“About 11:00 o’clock on Wednesday night there were three loud explosions outside my house, and I looked out and saw flaming wires falling to the ground,” said Carolyn Keith. “Then all the lights went out all up and down Ferry Street where I live, and I lost power at my house too.”
American Red Cross volunteer Judy Powell shows Carolyn Keith how to prepare a Heater Meal. Keith, 86, was one of more than nearly 150 who took shelter at a regional Red Cross shelter in Saco, Maine, following extensive power outages and natural gas leaks in the area on April 6, 2019.
(Photo credit: Allen Crabtree/American Red Cross)
Keith, 86, was one of 117,000 Central Maine Power customers in Maine who lost their power following an April winter storm that dumped almost two feet of snow in some areas of the state. According to the National Weather Service, the storm was Maine’s fifth-biggest 24-hour April snowstorm in 126 years of record keeping. Heavy, wet snow broke trees that cut power lines and exploded transformers. Not since the historic ice storm of 1998 were so many electric customers affected.
“I live alone, and it was pretty cold and dismal just sitting in my house,” Keith continued. “My driveway was covered in snow and there were fallen wires everywhere, so I couldn’t drive anywhere. I have a flashlight and a candle, but that’s about all.”
A neighbor from across the street, George Stratchko, checked on Keith and found her cold and hungry. He drove her to the American Red Cross shelter at the Saco Community Center to warm up and get a hot meal.
The Red Cross in Maine is used to winter storms and emergencies like this, and staff and volunteers are well trained to react quickly to provide disaster relief. The Red Cross opened five shelters in York County, Maine, hard-hit by the winter storm and power outages. Some people came in to warm up and get a hot meal while others stayed overnight, hoping that power would be restored to their homes in a day or two. Little did they and their Red Cross hosts know that a second disaster was about to hit on top of the winter storm disaster.
300 Evacuated when natural gas lines break
At 2:49 a.m. on Friday morning a resident at the Ledges Apartment complex in Saco called to report the sound of gas flowing from a pipe outside their apartment. When fire fighters responded they found natural gas regulators in flames at the apartment complex. Other reports started coming in, and multiple gas leaks were discovered as well as two fires. Police and rescue workers went door-to-door waking up occupants and evacuated 300 residents from three apartment complexes in the early hours of the morning. Saco school busses were used to evacuate some of the residents, and many of them were taken to the Red Cross shelter at the Saco Community Center.
It was fortuitous that the Red Cross already had a shelter open to deal with the snow and power outage emergencies. The early-morning evacuation of the residents displaced by the natural gas emergency went “without a hitch” according to Saco emergency management director Steven Boucouvalas. About 50 students were evacuated from the Sweetser School for children with learning and behavioral difficulties along with their staff to the Red Cross shelter. Residents from the Caleb Opportunity Center at the Ledges apartment complex also were evacuated to the Saco shelter, as were senior residents from the Ocean Park condominium complex.
Company B, 133d Engineer Battalion, Maine Army National Guard donated Heater Meals for the Red Cross Saco shelter.
Here a crew of soldiers and American Red Cross volunteers, including Red Cross volunteer John Arsenault and Sergeant Alicia Wilkinson of the Maine Army National Guard, unload Heater Meals at the Red Cross Saco shelter.
(Photo Credit: Allen Crabtree/American Red Cross)
Red Cross shelter supervisor Margaret Arsenault and her staff of nine volunteers were kept busy dealing with the various needs of the diverse groups of clients there, including seniors and people with disabilities who had been evacuated. The shelter was a sea of activity all day Friday, with children playing basketball in the gym and people coming and going. Red Cross workers and Sweetser staff had board games for residents to play, and a VCR was set up with kid’s videos to keep some of the children amused.
“Things have gone very smoothly,” said John Center, Sweetser supervisor. “I want to thank the Red Cross for all their help. They have accommodated the special needs of our Sweetser children, and it has been indeed a pleasure to work with them.”
The Salvation Army dispatched a mobile kitchen to the shelter and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the Red Cross to provide hot meals and snacks. Also assisting in the disaster relief effort was Company B, 133d Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard who delivered 600 much appreciated Heater Meals to the shelter.
While all this was going on Carolyn Keith had her hot meal and sat watching all the activity, still dressed in her woolen stocking cap and snow parka. Red Cross Volunteer Judy Powell showed Keith how to prepare a Heater Meal in case she had another emergency at her home, and gave Keith some meals to take home with her. Red Cross Volunteer John Arsenault was able to find a quiet spot at the shelter for Keith to rest while she waited for power to be restored to her home.
Altogether, nearly 150 spent the night at the Saco shelter. This was the largest shelter operation that the Southern Maine Chapter of the Red Cross had operated in the state in ten years. The last large-scale shelter operation had been in October 1997 when 400 residents of Old Orchard Beach were housed after flooding forced them from their homes.
Gas and Electric Service is Restored
By Friday evening Northern Utility gas employees had cleared many of the homes for people to return, and Central Maine Power had restored power to much of the area. People who had sought refuge at the Saco shelter began to return home, including Keith.
A Red Cross phone call to Keith’s neighbor confirmed that power was back on in their neighborhood and her furnace was working to warm her house. A Saco city employee then drove her back home.
With people back in their homes, power restored and gas leaks corrected, the Red Cross was able to close the Saco shelter on Saturday afternoon. The other shelters in York County also closed as power was restored and people returned to their homes in those communities as well.
Allen Crabtree is a volunteer from the Southern Maine Chapter of the American Red Cross and lives in Sebago, Maine where he is a writer, antiquarian book dealer, blueberry farmer, town Selectman, and volunteer fire fighter.
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.