Thousands of Maine residents who endured Christmas week without power could remain in the dark into the middle of next week or even longer if more snow and ice hit the state Sunday night.
In Southern Maine, nearly all the 123,000 homes and businesses that lost power this week had it back by Friday night, and Central Maine Power Co., the state's largest utility, began sending home many of the line and tree crews that had come in from Massachusetts, Canada's maritime provinces, and beyond.
But farther up the coast and inland, officials called the damage caused by ice-laden trees crashing on power lines or obstructing repairs the worst in a decade and a half. More than 5,000 of a peak 40,000 blacked-out homes and businesses remained without power Friday evening, and many of those will have to wait at least until Jan. 1. If the region gets hit with more snow and ice Sunday night, as feared, they could wait longer, a Bangor Hydro Electric Co. spokeswoman said.
That means no end yet in sight for those Maine residents who have already gone 100 hours and counting relying on shelters or staying with friends, coaxing power from generators, or huddling around wood stoves and candles at home.
"A lot of people are frustrated," said John R. Bannister, a selectman in Blue Hill, a coastal town where about 500 homes remained without electricity Friday. "There are some people that literally have had no power now for a week, since last Sunday, and they live in trailers and it's cold. And when the power comes back on, an awful lot of them are going to have frozen-solid pipes and then deal with the next mess."
Stories cropped up of frustrated residents harassing repair workers, including one man in Hancock County who called Bangor Hydro Thursday threatening to kill someone after learning a nearby crew he had questioned was fixing an adjacent circuit, but was not yet due to fix his.
Police investigated but did not arrest the man, though those linemen had to evacuate, planning to return later with police protection, Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Susan Faloon said.
But appreciation far outweighed anger, with many residents offering thanks and restaurants serving free meals or opening during off-hours to feed hundreds of out-of-state crews who worked strings of 17-hour shifts, far from their families during Christmas week.
Central Maine Power, which serves the roughly 80 percent of Maine residents who live in the southern third of the state, brought in about 900 two-
person line crews and tree crews to supplement its own roster of 85 two-member line teams, spokesman John Carroll said.
"We've had wonderful comments from those crews, who said: 'Wow, your customers are really nice. No one was angry or frustrated,' " Carroll said. "We don't know if it's because of the holiday or in spite of the holiday, but they've been good."
Carroll said Friday that all of Southern Maine except for seasonal cottages on hard-to-reach roads should have power by the end of the day, despite the lack of a thaw all week.
In Northern and Eastern Maine, the conditions were bleaker. "This is the most significant storm that we've seen since the ice storm of '98," said Faloon, as heavily weighted trees continued to bend or crack. "It's just been two steps forward and three steps back the whole way."
After the legendary January 1998 storm left many without power for weeks, the company invested heavily in tree maintenance and built a backup for its main transmission line to minimize the length and number of future outages, Faloon said.
But line damage in ice storms is inevitable, and the rural nature of much of the region makes repair work painstaking, as some fixes may restore power to hundreds of customers at once, others to only one or two, Faloon said. The company faced thousands of trees to cut and lines to mend this week.
"What we've been trying to get out to our customers is: 'Please be patient. We're working on it,' " she said.
Bannister concurred that the outages were inevitable.
"I don't think anybody could blame Bangor Hydro for anything," he said. "This is Mother Nature at her best."
But Bannister worried that the storm would leave a scarred landscape of sawed or sagging trees, offering a "from the seat of my breeches estimate" that 15 to 20 percent of roadside trees in his region had to be chain-sawed this week.
James Brown, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Gray, Maine, said a fast-moving low pressure system could bring sleet, freezing rain, or significant snow Sunday night into Monday in parts of Maine. But temperatures first should reach the 30s across the state Saturday.
"That would be a huge relief," he said, saying the warm-up could spare significant additional line damage. "[Thirties] doesn't sound like a real high temperature, but you put that together with solar radiation and you take a lot of that ice off."
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.