Warm welcome in an icy emergency Help: Maine residents extend hospitality to BGE repair workers restoring electric service after a devastating ice storm.

January 16, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

BRIDGTON, Me. -- Somewhere in the icy reaches of this crystalline war zone, Steve Pryor of Centreville is hoping to find a dash of Old Bay.

"At dinner last night I asked the nice Maine waitress if she could put some Old Bay on some steamed shrimp for me," says the 30-year-old Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. utility pole worker.

"She just looked at me and said, 'Old what?' "

She told him they don't steam shrimp up in these parts, either -- even when there is any steam. And for at least another week, not too many of the freezing, powerless hamlets around Maine will have any heat.

Pryor, of Queen Anne's County, and 54 other BGE workers are among a contingent of hundreds of out-of-state crews who have convoyed to 1-degree temperatures in Maine, laboring to restore power in areas so covered with ice that tree branches often shatter into shards of icicles.

President Clinton has declared most of the state a disaster area.

"I've never seen it this bad, and I've never seen people this tough," Pryor says of Maine residents getting by with wood stoves in their kitchens, generators in their basements and anti-freeze in their toilets.

"They seem more concerned about us. They open restaurants early to feed us breakfast and stay open late to feed us dinner."

The Maryland workers, spending 14 to 18 hours a day restoring downed power lines and uprighting fallen utility poles, have gotten a healthy dose of charity, Maine style.

On Wednesday outdoor clothing magnate L. L. Bean sent them 55 pairs of hunter-green long johns and matching wool socks for the nights spent in the freezing wind.

New Englanders, especially those in the northern regions, have always impressed the outside world with their ruggedness in the cold temperatures. The latest storm, however, is taking its toll on even the hardiest of the lot.

"For the first few days it was like camping. Now it just stinks," said Jon Evans, 33, a supply store owner who lives on Willis Park Road in Bridgton, one of several streets the BGE crew has been working.

He said anti-freeze in the toilet is one of the first rules to follow in the Maine storm survival guide, passed on by word of mouth. Without it, he said, the water in the toilet would turn to a block of ice.

Power generators, most of which are able to throw out enough electricity to dimly light a few rooms, and kerosene heaters have helped the Mainers get by. But they have obvious drawbacks -- reliability and risk.

Since the storm hit the area hard Jan. 8, more than 150 people have been hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning in Maine. Three people are known to have died of exposure when their generators failed.

And there is more bad weather coming.

Three to eight inches of snow was expected in the Bridgton by this morning, and the Maryland utility workers planned to work through the night.

William "Ross" Campo, the BGE general supervisor heading the Maryland workers in Maine, said he expects his team -- being paid through Federal Emergency Management Agency funds -- will likely be in Maine for another week. They arrived Jan. 12 and are staying at a Sheraton hotel in North Conway, N.H., about 30 miles away.

More than 100,000 Maine residents remained without power yesterday, about 25,000 of whom lived in or near Bridgton, considered one of the hardest-hit towns.

Campo said the BGE workers sent to Bridgton were selected from an "on-call" employee list. There are plenty of BGE workers left in the Baltimore region to handle the needs of Marylanders, Campo said.

Many of the workers on the Maine trip will earn a gross pay of about $750 a day if they work the entire 18-hour shift allotted to them.

"The money's good, but it's very demanding work," Campo said. You've got to be the kind of guy who loves to do this."

Road crews with chain saws have cut through thousands of iced-over branches, making room for utility workers to replant poles in the ground and reattach wires. Men hoisted in buckets to the top of utility poles handle some of the toughest and coldest work, in the open in high winds.

Yet there are still some light-hearted moments.

"Hey, Bobby," yells one BGE worker to his colleague who regularly works in a truck-hoisted bucket. "You're a hero, you know. You got your Batman and Robin underwear on today?"

"Ah, it's Aquaman, I think," says Kelly, a utility lineman from South Baltimore.

But the Maine people have given the men a warm welcome.

"I don't think anyone [outside the area] has any idea how bad the crisis really is up here," says Frank Elliott, one of the supervisors of the Maryland team.

"Yet these people are amazing. They keep thanking us and bringing us coffee, bringing us pizza. They treat us like the cavalry that's arrived."

Bridgton is near the New Hampshire border, about 30 miles northwest of Portland.

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