WARWICK, R.I. (AP) — Cold showers. Meals in the dark. Refrigerators full of spoiled food. No TV. No Internet. Up and down the East Coast, patience is wearing thin among the millions of people still waiting for the electricity to come back on after Hurricane Irene knocked out the power over the weekend.
“It’s like ‘Little House on the Prairie’ times,” said Debbie McWeeney, who went to a Red Cross shelter in Warwick to pick up food and water after everything in her refrigerator went bad. “Except I’m not enjoying it at all.”
With the waters receding across much of the flood-stricken region, homeowners are mucking out their basements and dragging soggy furniture to the curb. But the wait for power drags on, with an estimated 1.38 million homes and businesses still without electricity, down from a peak of 9.6 million.
And criticism of the utility companies is mounting. In Rhode Island, a state senator is calling for an investigation, and the Massachusetts attorney general is demanding information from utilities on how they are dealing with the crisis, including how many crews are in the field and their response time.
The industry has defended its efforts, noting that it warned the public that a storm like Irene was bound to cause prolonged outages and pointing out that flooding and toppled trees caused severe damage to utility poles, substations and other equipment.
In the meantime, people are taking cold showers or washing up at shelters, using camp stoves and grills to cook, competing for ice at the grocery store and relying on generators and hand-cranked radios. The late-summer weather, at least, has been mercifully cool across much of the East Coast.
Many homes that depend on wells have no water because they have no electricity to pump it. Relief agencies have been handing out drinking water. And a high school in Exeter, R.I., opened its gym to let people shower.
In some places, people on oxygen or other medical devices that require electricity have been taken to shelters that have power.
Irene has been blamed for at least 46 deaths in 13 states. With the streets drying out in hard-hit New Jersey, some towns faced new problems, namely trash bins overflowing with waterlogged debris. In Vermont, with roads slowly reopening, the National Guard’s airlift of food, water and other supplies to once-cut-off towns was winding down.
Without power, the Tirado family’s septic pump stopped working at their home in Lake Ariel, Pa., in the Pocono Mountains, sending sewage through their shower drain and into their finished basement, where the filth was an inch deep. Carpeting, drywall, furniture, a computer, two video game systems, new school clothes for the children - all destroyed.
“You should never, ever smell what we smelled,” Shari Tirado said.
Politicians have been inundated with complaints from people who say it is taking too long. Rhode Island state Sen. John J. Tassoni Jr. on Thursday called on the state Public Utilities Commission to investigate National Grid.
“It is getting near to a week since the storm passed through our area and many Rhode Islanders are still without electricity,” he said. “I think we need to ask the company some very pointed questions about its preparation for storms and the speed of its response to them.”
William Bryan, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Energy Department, said it typically takes at least few days to restore power after a storm like Irene, and National Grid “has done a great job. They ought to be commended for that. You are well ahead of the curve for restoration.”
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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