Crews fighting cold, ice to restore power in Northeast

Sunday, December 14, 2008
Jim Cole ~ Associated Press
Crews clear a way for utility crews restoring electricity Saturday in Washington, N.H. More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power following an ice storm Friday.

CONCORD, N.H. -- Falling temperatures were expected to send more people to shelters in the ice-coated Northeast on Saturday as an army of utility crews made only limited progress restoring power to more than 1 million homes and businesses.

"If you don't have power, assume that you will not get it restored today, and right now make arrangements to stay someplace warm tonight," Gov. John Lynch of hardest-hit New Hampshire warned.

Utilities in his state said it likely will be Thursday or Friday -- a week after the storm -- before all power is restored in the region, partly because of the sheer number of outages and partly because of the devastation.

"What is facing us is the apparent need to rebuild the entire infrastructure of some sections of the electrical delivery system," said Martin Murray, spokesman for Public Service Co. of New Hampshire.

Crews across the region saw electric poles, wires and equipment destroyed. The extent of damage was unclear because some roads still were impassable.

"We'd put one line up, and it seemed like another would break," said Stan Tucker, operations supervisor in Springfield for Central Vermont Public Service Corp. "It seems like every line has multiple problems."

In New York, all but five roads managed by state highway officials had been cleared Saturday.

"Things are much better," Carol Breen of the state Department of Transportation said. "But there are still trees coming down because of ice on branches; they're heavy and they can break at any point."

About 1.3 million homes and businesses from Pennsylvania to Maine were plunged into the dark -- and cold -- by a storm that coated trees and wires with ice Thursday night into Friday. Most of the outages were in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and New York. About 880,000 remained without power Saturday afternoon.

States of emergency

Four states declared either limited or full states of emergency.

At its peak Friday, more than 430,000 customers were without power in New Hampshire, the worst power outage in state history. About 375,000 still were in the dark Saturday afternoon.

Another 350,000 lost power in Massachusetts, down to about 200,000 Saturday. About 311,000 customers' power was knocked out in upstate New York, with at least 185,000 still without power Saturday.

About 170,000 of the quarter of a million affected in Maine still were in the dark Saturday.

Vermont utilities reported fewer than 14,000 customers remained without power Saturday afternoon, down from about 40,000. About 4,400 homes and businesses in northwestern Connecticut were without power, down from 16,500. Nearly all 11,000 outages in northeastern Pennsylvania were restored by Saturday.

Because the outages were so widespread, the affected states looked hundreds of miles away for help. Utility crews were on the way to the Northeast from as far away as Michigan, Virginia and Canada.

Lynch and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared states of emergency and called up members of the National Guard. Lynch also requested a federal emergency declaration and said the government already had sent generators, cots and other supplies.

New York Gov. David Paterson declared a state disaster emergency to speed assistance to 16 upstate New York counties.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci declared a limited emergency, allowing utility crews to work longer hours.

Utility officials said they anticipated more outages during the weekend as drooping trees and branches shed ice and snap back into their original positions, potentially taking out more power lines.

As line crews worked in hand-numbing cold, residents bundled up and hunkered down around fireplaces, stayed with friends or relatives, stood in line at stores for generators or went to shelters.

"I still don't have power. I can't shower, I can't cook, I can't do much of anything," Debbie Reed, 57, of Rochester, N.H., said Saturday.

She went to the Rochester Middle School shelter Friday afternoon when she started seeing her breath in her apartment.

"My plan is to go home and see how long I can stand it. If the power isn't back on by tonight, I'll come back here," she said. "It's so cold I can only stand it for so long."

Officials expected to see more people in shelters Saturday night, as temperatures were forecast to dip into the teens. It was the third night without power for many.

"The first night, your house doesn't get so cold, but the second night -- it was 20 degrees last night so who knows," said Sue Rogers, a nurse volunteer for the Great Bay chapter of the Red Cross in New Hampshire.

Peter Judge of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said that despite the frigid weather, fewer than 1,000 residents took advantage of the 40 shelters across the state Friday night.

"We expect those numbers probably to rise a bit," he said.

In Methuen, Mass., 40-year-old Itziar Richardson of North Andover was staying at a Red Cross shelter with her husband and their 2-month-old son.

"I'm not having a good day," she said. "It's definitely not the best situation with the baby, but you have to make the best of it."

In Jaffrey, N.H., Ray Breen, 67, his wife and a family friend huddled around a small pot-bellied stove Friday night.

"When it came time for bed, we made a running dash for the bedroom and then just had to cover up quick," he said.

In the same town, gunsmith Len Vigneault couldn't believe what he saw.

"Telephone poles snapped like toothpicks just laying there," he said. "Fifteen-, 20-inch trees, just in splinters and laying in the road."

He planned to ride out the blackout with his woodstove and propane heater, then "start gathering a whole mess of firewood for next year. What else are you going to do?"

Associated Press writers Beth LaMontagne Hall in Rochester, N.H.; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Jerry Harkavy and Clarke Canfield in Portland, Maine; Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt.; and Stephanie Reitz in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.

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