Monday, December 23, 2013

Utility crews fight losing battle against ice, in Maine

Posted Dec. 23, 2013, at 9:21 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 23, 2013, at 4:01 p.m.
Hampered by another bout of rain and freezing rain, utility workers around the state scrambled Monday to try to keep up with restoring power to thousands of people primarily along the coast.

By midafternoon, crews were losing ground as the number of customers without power shot up to more than 76,000 in Bangor Hydro Electric and Central Maine Power coverage areas.
Waldo, Washington, Hancock and Kennebec counties appeared to be the hardest hit, with more than 13,000 customers left in the dark in Waldo County alone.

“We’ve been watching the power outage numbers climb throughout the day,” Bruce Fitzgerald, acting director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said Monday afternoon. “It seems like they’ve doubled every hour.”

In Ellsworth, where more than 4,000 Bangor Hydro customers were without power in the afternoon, town officials issued an emergency notice urging people to go home before dark. Several roads remained blocked by downed trees and power lines, in some cases leading to traffic accidents.

“Our resources are getting stretched,” said Ellsworth City Manager Michelle Beal. The city asked people to return to their homes so public utility workers “can clean up and do what they need to do,” she said.

Public safety and emergency management officials in Ellsworth and Hancock County were urging people to stay off the roads, noted Beal. “Especially when the sun goes down, obviously the roads are going to freeze pretty quickly.” The city was trying to inform residents of the emergency request by way of the news media and its Facebook page, said Beal.

Ellsworth closed its municipal building about 2 p.m. and sent about 35 of its 75 employees home, said Beal. Hancock County closed some offices and sent employees home about 1 p.m., she said.

“Trees are coming down unexpectedly,” Chief Mike McFadden of the Belfast Police Department said Monday, urging residents to stay home and off the roads. “Heed the weather forecast. The ice is extremely dangerous.”

There was no immediate relief in sight for the region until evening, according to the National Weather Service, which issued an ice storm warning effective through 6 p.m. Monday. Another wave or precipitation was bringing more freezing rain, noted Paul Fitzsimmons, a meteorologist with the service in Caribou.

“It’s not quite over yet,” said Fitzsimmons. However, the precipitation was expected to end Monday evening.

As fast as utility crews have been trying to restore power, Bangor Hydro was experiencing new, additional outages, spokeswoman Susan Faloon said late Monday morning.

“With the continued weather issues, they’re making progress, (but) they continue to get new outages,” she said. “We’ll probably continue to see a lot of that today.”

The utility has summoned additional workers from Maine Public Service, the electric utility that serves Aroostook County. Bangor Hydro also has staffed its customer service center with additional personnel to handle the burgeoning number of calls from people without power.

“We’re doing everything we can to get power on,” said Faloon. “Two days before Christmas, we know people want their power.” Yet, some customers likely would be without power overnight, she said.

Despite the adversity, people in the region appeared to be weathering the ice storm with equanimity. Emergency management officials for Hancock and Washington reported no pressing requests to set up emergency shelters or warming stations.

A few municipal town managers had contacted him about a few individuals, such as elderly people or those with medical conditions, said Mike Hinerman, director of emergency management for Washington County. However, those communities have dealt with the challenges on their own, he said. “So far they all say it’s winter, and they’re handling it,” said Hinerman.

“We continue to assess the need” for emergency shelter, said Andrew Sankey, director of emergency management for Hancock.

“One of the barometers we use is the number of people requesting shelter information,” said Sankey.

“I don’t want to say there haven’t been any,” but the number has been small, he said.

“People seem to have heeded the warnings to stay home, stay put, and stay safe,” said Sankey, who noted that the willingness of area residents to hunker down during the storm helps avoid putting first responders and emergency services personnel at risk.

Chris Loughlin, town manager of Machias, which has been hit hard by accumulating ice, estimated that about 25-30 percent of the town’s households were without power. They seem to be taking it in stride, however, by taking temporary shelter with friends or family, noted Loughlin.

“This is just a normal winter,” he said Monday morning.

Besides falling power lines, officials in both counties and Ellsworth indicated the region was grappling with falling limbs and trees weighed down by ice.

The region most affected by Monday’s precipitation was the area south of a line stretching from Bangor to Princeton, said Fitzsimmons — the same region that bore the brunt of the ice storm over the weekend. “Unfortunately a lot of the areas that were impacted yesterday are going to be impacted today,” he said. Areas closest to the coast will get some slight relief from warmer temperatures, he added.

Bangor City Hall closed at 3 p.m. Monday afternoon while Monday night’s scheduled City Council meeting was postponed to 6:30 p.m. Dec. 30.

BDN writers Abigail Curtis and Ryan McLaughlin contributed to this report.


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