Sue Clary cut her teeth on the Ice Storm of 1998, handling logistics for three and a half weeks at Central Maine Power Co.’s service center in Bridgton.

That storm convinced CMP that running all restoration operations from a central location made more sense than doing so from nine service centers and another 16 satellite sites. Now, whenever a big storm knocks out power to a significant chunk of Maine, Clary is the person figuring out how to feed all the line and tree workers and house the hundreds who come from out of state.

Never were her abilities tested as much as in the back-to-back storms involving heavy snow and high winds over a stretch of five days earlier this month, in the middle of a pandemic that forced nearly all hotels and many restaurants to close.

“She’s amazing,” said Peter Koffler, head of quality assurance at Amato’s sandwich shops. “She’s got to find hotels for thousands of people at the drop of a hat.”

Koffler is one of the many contacts in Clary’s cellphone. She calls on him to rustle up hundreds of bag lunches with freshly made sandwiches to be delivered at sometimes far-flung service centers by 5 a.m. so crews working 17-hour days don’t waste time foraging for their own grub.

In normal times, Clary is CMP’s director of electric supply. Lately, she’s also been in charge of finding enough hand sanitizer and gloves for workers, as well as four recreational vehicles in case a viral outbreak requires critical staff members to live on site.

“When we get storms, I step out of my normal duties,” said Clary, who in May will mark her 35th year with the company. “And this last major snowstorm on top of the pandemic certainly posed challenges we had never faced before.”

Central Maine Power lineman Chris Grignon cuts a limb off a power line April 10 in Mount Vernon after a spring snowstorm knocked power out for thousands of residents across Maine. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

The storm itself arrived in Maine on Easter weekend and knocked out power to roughly 260,000 customers in CMP’s coverage area. After a lull, foul weather returned on April 13 and led to another 20,000 outages, mostly in northern and central Maine.

Clary made her first phone call at 3 a.m. Friday and stuck close to her three phones (office, work cell and personal cell) until Tuesday afternoon. Instead of working alongside seven or eight members of her logistics team, she was by herself, often trying to field three calls simultaneously.

“I could only answer two at once, because I only have two ears,” she said. “I did have one person just on hotels, and we got through it.”

About 2,000 CMP workers, contractors and other utility workers responded to the storm at its peak. Crews came from five nearby states  – New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York – as well as the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and Quebec.

The local crews and CMP retirees pressed into service for bird-dogging, to guide crews unfamiliar with the area, could sleep in their own beds unless traveling far afield. Even so, Clary’s team was making roughly 1,700 room reservations per night about a week after Gov. Janet Mills had ordered the suspension of all lodging businesses, with some exceptions, through April 30 to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

A number of hotels and lodging establishments have remained open, often with skeletal crews, just to house essential workers and others exempted from the hotel shutdown, such as victims of domestic violence. Steve Hewins, president and CEO of trade group HospitalityMaine, provided a list of 74.

“A lot of hotels just haven’t opened because of the seasonality,” Hewins said. “There are some hotels that have shut down because it wasn’t worth it to maintain anyone on staff.”

Clary started calling. A few places that had been closed agreed to open for line and tree workers. Word spread to other proprietors, who agreed to open a wing or at least several rooms. The Hampton Inn in Bangor agreed to open an entire floor for CMP use.

A potential problem arose with another hotel in Bangor whose pandemic policy was that nobody, not even cleaning staff, be allowed back into a room for 72 hours after a guest departs. CMP policy is for crews not to officially check out, but to bring all their bags with them each morning because they might be assigned elsewhere the following day.

Clary wound up calling the hotel manager at home to explain the situation, and asked that workers be allowed back into their same rooms. Of course, to maintain social distancing, all workers now need their own rooms.

They also need their own vehicles, which meant lots of rentals, and magnetic CMP signage “to hopefully relieve some of that tension when Mainers see the vehicles with out-of-state plates and wonder what they’re doing here during the pandemic,” as well as their own discrete dinners instead of sampling from a smorgasbord.

“That was new for all the caterers,” Clary said. “Typically we’ll get big containers of food and paper plates and they can eat buffet style. We had to have everything individually wrapped.”

Of the approximately 2,100 bag lunches required during the busiest of the storm days, Clary said Amato’s supplied roughly 1,600, with Koffler and colleague Greg Hawes, who runs G & M Family Market in Holden, delivering the bulk of them in the hours before dawn. Clary said countless others pitched in, from a corner store in Levant to a banquet center in Skowhegan to one of the state’s largest construction companies, Cianbro Corp. She also expressed gratitude to the 57 different lodging establishments that provided rooms.

“It’s hard to thank everyone in every storm,” Clary said, “but we can’t do this without everyone in the community pulling together to help us.”

Although some of those who pitch in refuse to accept any payment, Clary has her corporate credit card ready for everyone else. She racked up her biggest bill in the Halloween storm of 2017, a total of $1.8 million. She’ll get her statement for April’s charges next month.

“I’ll be anxious to see how it stacks up,” she said. “I’m thinking it might not be as much because of all the takeout meals.”

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