December 10, 2018
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Bangor fire chief: Emera Maine took two days to respond to October windstorm

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
In this file photo from Oct. 31, 2017, a damaged power line closed Ohio Street temporarily during the October 2017 wind storm.

Bangor Fire Chief Tom Higgins said two days passed before his department saw the first Emera Maine crews arrive to begin restoring power to the city during the historic October 2017 windstorm.

Higgins told lawmakers Tuesday that after responding to about 56 storm-related calls on the first full day of the storm, Monday, Oct. 30, the fire department realized there was major damage in Greater Bangor and that it had to act on its own to prevent personal injuries.

“As nightfall was approaching and very little power was restored, we realized it was going to be a dark night in the city,” he told the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, at a hearing Tuesday about utilities’ response to the storm.

By late afternoon Monday, the only major power restoration was to the Main Street corridor and the Wastewater Treatment Plant, Higgins said

“At a midafternoon meeting of city officials, we realized we must take some action,” he said.

A top priority was setting up portable generators at eight traffic signals, which ran for three days.

“There is no doubt these actions prevented many personal injuries, especially in front of the employee entrance at Eastern Maine Medical Center,” he said. “Post-storm public safety issues were absolutely a concern. That’s [the area in Bangor] where I live. That’s my whole life.”

Higgins said he expected a flurry of action by Emera Maine in Bangor by Tuesday, but no crew was to be found until about 5 p.m. that day.

“Not finding crews in Bangor on Tuesday was more than unsettling,” he said, adding that he sent personnel to look for Emera Maine trucks. “In fact, Bangor Public Works crews and two local contractors could have assisted in this work had there been an attempt to work with us. Bangor also had two tree crews that could have assisted if Emera could have verified lines were safe.”

The storm knocked out power to about half a million Maine residents, some for more than a week.

The legislative committee also heard from town officials, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, Central Maine Power and Emera Maine. The parties described their experiences during the storm and recommended improvements to identify outages and restore power more quickly going forward.

Both utilities submitted outage response reports to the commission in mid-January. They also are under investigation by the regulatory body for their responses to the storm.

Higgins said he expressed his disappointment about Emera Maine’s lack of response during a statewide conference call on the second full day of the storm hosted by the Maine Emergency Management Agency. By Wednesday, Nov. 1, the fire department had established regular contact with Janet Scully, senior project manager for Emera Maine.

Higgins said he was scheduled to meet with Emera this week to refine their list of people and locations that need power restored urgently.

During the legislative hearing, Emera Maine President Alan Richardson said the peak wind speed during the storm was 66 mph in Bangor, causing equipment damage and downed trees.

He said half of the utility’s customers had power by midnight Tuesday, and all were back online by 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 6. Of the company’s 160,000 customers, 90,000 were out at the storm’s peak.

CMP, which had 404,676 of its more than 612,000 customers in the dark during the storm’s peak, said its final customers got power back on Nov. 8.

During the hearing, CMP took the brunt of the criticism for lack of communication to the public and the speed with which it dispatched repair people to outage locations. It was also accused of not clearly identifying which power lines were de-energized so trees could be cut safely and lines repaired.

Parts of Litchfield, Casco and North Monmouth were blocked off by downed wires and trees, so residents could not leave their homes, town officials in each area testified.

Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the Legislature’s committee, was among those who suggested CMP’s efforts to restore power were hampered by some breakdowns in its smart meter system and inaccurate outage maps on its website.

“It would have been better to have no information than to have what was online,” said Gordon Weil, Maine’s former public advocate.

He added that there’s a tendency to rely too much on the utilities for information about their performance, and suggested legislators, the utilities commission and the public advocate take more of a role in obtaining and disseminating information.

Eric Stinneford, CMP’s vice president, controller and treasurer, defended the company, saying the smart meter system is not the only system reporting outages, and that the company put a notice on its website once it realized the outage information was inaccurate. CMP is adding resiliency and backup capabilities to the smart meter system, he said.

He added that, looking at the big picture, its efforts at restoration were remarkable.

“Is there room for improvement?” he said. “Absolutely. That is why we are following up with municipalities and others about where we can improve.”

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