter in their area by dialing the state’s 211 information hot line.
Utility companies were put on high alert Saturday to handle expected outages. Both Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro-Electric plan to employ contract workers to assist with expected widespread outages.
“People are on call in all areas of our service territory, so we’re ready to roll,” said Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Susan Faloon.
Hardware and grocery stores were filled Saturday with Mainers stocking up on essentials.
“We’ve been steady, very steady,” said Phyllis Mason of the Farmers Union True Value Hardware store in Farmington, where tarps, lamp oil, batteries, flashlights and candles were among the hot items Saturday.
Shaw Supermarkets said business picked up sharply Friday and Saturday in the chain’s 22 Maine stores as storm-conscious shoppers stocked up on staples, especially bread, water and other nonperishables, said spokesman Steve Sylven.
“We’ve seen a lot of water and bread fly off the shelf,” he said.
Even as Mainers prepared to hunker down Saturday, there was little sense of panic.
“I don’t think they get too shook up,” said Richard Paulsen of St. George, a peninsula that juts into the ocean. Paulsen, who’s semiretired from the trucking business, said he nevertheless has seen “quite a few boats taken out, lobster boats, yachts” as the storm approached.
And to avoid problems himself, Paulsen fired up his chain saw and cut down some dead trees on his property, which he thinks may be in danger of falling under the storm’s winds.
Even former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, planned to stay at their summer home in Kennebunkport to ride out the storm — unless they are asked to leave.
Jim Appleby, spokesman for the Bushes, says plans were made to move them to an inland location if the surf and wind become too rough at their Walker’s Point home.
“The most important thing that they want to know is that they — along with everyone — are going to follow what the emergency management folks say,” Appleby said.
Officials at both Bangor International Airport and Portland International Jetport said their facilities would remain open but many flights were expected to be canceled.
Maine’s Downeaster passenger rail service canceled all service Sunday and officials there said it was possible service would be canceled Monday as well.
Vehicle ferry service to the island of Casco Bay is expected to be canceled Sunday, based on current weather forecasts.
In Brunswick, organizers of the Great State of Maine Air Show and Business Aviation Expo, which began Friday, said they had canceled the show that was scheduled for Sunday. Not only were they worried about the aviators’ safety, but there are hundreds of volunteers and vendors who face a daunting task of breaking down equipment, according to Steve Levesque, director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority.
Irene will be just the fourth storm of its magnitude in 50 years to hit Maine. The last was Hurricane Bob in 1991, which claimed 17 lives including three in Maine and caused more than $20 million in damage in the Pine Tree State.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins and The Associated Press contributed to this report.