EAST LANSING, Mich. – Staring at a sixth day without power in a house as cold as a refrigerator, a frustrated John Johnson finally was able to borrow a generator from a neighbor Friday.
He “never in a million years” thought his tree-lined city neighborhood near Michigan State University would be without electricity this long. But it could be Sunday or even the middle of next week before the power is back after a weekend ice storm that tore off tree limbs and snuffed out lights from Michigan to Maine and into Canada over the Christmas holiday.
“Hopefully, I make it through without any frozen pipes until the [utility] gets in here,” said Johnson, 63, as he tried setting up the generator to warm up the house above 40 degrees before giving it back to his neighbor.
Michigan bore the brunt of the storm as nearly 600,000 homes and businesses lost power, and as of Friday afternoon, about 60,000 customers remained in the dark. Maine reported almost 12,000 outages and in eastern Canada, nearly 62,000 still hadn’t had their power restored, including 33,000 in Toronto.
Tens of thousands of Michigan residents like Johnson are the unlucky ones still waiting. Some have abandoned their homes to stay elsewhere. Others are riding it out, either by choice – not wanting to leave pets or unattended houses – or because they have nowhere else to go.
Their Christmas plans were ruined or inconvenienced, and now their frustration is boiling over. They know the storm was bad and appreciate the around-the-clock efforts of line crews, but in East Lansing, for instance, residents are questioning the response by the local municipal utility.
“Where’s the money going? The money we pay in power bills, the money that they spend to cut these trees down to keep the power lines open doesn’t seem to really be working, in my mind,” said Jon Irvin, 35.
Irvin drove an hour north to Mount Pleasant on Sunday to buy a $500 generator after he couldn’t find any in the Lansing area.
“We couldn’t really afford it but we did it anyway,” he said. “Every day, it’s been a better and better purchase.”
Anger also was building in Surry, Maine, where one Bangor Hydro customer approached a line crew and then made a threatening phone call Thursday after learning the crew wasn’t working on the circuit necessary to restore his power. The utility temporarily had the crew leave the area until police investigated. No charges will be filed against the man, state police said.
In Lansing, Mich., police were investigating at least two burglaries at homes where the occupants left after their power went out, according to news reports.
But those incidents appear to be isolated. Police in other parts of Michigan and in Maine said Friday they had no reports of storm-related break-ins.
Major Joel Maatman, with the Ingham County sheriff’s office in Michigan, said residents in rural areas – like many hit by the storm – have past experience with bad weather and had generators that allowed them to stay in their homes.
“I’ve been here since 1975 and I don’t remember an ice storm like this,” said Maatman, who used a portable generator and wood-burning stove for power and heat. “I live out in the sticks, and you got to have a generator.”
But “out-county where there is a lot of farming and open land, I think it’s always on every police officer’s mind that crime can occur,” he added.
The Ace Hardware store in Ortonville, Mich., was flooded with people looking for items that would help get them through the power outages, according to manager Tim Tyler.
“Five gallon gas cans went out extremely fast,” he said. “Little propane tanks went fasts. Plug-ins for generators, extension cords, batteries, lanterns.”
The one item Tyler didn’t have in stock: portable, gas-powered generators.
“If I had a boatload or truckload I would have sold all of them,” he said Friday afternoon, nearly a week after the massive ice storm began sliding through. “People were calling and asking if we had any, and we didn’t. This whole town was out of power for over 24 hours. Some are starting to come back now.”
Until the storm, generators “just weren’t in demand,” Tyler added.
“If you bring in a whole bunch, they sit a lot,” he said. “You have to think about, ‘Should I bring a boatload of them in? No I should not.’ But I’ll bring a few in now.”
Besides the ice, falling branches and vicious cold, just keeping warm for some became dangers. Five people apparently died from carbon monoxide poisoning tied to using gas-powered generators heat and light.
Carbon monoxide is called an “invisible killer” because it’s a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas. More than 150 people in the Unites States die every year from accidental nonfire-related carbon monoxide poisoning associated with consumer products, including generators, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Other products include faulty, improperly used or incorrectly vented fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces.