Mainers deal with ice storm power loss as winds pick up

Posted Dec. 24, 2013, at 7:25 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 24, 2013, at 8:15 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Three days after the start of a storm that locked much of the state in a thick layer of ice, Mainers were dealing Tuesday with a wintry landscape that seemed lifted from a beautiful but ominous fairy tale.

Trees encrusted in a shining layer of ice drooped low over power lines that themselves dripped with icicles. Iced-in holly berry bushes looked festive under clearing skies. But despite the loveliness of the scenery, many residents shivered in dark houses where the electricity had been off since Monday afternoon or before and sought out pockets of power in order to charge cellphones and warm up.

Emergency shelters and warming centers were made available for Mainers without heat and could be in use into the weekend. More than 101,000 were without power late Tuesday afternoon, but crews were able to reduce that number by early evening.

“Christmas is going to be late for us,” Peggy Webber of Belfast said while getting her breakfast at the Waldo County emergency shelter. “I’ll be here Christmas morning, unless the power comes back on.”

During an afternoon press conference in Bangor, an official with Bangor Hydro Electric, which still had more than 17,000 customers in the dark as of 8 p.m., warned that more isolated customers of the utility could go without power into the weekend.

Many more will not have their power restored for Christmas morning Wednesday, according to Gerry Chasse, president of Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service. Bangor Hydro and the Penobscot County Emergency Management Agency called the press conference to update area residents on the severity of the damage from the storm, which began with a steady drizzle of ice Saturday and didn’t clear up until very late Monday night.

“We expect that some customers may be without even beyond Friday,” Chasse said.

He called it the most severe weather event since the ice storm of 1998, during which more than half the state’s population lost power. He said damage is substantial but had no dollar estimate for it on Tuesday.

The sounds of snapping trees exploding onto power lines continued Tuesday as high winds buffeted already weakened and ice-laden limbs.

Meanwhile, Central Maine Power was struggling to restore service to nearly 64,000 customers, spokesman John Carroll said in a statement issued shortly after 7 p.m.

Carroll said the ice storm damage was concentrated in central and coastal sections of its service area. Outages peaked at 87,000 late Tuesday morning, he said.

CMP has more than 1,000 personnel directly involved in the restoration effort, Carroll said, adding that the total includes contract crews from Maine, Canada, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and New York. The utility expects another 170 crews to arrive in Maine overnight.

The National Weather Service issued a special weather statement Tuesday morning warning that with 10-15 mph northwest winds gusting up to 20-25 mph, trees may snap and fall into utility wires, causing more outages and blocking some roads. Temperatures that were in the 20s during the day Tuesday were expected to drop to below zero overnight Christmas Eve. A wind chill advisory was in effect for parts of Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Hancock and Washington counties through 10 a.m. Wednesday, the weather service said.

The wind will make the air, already forecast to be 5 to 10 degrees below zero, feel like 25 to 30 below, according to the weather service.

Further complicating efforts to restore power, forecasters are predicting 2-3 inches of snow — possibly more locally — for Hancock, Washington, and southern Penobscot counties Thursday and Thursday night, said Mark Bloomer, a meteorologist with the service in Caribou. Northern Maine could get perhaps 1 inch of snow, he added, and the region could experience some snow showers on Friday.

The majority of the CMP outages are in Kennebec County, with more than 28,400 customers in the dark, while more than 15,000 — or nearly 64 percent of all customers — remained without power in Waldo County.

There are several towns, including Readfield, Islesboro, Frankfort, Palermo, Winterport, Castine, Penobscot, Jefferson and Whitefield, where every customer was listed as without power.

At 4 p.m., Hancock County was the hardest hit in Bangor Hydro territory, with 11,020 customers without power. Another 5,723 were affected in Penobscot and 5,266 in Washington County, where another 3,200 customers of Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative also were without power as of midday.

“We have not made a lot of progress yet,” said Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Susan Faloon. “It’s been a real challenge,” she said. Power was restored to some customers Monday, but then the company experienced “spikes up and down during the day” as new outages occurred and other customers were restored.

Although the impact of ice caused by the weekend’s rain and freezing rain is not as bad as 1998, it is “probably the biggest storm we’ve had since then as far as outages and damage to the system,” said Faloon.

Faloon is urging customers seeking updated information to go to bangorhydro.com, as the company’s call center is extremely busy, she said.

Central Maine Power officials said that workers are hoping to get the transmission lines restored on Tuesday and will start in on the smaller distribution lines on Christmas, according to Waldo County EMA director Dale Rowley.

“Don’t expect power back tonight. If you get power, it will be a Christmas miracle,” he wrote in an email to the BDN. “Tell your people and everyone you come into contact with to seek a warm place to stay tonight — hotel, family, friends, or shelter.”

Dogs and cats are also welcome at the Waldo County shelter.

Tuesday morning, Gov. Paul LePage urged Mainers to check in on their neighbors who may be iced in without heat or power.

“After assuring that your family is safe, check in on friends and neighbors who may need assistance,” LePage said in a written statement. “Neighbors helping neighbors save lives. Please share safety information with those who might not have received it.”

With trees down in roads and utility crews out in force, LePage also warned holiday travelers to take it slow, and give the vehicles around them plenty of space, especially plow trucks.

State offices in Kennebec County and the town office in Ellsworth were closed Tuesday because of the outages and hazardous conditions but were expected to reopen Thursday.

As many prepared to celebrate Christmas, Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Diocese of Portland issued a message to Catholics statewide offering prayers and support to all affected by the ice storm.

“May your hearts be warmed by the hope and joy that the spirit of the Christmas season promises to all,” Malone said in the statement.

Perhaps because of the nearness to Christmas — or just because of the neighborliness of Mainers — many people offered help to others without power. Midcoast YMCAs let storm refugees take showers and many used Facebook to broadcast offers of guest rooms, portable generators and space near their wood stoves.

“It brings out the humanity in people,” said Jennifer Albee of Brooks, who was sitting at a table in the crowded, cozy Belfast Co-op. “Strangers have asked, ‘Sweetheart, do you have power?’”

The Red Cross opened an emergency shelter at Washington County Community College in Calais, but it served only one person Monday night. Nevertheless, the shelter will remain open for the near term.

“We’ll keep it open as long as we need to,” said Clement Deveau, a Red Cross volunteer who was managing the shelter.

Larry French, the disaster program manager for the American Red Cross of Maine, said that about a dozen people stayed overnight on cots set up in the Troy Howard Middle School gymnasium in Belfast.

“We may see more here tonight,” he said, referring to the temperatures that were expected to start dropping.

Some residents of Keene’s Trailer Park in Belfast were roused out of bed at 10 p.m. Monday by their landlord and asked if they wanted to go to the Red Cross’s emergency shelter. Webber, 63, said that she didn’t hesitate.

“My roommate’s on oxygen, and she was cold already,” she said.

Another overnight shelter guest, 63-year-old Delmar Newcomb, said that it was getting very cold in his trailer before he and his wife went to the middle school, even though they had put extra blankets on the bed.

“If they get power back on, we’ll get ready for Christmas,” he said.

But a volunteer, Lance Bukoff of Warren, said that the shelter will remain open until the need has been satisfied.

“Better to be here than spending Christmas in 15 degrees in a closet somewhere,” he said.

BDN writers Tim Cox, Ryan McLaughlin, Mario Moretto and Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report.