WARWICK, R.I. — Cold showers. Meals in the dark. Refrigerators full of spoiled food. No TV. No Internet. Up and down the East Coast, patience is wearing thin among the millions of people still waiting for the electricity to come back on after Hurricane Irene knocked out the power last weekend.
“It’s like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ times,” said Debbie McWeeney, who went to a Red Cross shelter in Warwick to pick up food and water after everything in her refrigerator went bad. “Except I’m not enjoying it at all.”
With the waters receding across much of the flood-stricken region, homeowners are mucking out their basements and dragging soggy furniture to the curb. But the wait for power drags on, with an estimated 1.38 million homes and businesses still without electricity, down from a peak of 9.6 million.
And criticism of the utility companies is mounting. In Rhode Island, a state senator is calling for an investigation, and Massachusetts’ attorney general is demanding information from utilities on how they are dealing with the crisis, including how many crews are in the field and their response time.
The industry has defended its efforts, noting it warned the public that a storm like Irene was bound to cause prolonged outages and pointing out that flooding and toppled trees caused severe damage to utility poles, substations and other equipment.
Tim Horan, National Grid president for Rhode Island, said crews from as far as Kansas and Idaho are working 16-hour shifts, and “we’re committed to getting this resolved as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, people are taking cold showers or washing up at shelters, using camp stoves and grills to cook, competing for ice at the grocery store and relying on generators and hand-cranked radios. The late-summer weather, at least, has been mercifully cool across much of the East Coast.
Meanwhile, the White House has declared a major disaster in Vermont, clearing the way for federal aid.
Many homes that depend on wells have no water because they have no electricity to pump it. Relief agencies have been handing out drinking water. And a high school in Exeter, R.I., opened its gym to let people shower.
In some places, people on oxygen or other medical devices that require electricity have been taken to shelters that have power.
Irene has been blamed for at least 46 deaths in 13 states. With the streets drying out in hard-hit New Jersey, some towns faced new problems, namely trash bins overflowing with waterlogged debris. In Vermont, with roads slowly reopening, the National Guard’s airlift of food, water and other supplies to once cut-off towns was winding down.
Repair estimates indicated that the storm would almost certainly rank among the nation’s costliest natural disasters. Even as rivers finally stopped rising in Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut, many communities and farm areas remained flooded, and officials said complete damage estimates were nowhere in sight.
An estimate released immediately after Irene by the Kinetic Analysis Corp., a Maryland-based consulting firm that uses computer models to estimate storm losses, put the damage at $7.2 billion in eight states and Washington, D.C.
That would eclipse damage from Hurricane Bob, which caused $1 billion in damage in New England in 1991 or the equivalent of about $1.7 billion today, and Hurricane Gloria, which swept through the region in 1985 and left $900 million in damage, the equivalent of $1.9 billion today, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Vermont faced new danger Thursday evening: A flash flood warning was issued for the Rutland area after 2 to 5 inches of rain fell.
Without power, the Tirado family’s septic pump stopped working at their home in Lake Ariel, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains, sending sewage through their shower drain and into their finished basement, where the filth was an inch deep. Carpeting, drywall, furniture, a computer, two video game systems, new school clothes for the children — all destroyed.
“You should never, ever smell what we smelled,” Shari Tirado said.
In Maryland, where 150,000 Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative customers lost power, Julie Marlowe of Towson, Md., has heard enough empty promises from the utility company since the lights went out on Saturday night.
“Don’t tell me that it will be restored by a certain time and then let that time go by. Tell me a later date and get it back on earlier and I’ll be impressed,” she said.
In Richmond, Va., a huge tangle of downed cables lay in the street outside the Hilscher home. Beth Hilscher said she had repeatedly called the power company about the electricity, “and every time, it’s like a new report, like they’ve never heard of it before.”
As she spoke, five utility trucks rumbled up to a pole that had snapped after an ancient, 50-foot oak fell. For a brief moment, she became excited by the prospect of hot showers and refrigerated food. But after dropping off a new pole, the crew drove off to another assignment.
In Foxborough, Mass., about 90 percent of the town’s 7,820 National Grid customers were still without power Tuesday afternoon when the lights went on at Gillette Stadium, where a New England Patriots exhibition game was scheduled for Thursday night. That brought complaints from some customers, but National Grid denied the football team received special treatment and said one substation w as simply not as badly damaged as another.
Politicians have been inundated with complaints from people who say it is taking too long. Rhode Island state Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr. on Thursday called on the state Public Utilities Commission to investigate National Grid.
“It is getting near to a week since the storm passed through our area and many Rhode Islanders are still without electricity,” he said. “I think we need to ask the company some very pointed questions about its preparation for storms and the speed of its response to them.”
William Bryan, deputy assistant secretary of at the U.S. Energy Department, said it typically takes at least few days to restore power after a storm like Irene, and National Grid “has done a great job. They ought to be commended for that. You are well ahead of the curve for restoration.”
Along the East Coast, deep exhaustion set in as work turned from pumping polluted floodwaters out of homes to keeping an eye out for looters, scavengers or more welcome visitors such as FEMA representatives and insurance adjusters.
In Rochelle Park, N.J., Nedra Visconti said the town had learned a lesson from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when looters took what they wanted. This time, Visconti has seen several law enforcement officers checking IDs on some streets.
Nevertheless, she came out of her home to find someone trying to steal her husband’s tools from the piles of water-damaged belongings in their driveway.
She ran the would-be thief off by threatening to call the police.
“I mean, what’s wrong with people?” Visconti said. “Who does something like that?”
At Olmsted Gardens, a housing complex for senior citizens in Providence, R.I., the mail finally came, delivered in the dark with the help of a flashlight. The manager of the complex emerged with an envelope from National Grid.
“That’s one bill I’m going to delay paying,” Stephen Lavoie said with a smile.
Associated Press writers Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J., Chris Kahn in New York, Sarah Brumfield in Towson, Md., John Christoffersen in Madison, Conn., Laura Crimaldi and Erika Niedowski in Providence, R.I., Johanna Kaiser in Boston, Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va., and Michael Rubinkam in Lake Ariel, Pa., contributed to this story.