Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 30, 2014
Cold weather drives Island community discussion of emergency preparedness, potential warming centers
Stonington Manor residents Linda Wichowski and Collie Varick talk about their experiences when power goes out. Neither Stonington Manor nor Deer Run Apartments has generators.
by Jessica Brophy
The Island Ecumenical Clergy Group held a public forum on Sunday, January 26, to discuss the Island’s readiness to handle extended power outages and to discuss the potential need for warming centers on the island.
Twenty-five people gathered at the community room of St. Brendan the Navigator Episcopal Church in Deer Isle. The Rev. Virginia Peacock coordinated discussion.
“We want to know what is available and communicate to people,” said Peacock. The goal, she said, is to understand how the island community would respond to an extended outage like the one that occurred on the Blue Hill Peninsula and in Ellsworth over Christmas. The other discussion point was to acknowledge the high cost of heat and consider the possibility of opening warming centers, so people can keep their heat low in the day and have a warm place to spend time.
Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, town manager of Stonington, said that all towns are required to have an emergency plan in place for disasters like hurricanes, flooding and prolonged power outage. She said the town works closely with the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency.
Billings-Pezaris said the decision about opening an emergency shelter rests with the EMA. In terms of a warming center, Billings-Pezaris said there would need to be training. “It can be quite a process,” she said. There are questions of whether there will be food available, and programming or activities.
Billings-Pezaris said she and the selectmen haven’t heard com-plaints from anyone in Stonington about power outages or getting snowed in.
Union 76 Superin-tendent Mark Jenkins said the high school is currently installing a generator, and the elementary school has a generator and is the designated shelter for the island. “When there’s an extended outage, you don’t see people the first day, or the second, but by the third day they start showing up,” he said.
Stonington Manor residents Linda Wichowski and Collie Varick both shared their experiences at the Manor, which does not have a generator. “If the power goes out for more than an hour and a half, the temperature plummets,” said Wichowski. Even during short outages, it would be good to have a place to go, she said.
Varick said there was no backup plan, no contingency for outages. “We’re told to just get into bed if the power goes out,” she said.
Holly Eaton mentioned the program Deer Isle Plus as a network for anyone who wants to join. The benefits, she said, are having a system in place in case of an accident or an emergency in terms of having a central person to call.
Moving the conversation beyond extended power outages, Peacock discussed the cold weather this winter has brought, and how many people have utilized the Island Heating Assistance Program. “People are really trying to stretch everything,” she said.
Many people keep their heat low and head to other places to stay warm, she said. What if there were designated warming shelters, where people could congregate, drink coffee and tea, socialize if they desired. Possible ideas included the Stonington Library, the community center, the town halls and the various churches around the island.
Jenkins suggested the possibility of having different centers open at specified times each week. Skip Greenlaw said that many people on the island are proud and might not want to acknowledge that they need assistance.
“The clergy is among the first called, we’re part of the first line,” said Stonington United Methodist Pastor Stephen York. “We know there are issues and concerns for elderly, for those who live alone.”
Eaton suggested working on a network of volunteers, especially to coordinate transportation. “Without volunteers to collect them, no one would use [the centers],” she said. Other concerns include how to feed people during such times.
Warming centers could offer some relief to people, Greenlaw agreed, though he said he thought weatherization was ultimately a better way to address the issue of heating costs.
Billings-Pezaris said she thought it was a good time to have the conversation. “With [federal heating] LIHEAP funding down, the cost of oil up and an older demographic, maybe we should think about warming centers and such,” she said.
York said the next step includes doing research on warming centers in other communities and establishing communication protocols for ongoing and for crisis management.