FILE-In this Dec. 26, 2013 file photo, a crew from NSTAR works to restore power to customers after an ice storm in Gardiner, Maine. Hundreds of utility line crew members and tree trimmers left Maine even as hundreds of customers remained in the dark because Bangor Hydro Electric Co. waved off the extra help. (AP Photo/David Sharp, File)
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Hundreds of utility line crew workers and tree trimmers left the state when they [auth] finished their work for Central Maine Power instead of staying after the Christmas week ice storm because Bangor Hydro Electric Co. waved off the extra help even as hundreds of customers remained in the dark for four to five more days.
But the Maine Public Utilities Commission consumer assistance division received only 10 to 20 calls from people who were concerned about the length of time they were without lights and heat.
Bangor Hydro had already called in reinforcements and couldn’t provide logistics for extra workers as the utility raced to finish its own power restoration in eastern Maine, said spokesman Bob Potts.
“By the time we got additional crews, got them briefed, got housing, by the time all that happened, we felt we’d have people in those areas and have power restored. There’s a lot of logistics of getting them up here,” Potts said, noting that all hotel rooms in the Ellsworth area were already booked.
The ice storm began on the weekend before Christmas, and by Dec. 23, utilities were beginning to see power outages increase as the ice accumulated on power lines and tree limbs.
Before it was over, more than 160,000 homes and businesses were in the dark for some time. Some customers, especially around Ellsworth, lost power for eight to 10 days. Highs were in the 20s and 30s that week.
George Elias, owner of Rooster Brother, an Ellsworth store that sells kitchen items, cookware, wine, cheese and baked goods, said it was a bad time to lose electricity.
“This was a really a hard one for a lot of people. People had no heat or power for days. They had family coming. They had to cancel all their family gatherings,” he said.
Central Maine Power called in an additional 370 utility crews and 320 tree-trimming crews, some from as far away as Pennsylvania, bringing the total number of line crews to 455 and tree-trimming crews to 450, said spokesman John Carroll.
The day after Christmas, CMP began releasing hundreds of extra contract workers as it began wrapping up its own restoration efforts, which were completed Dec. 28. But some customers remained in the dark in Bangor Hydro’s territory in eastern Maine because of severe tree damage on remote roads.
As CMP released its crews, Bangor Hydro signed up some of the tree trimmers but didn’t need more because it already had help from utilities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and elsewhere, Potts said.
When the dust settles, the PUC will decide whether it’s worth reviewing the utilities’ actions, either as part of a rate case or a separate investigation into the ice storm response.
“There’s no algorithm that will tell you what to do in every situation to make everyone happy. The role of the commission is to ask is what is being done reasonable? Is it within good utility practices? Finding the middle ground isn’t always as easy as you think,” said PUC Chairman Tom Welch.
In Ellsworth, where some were in the dark for eight days or more, it’s not an experience residents want to see repeated anytime soon, said City Manager Michelle Beal.
“It would’ve been great to get people back online a lot quicker than that,” Beal said. “Hopefully there will be lessons learned from this storm.”
John Phillips of Ellsworth, who witnessed the extensive damage while logging about 1,000 miles servicing generators in Hancock and Washington counties, said residents weren’t complaining, especially now that it’s over. “They’re just delighted to have their lights back on,” Phillips said.