- Associated Press - Friday, September 2, 2011

WARWICK, R.I. (AP) — With Hurricane Irene’s floodwaters receding across much of the East Coast, homeowners are mucking out their basements and dragging soggy furniture to the curb. But frustrations are rising as the wait for power drags on, with an estimated 895,000 homes and businesses still without electricity.

Cold showers. The stench of spoiled food. No Internet. No TV. Too few distractions. Patience is wearing thin among the hundreds of thousands of people — down from a peak of 9.6 million — still waiting for the electricity to come back on after last weekend’s storm.

“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.”

And criticism of the utility companies is mounting.

In Rhode Island, a state senator is calling for an investigation, and a Massachusetts lawmaker plans to file legislation next week that would require utilities to rebate customers two days of service for every one day they are without power.

The industry has defended its efforts, noting 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.

Tim Horan, National Grid president for Rhode Island, said crews from as far as Kansas and Idaho are working 16-hour shifts, and “we’re committed to getting this resolved as soon as possible.”

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 on New York’s Long Island, Nassau County officials were offering free showers and a movie to residents still without power.

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 cutoff towns was winding down.

The White House declared a major disaster in Vermont, clearing the way for federal aid for repairs. The declaration, signed by President Barack Obama, makes individual assistance available for homeowners in Chittenden, Rutland, Washington and Windsor counties and public assistance available for infrastructure in 13 of the state’s 14 counties, excluding Grand Isle.

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.

Julie Marlowe of Towson, Md., was among those fed up with her utility company, Baltimore Gas & Electric. She says she has heard enough empty promises since the lights went out on Saturday night.

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