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Winter storm power cuts: Frustration grows with tens of thousands still in the dark

Linemen have arrived from as far away as Wisconsin, Ohio and Maryland to help restore power to homes in Michigan where freezing temperatures have made for a chilly holiday. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

Tens of thousands of people awoke Saturday to a sixth day without power, after freezing ice storms plunged homes and businesses from Michigan to Maine and into Canada into darkness.

Utility officials said Friday it could be days before power is restored, forcing people who already endured a frigid holiday to prepare for more misery.

The wintry weather looked set to continue into the weekend for many on New England, as a low pressure system was forecast to travel north from the Southeast and combine with the Arctic blast moving in from Canada, according to Tom Nizol of The Weather Channel

The combination of the two weather fronts will dump more snow on the East Coast and New England starting Sunday night and into Monday morning, Nizol said. 

Meanwhile, Michigan utilities reported that around 29,009 customers remained without power as of 9 p.m. ET Friday, and said it could be Saturday before all electricity is restored.

In Maine, continued snow piled on the misery for utility crews working in the east and central part of the state. Most customers were expected to get their lights back by the end of the week, but in some regions it could take until New Year's Day for power to return.

Across the Midwest and Northeast, crews have been working to restore power to those who lost it during last weekend's massive ice storm. NBC's Kevin Tibbles reports.

Maine reported 4,473 customers were in the dark as of Friday night, down from a high of more than 106,000 at the peak of the storm. There were more than 101,000 without power Thursday afternoon in three Canadian provinces — Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick — including 54,000 in Toronto. On Friday, Toronto Hydro Electric reported that they were able to cut outages down to 32,400.

And restoring all of that power becomes a daunting task when the freezing cold and ice isn't going anywhere. Utility company linemen face a dangerous and physical task: Ice can weigh down power lines so much that they break, or tree branches can fall and take the lines with them. So, the linemen must clear some debris, if needed, and then shimmy up slick utility poles to restring lines — using belts and spiked boots. 

"You have to take your time. You have to watch what you're doing," said Tony Carone, a 52-year-old lineman for Detroit-based DTE energy, who on Thursday working in Columbiaville. "It's not a good feeling — climbing up an icy pole." 

A lineman fell Tuesday from a ladder in Lansing, suffering broken ribs and a shoulder injury.

 "It underscores the inherent dangers that linemen face in restoration efforts in a storm like this," Lansing's Board of Water & Light spokesman Stephen Serkaian said.

Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Jim Ridley uses a flashlight to get his mail on Thursday in Litchfield, Maine, where he has been without electricity since Monday's ice storm.

Consumers Energy lineman Jeff Morrall has traveled throughout west Michigan in the last week, braving the elements.

"It was miserable. Friday night it was the freezing rain coming in," Morrall said. "You look up and you can barely see out of your safety glasses. When we were working Sunday in Muskegon, you could see the branches breaking. You hear a big old crash, thinking 'I hope these branches don't break over our heads.'"

Morrall, 51, was able to spend time Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with his family in Muskegon. Other than that, it's mostly been hotel and motel rooms.

"Our families pretty much understand that's our job to go out and get the lights on. ... It's almost like being a fireman. You're there for public service." 

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Meanwhile, a new storm was blowing through the upper Midwest and Northeast. Part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was closed down after a crash involving dozens of vehicles sent 10 people to the hospital. Another pileup on Interstate 78 in eastern Pennsylvania involving some 30 vehicles sent 25 people to hospitals.

While severe weather was putting the dampener on many holiday plans, it could be worse, according to Paul Graham, the crew supervisor from Waltham, Mass., even though his team worked its third consecutive 18-hour shift.

"Honestly, you got lucky," the veteran of the devastating ice storm of 1998 told The Associated Press. "If it was a little more ice, poles would have been broken. Things would be on the ground. That's my take. If there was another quarter of an inch or a half-inch of ice, people would've been out for a long, long, long time." 

Authorities blame last weekend's storm for 17 deaths in the U.S. and 10 in Canada. At least five of those deaths have been initially attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning related to using generators. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


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