Holiday power outages challenge Christmas cheer
For the first time in days, the sun was shining and skies were blue when Doug Jennings stepped outside his home Tuesday in central Maine. But the power that disappeared in a massive weekend ice storm? It was still out, setting up his family for a very cold and very dark Christmas Eve.
“It’s going to be problematic. We’re going to have to do something about it, go to a hotel or whatever,” said Jennings, who lives in one of several towns near Augusta that were almost completely blacked out. “I don’t know.”
Jennings and his family were among the half a million utility customers — from Maine to Michigan and into Canada — who lost power in a weekend ice storm that one utility called the worst during a Christmas week in its history. Repair crews worked around the clock Tuesday to restore service, but like Jennings, thousands prepared for a holiday at home without electricity or packed up their wrapped gifts and headed off to stay with family or friends.
They faced doing so on a white Christmas, too. The National Weather Service said more snow was expected to move into the Northern High Plains and Central Rockies on Tuesday before rolling into the Great Lakes and Midwest by Wednesday morning.
The nationwide death toll from the storm reached at least 14 on Tuesday, when a 50-year-old man in Knox, Maine, was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator. It was the second reported death attributed to fumes from a generator during the storm. Police in Michigan also attributed two deaths in a traffic collision that happened Monday to the storm.
At his home outside Augusta, Maine’s capital, Jennings had only a propane stove to keep his home warm. With visitors in town for Christmas, he worried about what they’re going to do if their heat and lights remain off and the temperature dips into the single digits Tuesday night as forecast.
His family took some of the food they’ve been planning to serve at Christmas and put it in a snow bank — a move they learned from their experience in the last big ice storm that left some Mainers without power for weeks nearly 20 years ago.
“But we have Christmas food that’s probably going to be all bad,” he said. “My wife says ‘I don’t feel like doing the kids’ stockings or anything.’”
The number of customers in Maine without power spiked to more than 100,000 on Tuesday, even as Central Maine Power Co. sent more than 1,000 workers to help restore power throughout the state. The company’s goal was to restore power for all customers by Thursday night, while other utilities in Maine warned customers they could be without electricity until Friday.
Across the border in Canada, Toronto officials said 90,000 customers were still without power Tuesday. While that was down from 300,000 people at the height of the weekend outages, some were likely to be in the dark until after Christmas.
That was the case, too, in Michigan, where Jackson-based Consumers Energy — the state’s largest utility — said it hadn’t had this many outages during any Christmas week since its founding 126 years ago. Close to 17 percent of its 1.8 million electric customers lost power during the storm that hit late Saturday; roughly 152,000 remained without it Tuesday.
“We expect to see even more progress today as additional crews from 11 states and Washington, D.C., continue arriving in Michigan,” said Mary Palkovich, Consumers Energy’s vice president of energy delivery. “We thank the men and women working safely around the clock to recover from this catastrophic storm and our customers for their continued understanding and patience.”
Ken Fuller runs a generator repair shop in Lansing, Mich., where more than 13,000 people were without power on Tuesday. He typically closes by noon on Christmas Eve, but at 12:30 p.m. he was cleaning out a broken generator’s carburetor — and had five more waiting to be serviced.
“The temperature outside is 15 to 20 degrees,” Fuller said. “Christmas is going to have to take second fiddle right now because houses are getting cold, freezing water pipes.”
That was the concern that John Potbury and his family of four faced outside Flint. They lost electricity at 6 a.m. Sunday and since then have been living in a single bedroom warmed by generator-powered space heaters.
Lights on the Christmas tree were dark, of course, but there was no power to the freezer, either. “Even though the house is freezing cold, the freezer items were starting to thaw out,” Potbury said.
That wasn’t the greatest concern, however, for his kids, 8-year-old Jacob and 5-year-old Jackson. Potbury said he told them Tuesday, “Santa runs on reindeer power, not electricity, so he should be OK.”
Alanna Durkin reported from Augusta, Maine. Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.