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Sebago elders cope with the snowstorm

February 24, 2005

The mid-February snow began falling in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and by daylight there were six wet inches of it on the ground. The storm continued all that day, and by the time it ended on Friday we were buried in nearly two feet of new snow. Trees and wires were groaning under the load and soon the power started going out.

Large parts of Sebago and most of the towns around Sebago Lake lost their power as trees fell on power lines, snapping them and plunging the area into darkness. Scores of storm-related calls began coming into Naples, Standish, and Bridgton Dispatch Centers for auto accidents as well as electric wires down across roads, exploding transformers, trees on wires causing sparks, and fire alarms sounding. The flurry of calls continued for the next two days and kept area fire departments busy responding. The Sebago Fire Department, for example, answered seven calls on Friday alone.

The power went out at our house at 3:00 a.m. Friday morning along with all our neighbors up and down the road and over into the next two towns. We have a generator in the barn for such emergencies, and when we woke the power was still out so I started it up. After I dug out the cars and cleaned the driveway, the coffee was ready and we went on with our morning with only a minor inconvenience. As I listed to the calls coming in on the radio I knew that Central Maine Power crews had their hands full, but we had no idea that the power at our house would be out for 36 hours. We were lucky. Many homes in Sebago didn't have their power restored until Sunday afternoon.

The power also went out early Friday at Center Sebago where one of our fire stations is located. Temperatures remained below freezing all day, and every few hours I anxiously checked the station to see how cold it was getting. Without any power, the inside temperature kept dropping. Finally about 4:00 p.m. Dispatch notified us by radio that the low temperature alarm had sounded at the station, our signal that the inside temperature had dropped below 45o F and we were in danger of freezing the fire trucks stored there. I hooked up one of our emergency generators to the Gentran panel at the station, and with help from Fire Captain Glenn Snow and furnace repairman Ed Frost got the oil furnace working to restore heat. As temperatures dropped during the night I checked the station several times and turned the generator on when needed to keep the heat up.

The phones go out

Right after breakfast on Saturday morning my fire department radio squawked "Car 2 to Car 6." It was the Deputy Chief Alan Greene calling me. "Car 6 answering - go ahead Car 2," I replied.

"Check your telephone and see if it is working. I'm getting reports of telephone outages in town," he asked. I checked my phone. "Our line is dead," I said. Naples Dispatch checked and came back on the radio "Standish Telephone is reporting the entire 787 exchange is down and they don't know how long it will take to repair the problem." Then they added "…and Central Maine Power has no estimate until power is restored."

Checking on the elderly

Greene was worried about the elderly and shut-ins around town. "They have not had power for more than a day and it was cold last night. Now they have no phones to call out if there is a problem." He called Dispatch on his radio. "Tone out Sebago Fire Department to man Station 1 until the power comes back. We'll need two or three firefighters there for the duration, and we'll start checking on folks around town to make sure that they are OK." Rescue Chief Lauris Champagne, who had been monitoring our calls, signed on "We still have the call list we used during the ice storm. I'll pick it up at the Rescue Barn and meet you at Station 1 in about half an hour."

With this as a starting point we developed a list of elderly and shut-ins around town that should be checked on. Selectmen Lisa Hutchins and Bob Irish were at the Station and contributed their suggestions as well. Deputy Rescue Chief Mike Foye suggested "We still have power heat and running water at the Rescue Barn in East Sebago. If anyone needs to be evacuated we can use it for a shelter."

With a crew of firefighters manning the station, Foye drove the Rescue Unit to North Sebago to check on several homes where power lines were down and some people were without power. At the same time, Firefighter/EMT Tim Smith and I took Engine 3 and checked homes from the list in Center Sebago and on Hog Fat Hill. Later Fire Captain/EMT Jason Schoolcraft and Firefighter Carl Dolloff checked homes on Douglas Mountain and Route 107. As we knocked on doors, I half expected to find folks huddled around their kitchen gas stove in a freezing cold house or worse. I couldn't have been more wrong! Thankfully there were no emergencies and everyone we checked on was coping fairly well with the power outage and snowstorm. They were being real Mainers about the whole thing!

Most of us who live in Maine have learned to plan ahead to take care of ourselves in emergencies, and usually have a backup system or two in place. Many have a wood stove plus an oil furnace, some have a hand pump as well as an electric pump, and everyone has oil lamps for light. After the big ice storm of 1998 many people bought a generator to make their own electricity when the power fails.

The elderly we visited often had a woodstove keeping their house nice and warm, and a few had generators that neighbors or family had hooked up for them. We were welcomed as guests wherever we went, and some even offered us a cup of tea and asked to stay and talk for awhile. I would have enjoyed visiting, but tried to explain that we had other places to visit before we finished our rounds.

Several were out of water and had no way of getting it, and we were able to deliver several cases of drinking water to get folks through.

All that we checked on were concerned, however, about their vulnerability without any phone service to call for help. "What if there is a fire here?" one lady in her 80's asked me. Showing me the medical alert button around her neck, she added, "This alarm won't work without the phone, and I'm supposed to check in with them every morning and evening to let them know that I'm OK. What am I supposed to do?" I reassured her that the phone company was working to restore service soon and told her that we'd check back later.

Lessons to learn from them

I was impressed by the great patience that our old folks showed through it all. One told me, "Well, I guess I've lived through worse storms than this one without any problems, and I'm not going to get excited over a little snow!" I wish I had their ability to sort out what is important from things that aren't and their positive attitude about it all.

The story has a happy ending. Everyone survived the storm and we didn't have to use the emergency shelter at the Rescue Barn. Phone service came back on Saturday afternoon, and nearly everyone had power in Sebago by noon on Sunday. The way that our elderly and shut-ins coped with the snowstorm was a credit to their independence and a tribute to their Maine spirit! When I get to be one, I hope I can handle myself as well.

This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on February 24, 2005 under the title "Community rallies after losing power, phones".