Were Maine’s two largest power companies ready for the October storm, and did they do a good job of keeping customers updated about restorations?

Could some of the damage have been avoided by using stronger wires or putting some lines underground?

And more broadly, is Maine prepared for stronger and more frequent storms as a predicted consequence of a warming climate?

These are among the questions that lawmakers and regulators will be asking next year, in the aftermath of the fierce late-October rainstorm that exploded overnight with near hurricane-force gusts, uprooting thousands of trees and causing the most power outages in Maine history.

Answers are being sought across the Northeast, but especially in New England. More than 1.3 million customers were without power in the region, the most since Hurricane Sandy five years ago.

In the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts, 112,000 customers were out for up to four days. Critics say National Grid didn’t have enough workers to do the job. The company said it couldn’t have anticipated the extent of the damage.


In Connecticut last month, lawmakers grilled Eversource, the state’s largest power company, about its response to the storm. Up to 300,000 customers lost power, with restoration hampered by poor communication, inaccurate text and online messages, and delays in clearing blocked roads. The company said it learned many lessons and plans to add more staff and improve its communications system, which was overloaded by information requests.

In Maine, the Public Utilities Commission will decide on Dec. 12, whether to open an inquiry into storm preparation by Central Maine Power and Emera Maine. Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the agency, also said the PUC is waiting for CMP to file a mandatory report that details how much it spent restoring power.

CMP says it was as ready as it could be for a storm that caused way more damage than expected.

Gail Rice, a CMP spokeswoman, said the company has two private weather forecasters that issue twice-daily reports. It also gets forecasts from the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service.

That information led the company to begin preparing on Thursday, she said, four days before the storm hit. It set up conference calls for mutual aid for out-of-state lineworkers. It alerted its workforce and sent out a news release on Sunday warning customers of heavy rain and strong winds.

Crews began arriving from Canada on Sunday, the day of the storm. It wouldn’t have made sense, Rice said, to stage out-of-state workers prior to that, without knowing the specific impacts and locations.


“They would have spent a good part of Sunday and Monday morning not doing anything,” she said. “It’s not a good use of funds to feed them and put them up for two days.”

Some critics also have suggested that damage could have been lessened if CMP used more “tree wire,” a special wire coated with a protective layer. Most wire spans are bare and vulnerable to falling branches, which can cause short circuits.

Gordon Weil, a former Maine energy office director and public advocate, said he believes more tree wire in Harpswell would have reduced outage times. Weil’s house was among the last in Maine to get power back.

“They ought to start phasing it in, or the PUC should order them to do it,” he said of tree wire. “I was out for 10 days, and it could have been much less.”

Rice countered that the per-foot price for tree wire is three to four times higher than uncoated wire and won’t help when entire trees fall on the lines.

“We need to be judicious in our use of it,” she said.


Burying wires would eliminate tree trouble, but “undergrounding,” as the industry calls it, has its own problems. Underground wires can be damaged by flooding and animal contact. Problems are harder to find and fix, and upgrades harder to make. There must be room for transformers and other equipment, as well as phone and cable. But the biggest issue is cost, especially in a state underlaid with ledge.

“Undergrounding comes up after every major storm,” Rice said. “The cost to the average customer would be incredibly high.”

Undergrounding has been studied by many utilities, but seems reserved mostly for new construction in built-up areas.

Putting existing lines underground is rare. One example is set to start next year in Washington, D.C.

In five urban neighborhoods with frequent outages, Potomac Electric Power Co. and the district have begun the DC PLUG program. The $500 million cost is being split over six or more years among the utility, the district and the transportation department. The first phase will cost a typical home $1.19 a month, the utility says.

Aside from the storm outage itself, the lack of accurate information about restorations seems to have generated the most frustration in Maine. Residents who looked for their town or street’s status on CMP’s Outage Central Web page couldn’t count on it being right. CMP first acknowledged technology problems after being questioned by the Portland Press Herald three days after the storm, but was slow to tell customers.


Rice said the company’s message at the time was to assure people it knew about their outages, even if the website was wrong.

“We’ll look at that when we do our debrief on this storm,” she said. “It will be part of lessons learned.”

Looking beyond this particular event, a top Democrat said both the October outages and mounting impacts from a changing climate underscore the need for a comprehensive look at how well Maine is prepared for major storms. House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport said she’s still gathering information and isn’t sure what form that review might take, but wants it to be factual and bipartisan.

“The conversation about utilities and their preparedness is really important, but it’s only part of the picture,” she said.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:


Twitter: TuxTurkel

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 4 to more accurately describe the force of the storm’s winds.

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