BELFAST, Maine — On the night of Dec. 23, the scene around Waldo County was eerie, Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, said this week.
Trees snapped and cracked under the weight of ice that encased their branches, and the sky was illuminated blue and green as electrical transformers exploded. At the height of the pre-Christmas ice storm, which left the most destruction in a west-to-east path across south-central Maine, 80 percent of Waldo County’s 40,000 residents were left in darkness. The emergency Red Cross shelter at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast stayed open for four days, with 36 people sleeping on cots in the gym one night during the worst of the outages.
The storm caused one known fatality in Maine, a man from the town of Knox who was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes when refueling his generator.
Now, Rowley is making the case to the federal government that the destructive storm was bad enough to warrant some kind of disaster declaration.
“The emergency management agency motto is ‘all disasters are local,’” Rowley said. “My corollary is that all disasters are personal.”
The county’s ensuing race to help the area’s residents remain safe until the power came back on was marked by acts of kindness and heroism — but also by the stunning lack of self-sufficiency and preparedness by some, Rowley said.
“In this storm, when the cable went out, when the Internet went out, everyone was blind,” he said. “People were worse-prepared now than in the 1998 ice storm. Then, I think more people had wood stoves. And the expectations weren’t as high as they are today that the government will come save them.”
One thing that has changed for the better after the 1998 storm is the more cooperative way that the county agency now interacts with municipal emergency management agency directors. Back then, there wasn’t a real network of emergency workers, Rowley said.
“Now, we meet with our town directors every month. We exercise with them annually. It’s super helpful to have good relationships with the town EMA directors. That’s 26 sets of eyes and ears,” he said.
Another lesson learned after the devastating ice storm 15 years ago is that public safety departments need to have backup generators for their buildings. In 1998, communities had to dump thousands of gallons of water in fire trucks because of the danger of freezing. When buildings burned, firefighters couldn’t rush to the scene with full tankers.
“Owners stood outside and watched their homes burn down,” Rowley said.
This time around, that has not happened. But all did not run absolutely smoothly with the county’s own generators and backup generators, he said. The county’s Aborn Hill emergency communications transmitter lost power, then lost its backup generator when it froze and stopped working.
For about eight hours on Christmas Day, before a crew of volunteers could haul tractor-mounted generators up to the county’s primary radio towers on Aborn Hill in Knox, the county’s emergency dispatch system was greatly reduced. Although dispatchers could not page responders for individual agencies, because most firefighters and first responders were monitoring their radios, crew members managed to get to emergency calls.
“People don’t quite realize just how vulnerable our communication system is,” he said.
Some people went above and beyond their job responsibilities during the storm. One storm hero was Mitch Brown, the Regional School Unit 20 facilities and transportation director who provided everything that Central Maine Power and the Waldo County agency needed as power restoration efforts wore on. Rowley said.
Local businesses donated food for people staying at the shelter and their pets. Volunteers from the amateur radio club gave their time on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Also, Bill Gillespie of Liberty and Jeff Archer of Brooks, both fire chiefs for their towns, worked nonstop to coordinate community response around the county.
“Those two were just everywhere. They were heroes of this storm,” Rowley said.
But others had a different attitude. He said that his neighbors in Winterport had a tree that fell across a road with a live electrical wire on it. Some drivers stopped and angrily berated the neighbors for blocking the road and not clearing away the tree with a chain saw right away, despite the obvious danger. Others called emergency workers to demand unreasonable amounts of help, or screamed at line workers trying to restore power.
“In disasters like this, you find the best in people and you find the worst in people,” Rowley said.
He said that one big lesson to learn from this ice storm is that the emergency management agency needs to find every way possible to get information to the public, a task made much more difficult in a power outage. And he is hoping that more Waldo County residents will be interested in creating preparedness plans, signing up for the county’s free text message emergency alert system and even taking classes in preparedness.
“It does not take much effort on a person’s part when they no longer become part of the problem, if people can take care of themselves for awhile,” Rowley said.