Drought may have aided storm that walloped Maine, Northeast

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PORTLAND, Maine — Drought conditions, recent rainfall and an unusual storm path in Maine may have contributed to the large numbers of trees that toppled during a storm that walloped the Northeast this week, officials said.

The storm cut power to nearly 1.5 million homes and businesses in the region at its peak. It left more Mainers in the dark than even the infamous 1998 ice storm, but the long-term effects likely will be much different.

Because of dry conditions, the trees’ roots weren’t healthy, and ground conditions and foliage that remained on the trees made them more susceptible to wind, said Peter Rogers, acting director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

Virtually all of New England is either experiencing a moderate drought or abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The driest conditions are along the coast, where the wind gusts were the strongest.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Rogers said.

Maine’s two major utilities were still reporting more than 200,000 customers without power Wednesday afternoon. But they said favorable weather and extra crews will allow them to complete the task of restoring power this weekend. Across the Northeast, more than 440,000 people were still without power Wednesday.

Several factors came into play to knock down so many trees: The dry fall stunted the growth of tree roots, recent soaking rain softened the soil, and powerful winds came from a different direction, said William Livingston, professor of forest resources at the University of Maine.

In Maine, nor’easters create northeastern winds, and thunderstorms blow in from the west and north, but these powerful winds came from the southeast, Livingston said. And the winds were exceptionally powerful, with four times the force of a common wind storm, he said.

“These are lot of different conditions that have come together. This may have been a unique situation where nobody could’ve predicted this,” he said.

Other states in the Northeast also were still cleaning up from the storm.

Several school districts in New Hampshire were struggling to get up and running. In Vermont, dairy farmers who lost electricity were relying on generators to power the equipment that allows them to milk cows and to keep milk cool.

Some Rhode Island officials said it was taking too long for the state’s main electric utility, National Grid, to restore power. A spokesman for the company said it hoped to restore power to most customers by Wednesday night.

The wind storm also caused trouble for Amtrak’s Downeaster train between Boston and Brunswick, Maine. The service was shut down Monday and Tuesday, and then a train-bus hybrid service was temporarily thwarted Wednesday by a broken-down Pan-Am freight train.

The scope of the damage in Maine made comparisons to the 1998 ice storm inevitable. According to the Maine Emergency Management Agency, that storm resulted in six deaths and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to public utilities, private property and the forest industry. All 16 Maine counties were declared federal disaster areas.

Roger Pomerleau turned his business into a makeshift shelter after the ice storm, allowing employees of his home furnishings store to use the washing machines and refrigerators while their homes were without power. This time around, the Hallowell, Maine, resident is the one waiting for the power to come back on.

“The temperature is in our favor right now. Those were cold temperatures back then,” Pomerleau said. “Freezing temperatures. Sump pumps weren’t working, cellars were filling up with water. Very different now.”