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Environment and Outdoors

Crews Hard At Work To Restore Power To Tens Of Thousands Of Mainers In Wake Of Powerful Nor'easter

Utility crews are hard at work to continue power restoration efforts in the wake of a powerful wind and rain storm that swept through the state in the early morning hours.

As of 1:30 p.m. Friday, Central Mainer Power (CMP) is reporting more than 86,000 customers still without electricity, down from 145,000 yesterday evening, and Emera Maine reports that another nearly 11,000 of its customers lack electricity, down from a high of 27,000.

Credit Caitlin Troutman / Maine Public

A line worker on a cherry-picker trimmed away limbs as his crew tried to disentangle two downed trees from power lines on busy Route 88 in Falmouth Thursday afternoon. Central Maine Power continued efforts like this across at least four counties Thursday to recover electricity systems in the wake of the quick-hitting storm that cut power to more than 200,000 Maine residents and businesses.

Falmouth fire chief Bruce Rice says the calls started coming around 2:30 a.m. — and really ramped up at dawn, when residents could see the damage they'd only heard in the night.

"They're saying, 'Hey, I got this tree across my driveway, a tree on my house.' We've had two different calls for trees on houses,” he says. “Luckily no major damage. We haven't had any injuries in the storm."

Credit Keith Shortall / Maine Public
A tree lies across Neal Street in Portland Thursday morning, in the wake of a strong nor'easter.

Central Maine Power spokesperson Catharine Hartnett says October nor'easters like this one can be expected to produce a high number of downed lines. And the work of de-energizing lines and clearing up potential safety hazards, she says, comes first.

"The winds, always, in this time of year, when the ground is soft and the trees can uproot very easily and limbs come down because they still have a lot of leaves on them,” she says. “It's those things that hit the wires, that bring the wires down, can bring poles down and really cause damage not only to the system but to people's homes, to peoples yards and to the roads so we need to address that first."

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Broken tree limbs lie on a road in Freeport Thursday morning.

With that initial focus, she adds, CMP was not able to make quick estimates on restoration times. But she says the company was prepared for the storm.

Hartnett says it was more predictable, and shorter, than the devastating 2017 October wind storm that left a half-million Mainers without power and left CMP contending with widespread customer outrage.

Credit Sandra Harris / Maine Public

This time out, the company pre-set a robust response team, she says, with some 400 line crews on hand — inhouse, contractors and borrowed from utilities in other states — to handle the work.

"I was kind of taken aback by the extensive number of crews. Last time I don't think we had enough," says the state's public advocate, Barry Hobbins.

Hobbins says CMP's communications were poor in 2017, but this time he has already received a personal telephone briefing from company CEO Doug Herling.

"I felt a little assured that they had the attention of the president, and I think they realized our office needs to be engaged, so I'm very pleased with that,” says Hobbins. “We'll see what happens with how it all works out.”

During the 2017 storm, CMP's website and automated "smart meter" notification systems malfunctioned for an extended period. Since then CMP has promised better systems, but has only begun to make those "resiliency" improvements within the last two months, spokesperson Catharine Hartnett says.

"We are improving automation in some circuits,” she says. “We are replacing older poles with newer, sturdier poles and replacing a lot of bare conductor wire with covered wire that's more resistant to trees and branches that might fall on it. So it will be awhile before we see results, but the work is ongoing."

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Tree down in Freeport

Hartnett acknowledged one embarrassing systems glitch in this storm. Early in the day, many customers seeking outage restoration times online got this estimate: January 1st, 2068.

"We will get to the bottom of it. Of course we never want to provide erroneous information, particularly something as ridiculous as 2068."

Meanwhile, as storm cleanup was under way, the state's Public Utilities Commission posted on its website a formal "10-person complaint" from CMP customers accusing the company of being unfit, depraved and corrupt, and calling for it to be sold to another utility. The PUC has yet to weigh in on the merits of that complaint.