The hundreds of Mainers who remained without power Friday because of this week’s ice storm were largely residents in hard-to-reach rural areas or those who live at the ends of transmission lines.
Central Maine Power Co. and Bangor Hydro Electric Co., the state’s main electric companies, continued reducing the number of outages Friday, leaving fewer than 5,000 customers in the dark by 10 p.m., down from a peak of more than 120,000 on Tuesday.
CMP said it hoped to have power restored completely by the end of Friday. At 10:30 p.m., it was reporting 728 remaining outages.
Bangor Hydro Electric, which serves the eastern and northern parts of the state, said it hoped to have its customers back online by the weekend, but some residents in Hancock County may not have power until New Year’s Day. It was reporting just over 4,000 outages at 10 p.m.
Company officials say some customers have had to wait longer than others because of the remote areas where they live, the amount of tree and line damage in some areas, and the fact that temperatures have not gotten warm enough to melt the ice buildup.
Anthony Buxton, a Portland attorney who specializes in laws that govern energy and utility companies, said there is always a balance between responding to a crisis and balancing the escalating costs.
“The question is, who is examining whether the balance is right?” he said.
Buxton said CMP and Bangor Hydro Electric have fewer line workers than they did in 1998, when a historic ice storm hit Maine.
John Carroll, a CMP spokesman, said the company has about 20 fewer line workers than it did 15 years ago, but it has access to more crews through regional contracts. Bangor Hydro Electric officials did not provide comparative numbers.
RECOVERY TIME NOT UNUSUAL
Bill Jordan, director of engineering for the Vermont Public Service Department, said he couldn’t speak about Maine’s planning efforts for this storm, but said the length of the outages from such a storm did not seem unusual.
One Bangor Hydro Electric customer got so frustrated that crews had not restored power to his house that he called the company Thursday and threatened to kill crew members. But that type of response has been rare. Many Mainers who have had prolonged outages this week have rolled with the situation.
Judy Berk of Northport, in hard-hit Waldo County, was without power from Sunday through Friday. She got a brief reprieve Thursday night when the power came back on for an hour. Berk had just enough time to take a shower and fill water bottles before she lost power again.
By 10:30 p.m. Friday, 211 of CMP’s 23,760 customers in Waldo County remained without power.
Berk said she’s not upset with the response time.
“The storm seemed like a pretty powerful confluence of ice and trees and power lines,” she said. “We have a tight community here. Everyone is looking out for each other.”
During the ice storm of 1998, Berk said, she lost power for 14 days.
State Rep. David Cotta of China, in Kennebec County, another one of the counties hit hardest this week, said he was without power from Sunday to Wednesday. It came back just in time for Christmas morning.
“I think Santa must have had something to do with that,” he said.
Kennebec County had 351 remaining outages at 10:30 p.m. Friday.
UTILITY EFFORTS WIN PRAISE
Harry Lanphear, spokesman for the Maine Public Utilities Commission, said the PUC has the power to investigate whether a major event was handled properly, but he doesn’t expect that to happen in this case. There is no specific threshold for a PUC investigation; the commissioners use their judgment.
The last PUC investigation into an emergency response occurred after a storm in 2008 that crippled parts of Maine. Commissioners concluded that one company, FairPoint Communications, was not adequately prepared for that storm.
Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said a formal review will be done to assess whether there were any major deficiencies in the response to the recent ice storm, but there have been no indications so far.
“We always find things we can improve – and also things that worked well and we want to maintain,” she said. “The response, given the timing over the holiday, has been stellar on the part of utilities, state agencies, local officials and emergency management.”
So far, most state officials say they are satisfied with the efforts.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, whose 2nd Congressional District took the brunt of the storm, said they believed that crews were working hard to restore power. Collins spent time Friday at Bangor Hydro Electric’s operations center in Bangor, meeting with customer service workers and joining a conference call with crews.
STORM DAMAGE IN THE MILLIONS
Because of the nature of restoration efforts, some customers are far down the utilities’ priority lists.
“Naturally, we have to restore power from the heart of our systems and work out from there,” said CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice.
A minor snowstorm on Thursday hampered the efforts of utility crews, which have been working almost nonstop since Sunday, officials said. Another snowstorm is expected to dump as much as 10 inches on parts of Maine on Sunday.
CMP and Bangor Hydro Electric have relied on their own crews and hundreds from other states.
It’s too early to tell how much the storm will cost, but it likely caused several millions of dollars’ worth of damage to power lines and other infrastructure.
Ultimately, ratepayers will cover much of the cost if the Maine PUC decides utilities acted responsibly in the restoration effort. Utilities are private companies and would not receive federal disaster aid if Maine should receive any.
CMP reported about $55 million in damage from the 1998 storm.
People who have been affected by the ice storm may benefit from a relief fund. People who want to donate can go to www.volunteermaine.org/disasterwww.volunteermaine.org/disaster for more information or send donations to: Maine Disaster Relief Fund, in care of United Way of Kennebec Valley, 121 Commercial St., Augusta 04330.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: