Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Weighed down by ice

The last major ice storm to hit Maine and other northeastern regions of the U.S., and Canada was in 1998, and now is known merely as Ice Storm ’98. A month shy of its 10 year anniversary, much of northern New England got whacked again, with severe icing, trees down, and significant power outages across large swaths of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

The ’98 storm brought with it nearly four continuous days of steady freezing rain, and drizzle. The 2008 storm, while it brought significant icing, was for a much shorter duration. Still, large pockets of outages remain, after two straight days of around-the-clock work by local utility crews, and large numbers of reinforcements pouring into New England, from points south.

It’s interesting reading some of the reports about this storm, and comparing it to my own recollections of 1998. With this one, large population centers—the Seacoast in New Hampshire, and cities like Worcester, in Massachusetts—were hit, as well as significant portions of southern Maine.

In ’98, our home went eight days without power. During that stretch, we spent time in a “warming center” provided by L.L. Bean, where relatives worked. Additionally, showers were commandeered at work, and elsewhere.

While this storm has significant numbers of customers without power, the damage to trees and power lines seemed more extensive, 10 years ago. I remember hearing reports, and seeing photos of the large pylons that carry high-tension lines through southern Quebec, collapsed from the weight of the ice.

Yesterday, I happened to catch part of a MPBN call-in show, where Sara Burns, the president of Central Maine Power was answering questions from callers. Like in ’98, many callers questioned the company’s response to the storm, wondering why they couldn’t have their power restored instantaneously. In other quarters, utilities come under fire when customers question what appears the selective nature of power restoration. This is now common whenever severe weather, or other disasters strike us. Technology has a way of making petulant children out of us, particularly when we’re inconvenienced in the slightest way. In 1998, I thought people's better natures were on display. This storm already has stories that indicate that just a decade later, we're less likely to come together, and instead look for ways to hedge our own bets.

Having worked for CMP for nearly 10 years, I’ve experienced several major storms, although I had left the company prior to 1998. It’s never fun to be out for five, or six days straight, particularly when you know your own family and loved ones are without power. I have nothing but admiration for the men and women who risk life and limb out in the worst of conditions. This current storm had crews starting at 5:00 am, and working until 10:00 pm, getting seven hours of sleep (which when you’re running on adrenaline, like happens during storms, you tend to get more like three, or four). They’ll continue with that routine until the majority of customers are back online.

As much as we’ve grown accustomed to flicking a switch and having the power be there, we also live in a section of the country where ice storms and severe weather happens. No matter how much maintenance trimming is done (Burns said the company spends $20 million per year on this), heavy ice and falling branches are a distribution system’s worst enemy. Compounding the issue, in my opinion, is the amount of resistance that power companies in northern New England get from folks who think that trimming is a bad thing (except when a tree falls across their service line).

I watched a tree crew do some fairly aggressive trimming on our road this past spring. They cut a large swath of overhang on the major roadway bordering our property. I viewed this as a good thing, and realize that it may have spared us from having a longer outage this time (we were only without power for about 10 hours).

Technology affords us many advantages compared to our grandparents. For most of us, our way of life has changed dramatically from those who lived 60 years ago. At the same time, we’re much less likely to take well to no television, batteries running down on our laptops, and no heat coming from our baseboards.

While some would argue that life today is superior, and I’d concur, when things happen, like the ice storm in 1998, a wise person takes stock, and makes provisions. While I didn’t get a generator, like many did, after being without power for a week, or more, I think I’m much better prepared in small ways, or at least I like to tell myself that I am.

Fellow writer/blogger, Margaret Evans Porter, lives in New Hampshire, and has been writing about coping with her own lack of creature comforts and the things we so often take for granted, on her blog.

Mild temperatures surely allowed significant progress to be made yesterday, and I hope that many homes that have been without electricity since the weekend, have it soon, as I know all too well what you start to feel like, and how cranky you start getting after three days, or more, without power.

1 comment:

mainpowerconnect said...

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