Maine remained in a state of emergency Friday as emergency workers, power crews and individual residents struggled to deal with the worst electrical outage in the state’s history.
Gov. Angus King spoke directly to the national director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and said, “Get out your checkbook.”
Only the extreme northern and southern parts of the state appeared spared from the icy ambush that left approximately 300,000 households without electricity. Utility officials were warning residents that it might be several days before power is completely restored.
On a scale of one to 10, Steve Watson, director of the Penobscot County Office of the Emergency Management Agency, called this nearly weeklong ice storm “a 10,” and “absolutely the worst situation this state has dealt with in decades.
“People don’t understand that their power is not going to be turned on today [Friday], or tomorrow. It may be three, four, maybe even seven days before everyone has power again. Maine people are not accustomed to this, but this is a serious outage and people have to understand that,” said Watson.
The governor spent Thursday night touring shelters in and around central Maine and said he expected the state would remain in a state of emergency throughout the weekend.
Friday afternoon he and members of the state’s Washington delegation were on the phone with FEMA director James Lee Witt to see if federal funds could be made available to help defray some of the equipment and overtime costs that local and state agencies are incurring in order to deal with the storm.
King called upon the Maine National Guard to help clear away the thousands of tree limbs and debris that littered Maine roads, blocking traffic and posing hazards to motorists and power crews.
As of 2 p.m. Friday, 150 Air and Army National Guard personnel had been deployed throughout the state.
The National Guard also was providing generators to help bring heat and lights to the hundreds of shelters set up throughout the state. On Friday afternoon, a truck had been sent to Massachusetts to fetch additional generators, said Col. Joseph Tinkham.
“If the Guard can handle the road cleanup then DOT workers and power crews can concentrate on the other work at hand, which is restoring power and making the roads safe for travel,” King said Friday morning after an early morning breakfast with Central Maine Power line workers.
Crews from both CMP and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. were bolstered by the arrival Friday morning of out-of-state utility crews.
Both utility companies had to send many of their own crews home for several hours Friday so they could get some much-needed rest.
Officials at CMP went so far as to urge customers to refrain from talking to their crews.
“We ask that customers please let our utility workers do their jobs,” said spokesman Mark Ishkanian. “Our crews are reporting that people are trying to offer them words of encouragement or ask them to make specific repairs on their street. These workers are doing dangerous work under very difficult conditions. Please don’t distract them from doing this work.”
Despite some fatigue, King said line workers were “pumped up” Friday morning.
Though the freezing rain let up for brief periods Friday, the National Weather Service was predicting precipitation throughout the day and night with the first break in the five-day siege expected sometime today.
Watson and King cautioned Friday morning that “this is far from over.”
“I think more people will be at the shelters Friday night,” said King. “I think most people assumed this would be a two- or three-hour event. Now they are realizing this is going to be a couple of days.”
Bill Cohen, spokesman for Bangor Hydro, estimated Friday morning that 20,000 to 25,000 of the company’s 110,000 customers were without power. That number changed dramatically throughout the day Friday, Cohen said, sometimes growing and sometimes declining.
Whatever the exact number, “This is bad” was Cohen’s general opinion as he perused a list of outages throughout eastern and coastal Maine.
Bangor Hydro crews were focusing their attention Friday on some major transmission problems that were causing outages to hundreds of homes in various parts of the state.
“One of our worst areas is Milford, Orono, Old Town and Costigan, all the way to Howland. They have been out since about 11 a.m. Thursday,” Cohen said.
Other transmission line problems were being tackled in Lucerne, Veazie and Holden and pockets Down East such as Columbia Falls, Lubec, Addison and Eastport.
“We also have some problems in Bangor and some bad problems in Hampden,” he said.
Scattered neighborhoods throughout Bangor remained without power Friday night, but many of those outages were caused by individual line problems that were farther down on Bangor Hydro’s priority list.
“We need to get these major distribution areas taken care of first. That’s where our crews are focusing. It’s the smaller scattered outages that may take us a while to get to,” Cohen said.
Several crews were sent to the Ellsworth and Machias areas Friday.
“Our first priority are these major transmission lines that service large numbers of people. Medical facilities are next and then we work on individual smaller outages starting in the populated areas and working out,” he said.
For some of those in the latter category it could be another day or two of cold and darkness, he said.
And even if temperatures today reach 40 as has been predicted in some parts of the state, Cohen said the melting ice may cause sagging trees to “pop up” through power lines, causing even more problems.
“This is an absolutely major storm,” said Watson, “And it is going to take days to clean this up. We’re finding that people in Maine have become very accustomed to power and have forgotten what to do in this kind of situation. The average maximum length of time for a power outage in Maine is three hours. This is not an average situation.”
U.S. Rep. John Baldacci said Friday that he had been in touch with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Disaster Office to seek federal aid for businesses in Maine that have suffered losses as a result of the storm.
“I want to ensure that the U.S. Small Business Administration is prepared to offer assistance to those businesses across Maine that are facing inventory losses because of power outages or property damage … Any delays in providing low-interest loans and other assistance … would be detrimental and unacceptable,” Baldacci said.