Many residents in central Maine were left without power on a slippery, messy Sunday as freezing rain coated the roads, trees and power lines in a storm that was expected to continue into Monday.
Central Maine Power reported fluctuating numbers of power outages throughout the morning, peaking at about 11 a.m., when 4,500 customers, mostly in Somerset and Kennebec counties, were without power.
Eric Schwibs, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said the Augusta and Waterville areas could end up with about a half inch of ice accumulating by storm’s end Monday.
Schwibs said occasional freezing rain is likely to continue into Monday, caused by a weather system featuring cold air near the surface and warm air above that and stalled over the area. Around 11:30 a.m., Schwibs reported temperatures of 26 degrees in Augusta and 40 degrees on top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire at more than 6,000 feet, New England’s highest point.
“That’s a classic setup for freezing rain,” Schwibs said. “It just keeps adding up.”
He said more power outages could be expected as more precipitation falls and sticks to trees, adding weight to branches and potentially snapping them, or toppling trees.
Maine emergency officials advised people to check in on friends and neighbors who may need assistance. They advised against travel, warning icy roads and falling trees and power lines will make travel dangerous.
While the intensity of the storm Sunday was not as bad as forecasts initially predicted, its anticipated duration was longer, with Sunday forecasts calling for the precipitation to continue into early Monday.
On Monday, Schwibs said, freezing rain will continue into the first part of the morning, with conditions improving into the afternoon. A clearing trend is expected to start Monday, which could allow some ice to melt, but only briefly. That’s because things will then get colder, with lows in the teens expected Monday night, highs of around 20 degrees Tuesday, and on Christmas Eve, a low of 4 degrees.
In Franklin County, Emergency Management Director Tim Hardy said it seemed like most members of the public were heeding warnings to avoid the roads.
“That’s my sense,” he said. “I just came back from the office a few minutes ago, and there isn’t much vehicle traffic on the roads.”
All throughout Oakland and into parts of Belgrade, there was little mid-morning traffic on Route 11, which was covered so thoroughly with the wintry mix that not an inch of blacktop could be seen for miles.
The few vehicles on the road traveled slowly past trees and bushes with sagging branches.
The vegetation, parked cars and homes throughout the region were coated in a thick, textured shellac that stubbornly resisted efforts to scrape it off car windows.
Hardy said that, as of Sunday morning, things were going better than expected — so far.
He said he was having regular conference calls with the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service and was in turn passing information along to local response teams.
On Sunday morning, the weather service extended the duration of the ice storm watch from Monday morning to noon on Monday.
On Sunday afternoon, Bruce Harmon, a resident of Benton, was busy scraping the ice off the windshield and windows of his car, which he had parked on Waterville’s Main Street while he attended a Christmas party.
In the two hours since he’d parked it, he said, the car had accumulated a new layer of ice brought on by the freezing rain.
It was slow work, with each inch of ice removed a hard-fought battle, but he said he didn’t mind.
“It’s Maine,” he said. “What are you gonna do?”
Lost power, sales
Many area business owners — and Santa Claus — stayed home rather than face the icy weather.
On Waterville’s Main Street, Downtown Smoothies and Jorgensen’s Cafe, both restaurants, were closed early Sunday afternoon, as was Kringleville, where Santa had been scheduled to hold court from noon until 6:30 p.m. for the last time before Christmas.
Signs in the windows said the businesses were closed because of the weather.
The number of power outages reported by Central Maine Power grew steadily throughout the morning, from less than 1,000 around 7 a.m. to more than 4,500 by 11 a.m. For the rest of the day, the number fluctuated, as restorations took place and new outages were reported.
At noon, as had been the case for most of the morning, the large majority of the outages were in Somerset County, where 2,300 were without power, and Kennebec County, where about 1,200 customers were without power.
In Kennebec County, most of the outages were in Monmouth, Wayne, Winthrop and Augusta, while smaller numbers of outages were reported in Pittston, Fayette, Manchester, Randolph, Readfield and Rome.
At noon in Somerset County, there were widespread outages in Norridgewock, where the power company reported more than 1,200 of 1,600 customers were without power; in Mercer, where 421 of 435 customers were without power; and in Smithfield, where 509 of 760 customers were without power.
Bill Pullen, the principal of Mill Stream Elementary School in Norridgewock, said in the early afternoon that he hadn’t received any reports of the school having lost power.
Small numbers of outages were also reported in Fairfield and Skowhegan.
Central Maine Power reported that power was restored to all Somerset County residents by about noon.
In the mid-afternoon, the number of outages began to climb once again. By 4 p.m., Central Maine Power was reporting more than 3,700 outages, with 1,500 of those in Hancock County and about 1,000 each in Kennebec and Waldo counties, including 623 in Augusta.
In the early afternoon, Bangor Hydro reported about 15,700 customers being without power, mostly in Hancock and Washington Counties, while Eastern Maine Electric reported about 500 customers without power.
In the late afternoon, Bangor Hydro reported that the number of customers without power was down to about 7,500.
Municipal plowers keep pace
Public works directors throughout central Maine described the challenges they were facing in keeping the roads clear.
Lesley Jones, Augusta’s public works director, said most of the city’s roads were passable and crews reported few, if any, trees down. Crews were out Friday night, Saturday morning, and again starting at 1 a.m. Sunday, sanding and salting roads.
“There’s a bit of ice on the trees, but it doesn’t quite compare to ’98 yet,” Jones said. “The long duration of this storm is what’s hard.”
Jones said a smaller city crew will do minimal maintenance today to keep roads passable, and she planned “to come in after midnight with a whole crew and clean everything up before it gets cold.”
“There’s a small window of time when we can get them clean. Right now we’re concentrating our efforts on the main drags and country roads and the trouble spots and hills on the side streets.”
She said it was helpful that not many motorists were out on the roads.
In Farmington, Public Works director Denis Castonguay described the difficulties of dealing with rapidly shifting weather as the town experienced alternating bouts of cold, warmth, sleet, rain and snow.
“The storms continue to come, rapid-fire,” he said. “We were called out several times Friday night and again on Saturday night.”
Castonguay said cycles of weather, including one 90-minute stretch during which four inches of sleet fell, have taken their toll on the eight-man crew that plows Farmington’s 120 miles of roads. Each time the plow trucks rolled, it took three hours to clear the roads and wait for the next call.
Despite pre-treating the blacktop with salt and frequent plowing, he said road conditions were not very good.
“It’s all bonding to the road pretty good,” he said.
Late Sunday morning, Castonguay said his exhausted crew members were being relieved by contractors so that they could get some sleep. He said the town’s workers were scheduled to come back for another shift at midnight.
Bruce White, the public works director of Kingfield, said the town’s plow trucks had already completed a round of plowing and sanding by mid-morning on Sunday.
He said road conditions weren’t good in the town of about 1,000 people, but that people seemed to be staying inside and there had been no accidents reported.
In some ways, Maine was saved on Sunday from the worst effects of the storm by sleet, according to Bob Gilchrist, operations manager in Waterville’s public works department.
When the sleet fell, many public works directors chose not to plow the roads, because the sleet protected the roads from the freezing rain that followed. The granular sleet provided enough traction for reasonably safe driving, he said, while the freezing rain could have turned road surfaces slick and dangerous.
Either way, he said, motorists will face some challenges.
“It was damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said. “If you leave the sleet there, the freezing rain doesn’t stick to the road. If you put salt down, it was a slushy mess.”
He said his force of 12 plow trucks and two sidewalk units has been working hard, putting in 12-hour shifts to keep the streets clear. He stuck to sanding Waterville’s streets until about noon, after which he ordered plowing.
“We’ve been working every night, but we’ve been able to pull off the job,” Gilchrist said.
Maine Emergency Management Agency officials said no injuries or fatalities were reported as a result of the storm.
The State Emergency Operations Center, in Augusta, was activated Sunday morning, bringing together MEMA staff with state transportation, utilities and public safety staff. American Red Cross workers were standing by to staff shelters if needed, but no Red Cross shelters had opened as of late Sunday afternoon.
With fewer drivers on the roads and slightly better-than-expected conditions, there were few accidents Sunday.
The Somerset County Sheriff’s Department showed only a handful of accidents Saturday night and Sunday in Anson, Benton, Embden and Fairfield. A dispatcher for Somerset County emergency services said there were no reports of downed lines or trees Sunday morning.
The Maine Department of Public Safety said state police had received no reports of accidents in central Maine Sunday morning.
In Augusta, Sgt. Danny Boivin said there were a couple of minor accidents and a few cars off the road Sunday morning.
He said he “absolutely” advised motorists to stay off the roads if they can.
“The roads are pretty slick. They’re covered in slush and ice,” Boivin said. “Conditions are very poor.”
At midnight on Saturday night, the Maine Turnpike Authority reduced the speed limit from New Gloucester to the Turnpike’s end in Augusta to 45 and reported exit ramps were icing up. At 8 a.m., it added the Freeport area, reporting the road was covered with ice and slush.
The Maine Emergency Management Agency, in a storm summary issued Sunday, said up to a half to three-quarters of an inch of ice could still accumulate in some areas and advised people to continue to monitor local weather forecasts.